Fear and Loathing at the KPA: In Defence of Hunter S. Thompson

by | Sep 13, 2020 | Culture, Literature | 0 comments

The KPA is a Keele institution, and anyone who says differently should be immediately expelled from the university.

How many nights have we spent enclosed within its walls, laughing, drinking, and living life to the full? I’ve lost track of how many pints I’ve ordered over the last 18 months but for the sake of my bank account, I think it’s better if I didn’t know.

Back in January, some friends and I were sitting around the circular table in the corner after a less-than-adequate revision session in the library. (This had become a recurring theme during exam season: an hour of work followed by three hours in the pub). I had been in that room numerous times before, but this time I happened to glance around and noticed, for the first time, a framed quotation hanging on the wall:

‘Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, “Wow! What a ride!”’ – Hunter S. Thompson

As a self-proclaimed fan of Thompson – the iconoclastic writer of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, a novel detailing his drug-fuelled adventures in the Nevada city – I was stunned it had taken me this long to notice the KPA’s tribute to him. (Then again, critiquing the KPA’s interior design probably isn’t at the top of my list when I’m there.) I don’t know how long that quotation has been hanging on the wall, nor do I know how many individuals have let the words pass them by because they didn’t know who Thompson was. So, for those interested, here is a quick rundown…




Everyone has a little madness in them, but some have a little more madness than others. This certainly holds true in the case of Hunter S. Thompson. Johnny Depp, who portrayed Thompson’s literary alter-ego Raoul Duke in the film adaptation of ‘Fear and Loathing’, recalled his first meeting with Thompson as a highly surreal affair. According to Depp, Thompson burst through the door of a Colorado pub swinging a cattle prod in one hand and a stun gun in the other, shouting “Get out of my way, you bastards!” at the terrified patrons. After being introduced to each other, they spent the rest of the night shooting at propane tanks with 12-gauge shotguns. Thompson’s love of firearms was well documented, not least in a notorious incident in which he accidently shot his assistant while trying to scare away a grizzly bear that had wandered onto his farm.

To most readers, Thompson remains best known for ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.’ An autobiographical tale of drugs, motorbike races and the 1960’s counterculture, ‘Fear and Loathing’ popularised Thompson’s idiosyncratic brand of journalism (now known as Gonzo journalism) which involves a writer using themselves as a character in their own reporting. Such a technique proved highly influential and launched a myriad of imitators, with Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ being a particularly prominent example. The book was adapted into a film thirty years after its publication that drew deeply polarised reactions; Roger Ebert derided it as “a horrible mess of a movie” while Empire magazine currently lists it as one of the greatest films of all time. My advice would be to read the book before watching the film – otherwise you’ll find it impossible to follow what’s happening on the screen.

Thompson also dabbled in politics, in both a literary and practical sense. Employed as a reporter for Rolling Stone, he covered the 1972 presidential election, although his inveterate hatred of Richard Nixon made him a less-than-objective observer. His articles for Rolling Stone were published collectively under the appropriate title, ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.’ Outside of journalism, Thompson launched a notorious campaign for Sheriff of Aspen, Colorado in 1970. The election was littered with bizarre incidents that perfectly encapsulate Thompson’s eccentric personality. After realising his main competitor had extremely short hair, Thompson shaved his own head completely bald and began referring to his rival as “my long-haired opponent.” It is a testament to Thompson’s character that this somehow managed to be one of the least weird moments of the campaign.
We can all learn a thing or two from Hunter Thompson. I’m not suggesting we take his lead by blitzing our way through life in a drug-fuelled haze, although what you do in your own time is frankly none of my business. The lesson is actually much simpler: to take life a little less seriously. So next time you’re in the KPA, take a look at that quote, raise a glass, and appreciate the moment. Life is too short to do otherwise.