Saturday 18 November 2017

Review: Dope in the Age of Innocence by Damien Enright

Liberties Press, €17.99, Paperback

There's an old adage, 'Be careful what you wish for', that most of us don't really believe: we always assume our dreams will turn out every bit as wonderful and perfect in real life as the Platonic ideal in our minds.

Reading Dope in the Age of Innocence, Irishman Damien Enright's memoir of life as a dropout in the hippie paradise of Ibiza during the early 1960s, the truth of that phrase is hammered home.

Enright, now a well-respected writer and broadcaster on travel and nature, fetched up there in 1960, aged just 21, with English wife Nancy and their twin infant sons. At the time the Spanish island, now notorious as the epicentre of the 'sun, sex and sangria' tourist trade, was a somnambulant backwater, ostracised by Franco and unchanged for decades.

But it was about to be transformed: American and European artists and writers, keen to escape the materialism of their homelands, were coming to live in Ibiza. So were handfuls of bored aristocrats and wealthy bon viveurs -- the prototype, maybe, of today's 'Eurotrash' -- dodgy geezers, jazz aficionados, ex-GIs. . . anyone, really, who wanted to 'turn on, tune in, drop out', half a decade before Timothy Leary coined his iconic phrase.

Enright, interestingly, was more idealistic, and almost naive, than the jaded party animals and pretentious 'artistes', which perhaps explains why he gives such a perceptive and lucid account of that time.

If one thing defines his actions throughout, I think, it's love: feeling it, needing it, searching for it, cursing its loss, celebrating its return. He doesn't seem to have been driven by egotism, self-importance, thrill-seeking, or even sex and drugs, but that most rarefied and profound drive of all, love.

Soon after arriving in Ibiza, Enright's wife leaves him for another; he goes to England, where they had met, and falls in love with Hanna. They save up their shekels and return to this Mediterranean Shangri-La.

One night they drop acid -- a brilliantly depicted episode (see extract right), which really captures the weirdness and odd beauty, the sense of something almost sanctified -- and the scales fall from their eyes.

They see the Ibiza scene for its falsity and shallowness, and decamp to the nearby island of Formentera: even smaller, quieter, further from the mainstream. Surviving on a pittance -- they gather snails to sell or subsist on parental charity -- and with a baby daughter to care for, Damien heads to London to carry out a travellers' cheque scam.

This is where the story really turns sour. He ends up, at various stages, taking heroin, splitting with Hanna, scoring hash in dangerous Turkey, lying low from the police . . . basically going through several circles of his own private hell. (Towards the end of the book he name-checks Rimbaud's classic poem, Une Saison en Enfer [A Season in Hell], which seems appropriate.)

But even before then, reading about life on the Balearic islands, you sense the rottenness under the surface of this supposed idyll. Which brings us back to 'Be careful what you wish for'.

The counterculture lifestyle, with its promises of free love, groovy toons, mindbending drugs and nobody telling you what to do, sounds fantastic in theory. The reality -- at least what I gathered from Enright's memoir -- was shabby, hysterical, sordid and rather pathetic. These were reckless, immature and narcissistic people, who appeared to drag their kids up rather than rear them, and floated forever in the impermeable bubble of their toxic self-regard.

Same as it ever was, really. Indeed it's sad how these let's-all-hold-hands-and-live-free ideals invariably turn to disillusionment, bitterness and emotional scarring. But there's another old phrase: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Darragh McManus is an author and journalist. His book GAA Confidential is available from bookshops and online

Irish Independent

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