Are you sitting comfortably? Then, I’ll begin.
That was how, in my head, I intended to start this blog. I wanted to tell you a story. I would have told you about the man with sand beneath his feet who became lost in the desert and bested the temptation of the beast. It’s an old one. You’ve probably heard it before. I would talk about resistance and possibly even a bit of redemption. I had it all mapped out from back in early March; notes scrawled across an A3 sheet of paper folded and crossed next to my keyboard. There’s no detail, just themes and notes. Next to week six it says “Why does everyone think Lent finishes at Easter? Doctrine? Conclude, summarise – the future. Is there ever an ending? Or does it always come later than we think?’
As I sat down to write out the final broadcast in this series I was no longer sure what the tale I’ve been telling is.
There was no final redemption. I never fell to my knees on the road to Damascus. There was no narrative arc to conclude. This is just about life, just random gatherings of useless knowledge and half remembered late nights.
Last weekend was my Grandpa’s ninetieth birthday. A phenomenal milestone and so I visited my family, went back to the places I’d been telling you about. Perhaps I hadn’t fully thought things through when I pressed ‘post’ last Thursday for one of the first things I was asked was: ‘How much of it was true?’
I shirked the question, answered without saying anything mainly because I wanted to avoid the conversation, but perhaps it deserves a response: All of it.
And none of it.
As I said right at the start, I don’t have - and never have had - a problem with alcohol. This is about why such a thing could have been possible.
I’ve presented you with snapshots. I’ve given you glimpses into ten years. A long time. Time more than enough for low and high moments. I don’t consistently drink too much, but I have done. Who hasn’t? I have never drunk for extended periods of time quantities of alcohol that would make you liver ache just reading about them. And yet, once, once upon a time I took pride in my capacity for drink. I was secretly pleased that I was capable of out drinking people as though it were…
As though it was what? I’m not sure. Some twisted sense of masculinity? No.
More like not having grown up; like I was stuck at fifteen.
There was never any reason for it. I wasn’t depressed or bored or lonely. It certainly wasn’t because I thought it would make me more creative. I am not that naive. I’ve read things written after I have had a drink. They’re rubbish.
I thought I was blank.
‘So, why did you stop?’ my girlfriend asked.
I glanced at her and then back at the road. ‘What do you mean?’
‘If you started because you’d just arrived in London and had enough money,’ opportunity and means, ‘why did you stop?’
The traffic soared through the Paddington sky, arcing across the concrete flyover underneath the glittering sun.
After a while I said: ‘I don’t know.’
I’d never thought to ask myself that question. It just had. A couple of years ago, after a heavy night at a wedding, I had a pint with some friends at a lunch. Everyone else was on soft drinks. The fact I was drinking was remarked upon. It was a point of humour, as though it were inevitable that I would have started up again. It was only a pint, I thought, but I also felt slightly embarrassed. Did everyone else see something that I didn’t? It reminded me of a guy I met on a stag do, a man about ten, fifteen years old than me. We’d been fairly drunk the first night and as everyone else struggled their fried breakfasts down and grudgingly clambering into a middle bus that tilted around country lanes as though tempting our stomachs to evacuate, he cracked open a can of lager.
‘I’m like a machine,’ he joked, but his skin was blotched and his hair flayed, his paunch sagged and his eyes were hollow. He was alone.
I didn’t want to be him.
But remember, this is only a story. The epilogue makes no sense without all the words that precede it.
There were plenty of drunken writers I never got around to mentioning. Jack Kerouac left speed for booze as he became older, as he slowed down and his skin took on an increasingly yellowed hue until early one morning, sipping whisky and rye, his stomach haemorrhaged and he bled to death, vomiting great globules of salty blood up as he went.
Jack London once wrote: "I was carrying a beautiful alcoholic conflagration around with me. The thing fed on its own heat and flamed the fiercer. There was no time, in all my waking time, that I didn't want a drink. I began to anticipate the completion of my daily thousand words by taking a drink when only five hundred words were written. It was not long until I prefaced the beginning of the thousand words with a drink." By 1916, aged forty, London was treating his various painful ailments, dysentery, uremia, scurvy and the rest all aggravated by the drinking, with morphine when he appeared to decide that enough ache had passed. He let himself slip away on the front porch of his ranch, never to wake again.
Not everyone died young. Dorothy Parker made it to her seventies. Jean Rhys drank herself to bitterness but still preserved out of bloody mindedness to eighty-eight.
Then there’s the bizarre: Edgar Allen Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore wearing another man’s clothes and delirious when he collapsed and died; although all records have been lost he is believed to have been drunk beyond belief.
John Cheever; Eugene O’Neill; Anne Sexton; James Joyce; Hunter S Thompson; Tennessee Williams; Truman Capote and a thousand lost faces at the bar besides yet their stories are alien to me; more extreme than anything I can remember.
Why do writers drink so heavily? Stupidly, my page of notes suggests that I might be able to answer this question. Whilst there’s a little bit of me that is tempted to go with Robert Stone’s suggestion that it is to bring you down from the euphoria of words transcending the page they’ve been cast upon it would be ridiculous to suggest that there was a single reason. Or indeed that, proportionately, writers drink any heavier or deeply that any other cross-section of society. Maybe they have more demons to carry, but that’s a different question. That’s asking why they write in the first place; why they feel the need to demand that people listen to what they have to say.
Whatever the tortured artist is looking for inside the solace of an empty head, it isn’t inspiration. Or at least not the ability to convert inspiration into words. Wherever stories come from, it isn’t inside a deep drunk.
Maybe, though, it is to enable them to disassociate themselves from the norm.
Despite what the Daily Mail would have you believe, heavy drinking is not a keystone of society. Drinking is, yes, but long lasting, thorough spirit drinking at nine in the morning is still mainly socially unacceptable. It puts the drunk writer on the outside, looking in. They have been ejected out into the cold which makes it easier to look on everyone else with jealousy, with scorn, with envy, with a sense of the absurd. Maybe that’s it, maybe Hemmingway and Fitzgerald and Chandler and Greene and everyone else drank because it helped them to pass judgement.
Maybe that’s what I did too, you ask.
Sort of. Maybe. Maybe not.
I wonder if it was just that I wasn’t sure who I was yet. I’ve always had a good and happy life and yet it often felt a little empty, as though devoid of purpose. My own internal narrative lacked voice and direction. Perhaps it made me a little more interesting to myself. I think that maybe I bored me. I wanted a mythology without doing anything and so I replaced doing with dreaming and occasionally with drinking.
This story has no narrative and so has no ending because it has no true conflict. Giving up drinking for forty days wasn’t hard. Possibly giving up that representation of me (even if these days only the gremlin that walks my past inside my head sees it) was a little harder, but it was fun to confound people’s expectations.
I missed the social aspects. I missed the camaraderie for the Boy-John’s stag-do. I missed not being able to toast my Grandpa with anything other than lemonade. I missed sharing a bottle of wine with my girlfriend. This culture, this land, I love so is built of liquid foundations, but much to my surprise I didn’t actually miss the drinking.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote ‘first you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink and then the drink takes you.’ Maybe, a while ago, the drink was insisting it was its round, but I left it to its own devices in some late night bar somewhere and went home to bed. Or so I hope. I might be wrong. Perhaps Lent hasn’t finished after all. Perhaps the true ending comes later. Perhaps that’s how life really works; the ending isn’t on the last page but somewhere in the blankness at the back.
I am not a machine. I won’t be alone and broken. I know which I want to do. I am starting to know who I am.
At the weekend, I bought some bottles of beer including the gorgeous tangy delight that is the Badger Brewery’s spring ale, Hopping Hare. It sits on my kitchen table. The dipping sunlight strokes the bottle; the golden contents sparkle. It is unseasonably hot. A glass is placed next to it. I sit in the chair and look. I think about the cap fitch-popping under my fingers, about the glugging of the refreshing drink filling the glass, about the anticipation and the glorious thrill as it brushes over my lips.
I get up.
I put the kettle on.
Not tonight. Another time.
And they all lived happily ever after.