We’re two weeks into the New Year, and already it’s feeling frayed. Roughed up by two competing forces – same-old same-old and the shock of the new. Trump in the Whitehouse. Bills on the doormat. Brexit and the dog needs a walk. Demonitization and piling on the pounds. And what of your New Year resolutions? Are they still standing? Are you steeling yourself to walk past the jalebi stand, refuse a proffered drink, keep the ashtray clean? Or – have you already shrugged, wondered what’s the point, and gone back to the familiar, comforting tugs, thinking: just one won’t hurt?
Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, a moving account of her battle with alcoholism, has to be one of my books of the year. It is literally inspiring – from the Latin ‘inspirare’, to draw breath. It gave me pause – in the way that mindfulness, focusing on the breath, does: calming, focusing, and making you look at the world around you anew. Also: it kind of blew me away.
For seven years, Liptrot lived in London – a life in the speedy city, the jostle of crowds, the thrill of random encounters, the noise and the lights – and the work and the drugs and the sex and the drink. Intoxicated with it all.
“I was out on the pavement alone, walking – with my jacket hooked over my arm and a bottle of beer – enjoying the night air on my bare skin. I was wasted but I wanted more. I wanted to rub the city onto my skin: I wanted to inhale the streets…. The drugs I’d swallowed earlier made my breath fast and my cheeks tingle. Biting my mouth, I wanted to eat it all. There was heat I my face and lips and nipples and clitoris.”
The drinking became compulsive, destructive. Pushed to the brink by the familiar catalogue of lost jobs, broken relationships, isolation, memory loss, illness, and self-disgust she realized that she had come to the point of no return. At which point, she made the brave decision to do precisely that: to return. To return to the remote Scottish island where she grew up, and a life about as far from the fast London life as it was possible to get. From Hackney to Orkney, from alcoholism to sobriety. “When I first got sober, an alcoholic friend with a few more years of sobriety than me suggested having ‘a project’ to fill all the time I had now I wasn’t drinking or hungover,” she explains.
The project – writing this book – not only saved her life, it also gave her a new one. The book has been widely critically acclaimed, became a bestseller, and has sold into ten different territories. It also won a major prize for nature writing in 2016, called – can believe it? – the Wainwright Golden Beer Prize, which must have made her smile.
But the book is not just about drink. It is about how to build a dry stone wall. It’s about the history of the Scottish islands. It’s about how to read the weather and become entranced with the night sky. It’s about tracking corncrakes and tagging shags. It’s about beachcombing and finding a community. It’s about island life, and sealife, about being outside in the cold, and the joy and exhilaration of connectivity – with the elements, and with the internet. Forging new neural pathways and giving birth to a new sense of self.
As the new year rolls in, I find myself far from the madding crowds of Delhi, and not missing them at all. Alone, awake, in the Somerset countryside. The highpoint of the day is spotting goldfinches on the birdfeeder in my back garden. I am lucky. My demons are smaller, less venomous ones than Liptrot’s. It’s often said that it’s easy to stop drinking, it’s staying stopped that’s the problem. It’s not the outrun, it’s the long run. “Take your broken heart and make it art,” as Carrie Fisher said. Liptrot’s book could easily share the title of Fisher’s famous memoir – they are both Postcards from the Edge – or Caroline Knapp’s bestselling Drinking: A Love Story, or Fisher’s follow-up Wishful Drinking. There is no dearth of addiction memoirs, a literary subgenre of (shall we call it LitLit?) that goes back at least as far as Thomas De Quincy. What makes Liptrot’s the standout, is that it is lit – if you’ll excuse the pun – her writing about nature: the spare beauty of the island matched by the spare beauty of her prose.
The very word ‘sober’ suggests being level-headed, sensible, pious even. Not something I would wish on anyone, frankly. Once she has quit drinking, Liptrot realizes that longing, passion, the “wanting to eat it all” that makes life worth living has not gone away.
One day, she comes across a bottle of vodka washed up on the shore. “An impulse pulling at something deep within me, something strong, tells me to swig it down, all mixed with seawater and sailor spit… But everything I’ve found in the past year is pulling me more strongly: the clear eyes and shooting stars, the fresh mornings when sleep has made me feel better rather than worse… I screw the cap back on, throw the bottle down and laugh loudly and wildly out into the waves. Is this all you’ve got, North Sea? I can take it. I can take anything you throw at me.”
I wish you, this year, the same wild spirit – that’s my message in a bottle, hurled back at the oncoming waves.