Books: How Orkney saved one writer from alcoholism
Memoir: The Outrun, Amy Liptrot, Canongate, hdbk, 304 pages, €22.50
The drinker's life is a life of low self-esteem and shabby self-denial. Amy Liptrot knows this well, but for many years she was in thrall to the illusion of drink-fuelled happiness (what James Joyce called "tighteousness"). The damage done by alcohol is unforgettably evoked in her memoir, The Outrun, set partly on Orkney where she was born 34 years ago. Rarely has the moaning after the night before been so unflinchingly described. The Outrun is a brave book, which goes to the heart of addiction and its woes.
Liptrot first drank at the age of 15 or 16, and even then she always seemed to overdo it. The previous night's drinking would be remembered (if remembered at all) with bewilderment and a degree of guilt. All the same, she loved alcohol. It took the edge off her anxiety and encouraged witty conversation. Living in Orkney with her parents on their sheep farm, she yearned for city lights and vodka-sharpened excitements. The "outrun" of the book's title refers to an uncultivated part of the farm situated high above Atlantic breakers.
Liptrot's parents had come to Orkney from their native England on an impulse to live off the land, but all was not well. Her father, a manic depressive, had undergone electroconvulsive therapy, while her mother was a born-again Christian. (Unsurprisingly, they are now divorced.)
Liptrot's own tendency to depression might have been inherited from her father, but neither he nor her mother is alcoholic. Perhaps alcoholism is a sort of chemical misfortune, something you are simply born with. Liptrot is sure of one thing: drink served to anaesthetise her blue moods.
At the age of 18, she left Orkney to study English literature at Edinburgh University. The drinking got worse. Even with her boozer's tongue pale and furry in the bathroom mirror, she was reluctant to give up. She drank as though immune from the wall-eyed hangover of tomorrow.
Life took another downturn when, at the age of 23, she moved to London to work as a journalist. In Hackney, with its hipster clubs and skinny beautiful people, she indulged in long, drawn-out benders with fewer and fewer intervals of sobriety in between. She was arrested for drink-driving; she was almost raped.
Alcohol had crept up on her insidiously.
"I was drinking more than I was eating," Liptrot writes. Increasingly, the hangovers were nursed with a hair (or a "tuft", in Cyril Connolly's knowing phrase) of the dog that bit her.
Having hit rock bottom, she began to think about the freedom that might come with sobriety: "It would feel so good to give in." She resolved to join Alcoholics Anonymous, where she declared herself powerless before King Alcohol and began to "12 step" her way to recovery.
In her unaccustomed sobriety, Liptrot returned to Orkney, where she reconnected with the land and set out on solitary coastal walks. The mess of mendaciousness, gleeful irresponsibility and self-pity that was her old alcoholic self seemed to have dissipated. An RSPB conservation project employs her to monitor Orkney's corncrake populations. She takes stock of the beauty of the land and the avian life.
"At this time of year in Orkney - the weeks around midsummer - it barely gets dark overnight: the sky just dims."
In an excess of joy, she runs naked around a Neolithic stone circle. (One does not have to be drunk to have fun - an important lesson.)
Of course, an alcoholic is never cured. The Outrun is no evangelical hosanna to the delights of sobriety. As Liptrot writes: "I will always be vulnerable to relapse and other kinds of addiction."
From start to finish, The Outrun is a glory to read. Matchless descriptions of landscape are combined with thoughtful reflections on Orcadian culture and local Norse legend.
Liptrot, with all her new-found, disabused integrity and hard-won sobriety, has written a minor classic of addiction literature.