‘You’ll have to speak to my agent,’ said Half-life when I asked to get some facts of his life on record. Incredulous, my first thought was to tell him to fuck off. So was my second thought.
Frequent requests from readers wanting to learn more about our giant, enigmatic Deserter regular had led me to suggest an interview. It wouldn’t have been necessary had he written any of the articles he’d promised us. First, he was going to write My Struggle – telling us how he settled in South London after a lifetime of wandering, only staying in one place when obliged to by Her Majesty. Then he was going to write a post called My Top Five Drugs. And a piece on the cashless economy in which he’d demonstrate how to barter weed and stolen goods for all of life’s requirements. He called it Turning Cheese Into Food. Sadly, none had got past the title stage.
His poor agent is no longer taking his calls having been driven to the verge of a breakdown by a few months of representing Half-life. The garbled 3am phone calls and readings that descended into brawls were just the start. Then, having secured an advance for a book of his alarming poetry, Half-life immediately spent the money on ‘drugs and lollipops’, without producing any work, citing ‘wanker’s block’. In many respects, he’s way ahead of us.
I’ve known him ten years and hardly know him at all. I’ve heard him tell people he was born in Liverpool, Glasgow, Ireland and Reykjavik. His age is a lie. I’ve been to his flat once, where I discovered possibly the finest council flat art collection in the country and a garden shed in his lounge.
In the end he condescended to meet me in the King’s Arms for his ‘interview’ under his usual terms: Pints.
We queued to be served, as the barmaid, who we shall call Hannah, waited patiently for a man in a suit to make up his mind.
‘What do you recommend?’ he asked.
‘Seppuku,’ muttered Half-life, justifiably mystified by anyone who arrives at a bar not knowing what they might want. Hannah recommended the Nor’hop, an ultra-pale ale that described itself as ‘humbly awesome’. The suit found it too hoppy and settled on a middling best bitter.
‘I’ll have whatever that cunt didn’t want,’ said Half-life, loud enough to unsettle suitboy. He did the right thing – the Nor’Hop was sensational. ‘I need a pint to settle my nerves, like,’ he told Hannah.
‘Why are you nervous?’ asked Hannah, unfortunately.
‘I’m being interviewed by this scrote here,’ he said. ‘And he’s not even a copper.’
That was ironic because he then refused to answer any of my questions about his upbringing, his name, his descent, or as he would have it, ascent into crime. Nor his guns, prison life, poetry, art, his dreams, ambitions, regrets.
‘Fuck off,’ he said, bringing us back full circle. We compromised. I could ask him a version of the Proust Questionnaire, a personality test completed by the great French author (and revived by Vanity Fair a few years back to question numerous celebrities) which Half-life felt he could lend his gravitas to. What follows is that exchange:
‘What is your most marked characteristic?’ I began.
‘My legs,’ he shot back. ‘One of them is imperceptibly longer than the other. Or shorter, I can never remember which.’
‘What do you consider your greatest achievement?’
‘What is your greatest fear?’
‘Last orders,’ he said, downing his pint hurriedly and summoning Hannah, a mere eight hours before the last bell.
‘What is your idea of perfect happiness?’
‘Peaking on molly, looking at a masterpiece while sitting on the lav.’
‘What historical figure do you most identify with?’
‘Jesus is too obvious. I’ll say God.’
‘Which living person do you most admire?’
‘Eva Braun,’ at which point I was thinking about giving up and starting a conversation with a bar stool. But, as a professional, I sighed and continued.
‘Who are your heroes in real life?’
‘What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?’
‘My generosity, my sensitivity and my left hook.’
That answer set off my coughing fit which led him to reveal that generosity he spoke of. ‘I’d lend you my handkerchief, pal, but I might need it.’
I ploughed on. ‘What is the trait you most deplore in others?’
‘What is your favourite journey?’
‘Down the hall, on my hands and knees.’
‘What do you consider the most overrated virtue?’
‘Temperance, diligence or Internet literacy.’
‘Which word or phrases do you most overuse?’
‘Good constanoon, afterpig.’
‘What is your greatest regret?’
‘That David Bowie never met me.’
‘What is your current state of mind?’
‘If you could change one thing…’
Half-life presented another empty glass, accompanied by a sad look, until Hannah found a way to cheer him up.
‘If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?’
‘What is your most treasured possession?’
‘My humour, my art and my Taser.’
‘What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?’
‘Where would you like to live?’
‘The Elephant & Castle. Failing that, Monaco.’
‘What is your favourite occupation?’
‘Prostitute or Pope.’
‘What is the quality you most like in a man?’
‘What is the quality you most like in a woman?’
‘What are your favourite names?’
‘Tokyo and Sexwale.’
‘What is your motto?’
‘Fill her up.’
I couldn’t hide a little disappointment that I’d been unable to peer below the surface into the hideous recesses of his mind.
‘Tell you what, I’ll let Hannah ask me a question,’ he offered. He was drawn to Hannah as she was charming, northern and she remembers what kind of beer you like, as only champion bar staff do. Hannah was polite enough to play along.
‘So, if you were on death row, what would be your last meal?’
‘Easy,’ said Half-life. ‘An all-you-can-eat buffet. Every time they get ready to plug me in I’d tuck into another rib. I’d outlive the fucking executioner, which would serve the cunt right, to be fair.’
In return, he asked Hannah several questions. The answer to all of them was ‘No.’