'I Can Still Taste The Rising Cold Panic'

An exclusive extract from AA Gill’s new memoir of his drinking days

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The thing most people know about drunks and recovery is that everyone has a rock bottom… a decisive moment. It’s how narratives and the stories of tragedy and redemption work: there needs to be catharsis. Some have them – a moment, a thing, a death, a prison sentence, a crash, an excommunication – but mostly they are only recognised in retrospect and are anecdotal. It doesn’t feel like a single crisis after which there is understanding, acceptance and triumph.

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I don’t have a rock-bottom story. But there are things I turn into anecdotes for something to say and to remind myself. One is, I was drunk in Earl’s Court, on Earl’s Court Road. It was late at night, it was raining, I tripped and fell, straight forward onto my chin. I lay on the cold, wet pavement. I remember it really clearly, the feeling of my cheek on the sodden stone, cold as the mortuary slab, the gentle rain, the relief of having collapsed, not having to stagger any more, the reflective moon in the slick, the sound of wheels in the wet. Someone, a man, leant over me and said, “Are you all right?” I mumbled to leave me alone. Soaking and bleeding on the pavement in the rain seemed like the preferable option, all things considered. I can still feel the little chip out of my chin. And then there was Londonderry.

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My American cousin Wendy, the photographer, thought that Northern Ireland would be fun and inspirational, and she asked me to go with her on a recce. This was the Eighties, it was particularly murderous there – a lot of bombs, a lot of shooting, a lot of intimidation and people in prison, a lot of groundbreaking kneecap replacement work done at the Royal Infirmary and not yet an inkling of a peace deal. So I said, “Sure”. We went to Dublin just to have a look. I can’t remember a thing about Dublin, just the taste of Guinness and Bushmills, and we took the train to Londonderry, got out at the station and asked the taxi driver to take us to the address she’d got. He looked at the paper and said, “Lucky you got the right sort of driver, the other sort wouldn’t take you here.”

“Which sort are you?” I asked.

“The Republican sort,” he smiled.


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The photographic club who said they would be happy to put us up and offer assistance turned out to be a Sinn Fein front for collecting grant money, and the family who ran it were as close to being IRA as you could be without having shamrocks tattooed on your forehead. It was an uncountable number of brothers, I was never quite sure how many because some of them were in prison and some on the run, and there was a mother who was a head-splitting, gobby woman forbidden from entering the mainland and a poor father who was a silent, mousy postman. The sons all had lists of convictions for all sorts of political violence, including attempted murder of a policeman. But apart from all that they were warm, funny, hospitable, garrulous and catastrophically terrifying. They showed us round the city, pointing out martyrs on every street corner, and it was all fine until Sunday night when I said, “Let’s go and get a drink.”

And the boys said, “No, we’ll stay in,” and I said, “No, no, we’ll go and get a drink,” and as none of them had a job, I said, I’m paying. Actually, Wendy was paying. And they said, it wasn’t that, it was that you couldn’t get a drink on Sunday – this was like Scotland, teetotal for the Lord… and I can still taste the rising cold panic. I couldn’t, simply couldn’t go a whole night without a drink. I never had, not for years. I organised my intake, I knew what I needed, I couldn’t sit in this tiny terraced house with the hit-squad boyos watching Val Doonican, slowly getting the shakes and swallowing panic.

“No, no, we’ve got to be able to get a drink somewhere?” I said. How close is the border? Now they were embarrassed and dogmatic, and then one of them said, “Oh for pity’s sake, there’s the club,” and the others said, “No, no, there’s no club,” but I was on the club like a terrier with a duck in a canary cage. Yes, the club… let’s do the club. A club would be just the thing. And I went on and on like a child who has forgotten his Ritalin. Finally, they said, “OK, we’ll see if the club’s open, but it’s not a good idea. Keep your mouth shut.” And with as much ill grace as they could muster and the brazen embarrassment of Wendy, we walked through the jolly evening drizzle of Derry. It was as if there was a voluntary curfew — no one was out. We traipsed across an emetically lit wasteland of ruin and finally, through a deserted, crepuscular alley, out of an unmarked doorway, a man, or rather the barely defined silhouette of a man with a turned-up collar and a broad-brimmed hat appeared. It was exactly the cover of a noir novel about the Troubles, and I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so desperate. The brothers mumbled something and the man stood aside and the door let out a secret smear of light. We trooped upstairs to an empty room of trestle tables, chairs and a hatch in the wall that served as a bar, and I went to get in the pints of Guinness and the shots and I necked a couple as I waited for the barman to pour the beer – and I can still taste the relief. The cauterising of the panic with the stinging spirit. It is as pleasurable as any feeling I can directly attribute to alcohol. We sat back at the long table and the room began to fill up with hard men.

I’ve been in rooms with tough bastards all over the world: mercenaries, military, terrorists, religious maniacs – but this was special. Everyone got a brief whispered biography: five years in Long Kesh on remand; suspect; bomb-making; GBH – you don’t want to go crossing him, he’s banned… and you never saw him. I’d be introduced, or rather explained, and I’d get the stare from under those bony, hirsute brows and they’d sit with their pint and polish their ancient grievances and they’d start telling stories and pretty soon they were singing them… and I’d get up and get in more drinks and listen as they chatted over blood and earth and chant those Paddy ballads of sentiment, vengeance and unrequited nationhood with the verses that start in the Pale and end at a roadblock last week. The drink warmed my veins and relaxed my shoulders and I sat and listened and smiled and tapped my foot because I didn’t know any of the words. And then one of the boys said, “Come on, Englishman, give us a song. We’ve been doing all the work here… you sing us something from your public school.”

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There is a moment in the chemistry of drink and the sociology of alcoholics where you reach optimum dosage. You never quite know where that is; it’s a movable dram that peaks in the feeling that you’re completely in control and that your control is balletic; you are a pilot capable of great sinuous acrobatics. Normally, this moment passes without consequence as you’re standing at the urinal or queuing for the bar or caught in a circular conversation on the best way to get to Chalk Farm. But once in a blue moon, peak inebriation meets its moment, and this was one of those times. I pushed my chair back. Wendy grabbed my thigh and gave me a look of extreme caution and fear, but I was oblivious. I was untouchable, this was my moment… and I stood. Outside of church and “Happy Birthday” I have never, ever, sung in public – but I was golden. And I opened my mouth and out came a song I’d learnt in junior school, Mr Osborne waving a ruler like a bandmaster’s baton.

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I suppose what made me think of it was the rising whiskey-fuelled sense of ire and all the Saxon murder and mocking banter that was swilling around the room. I’d had summer and Saturday jobs on Kensington Church Street, where every other week we had bomb threats. I’d once cleared the men’s shop I was an assistant in and was stood on the other side of the road waiting for the police to come and say it was a hoax when a woman hurried up to me and asked where her husband was.

“I don’t know.”

“But you were serving him,” she said.

“Well, he went into the changing room.” 

“Didn’t you check,” she said.

“No. Do you want to go and get him,” I said.

“No, you go and get him,” she replied.

“He’s your husband.”

“He’s your customer.”

I found him standing in the middle of the shop in a suit that was far too big.

“There’s a bomb,” I said. “We’re evacuating.”

“Oh,” he replied, “Do you want me to change?”

And there’d been enough real bombs in London. I heard the one that killed Gordon Hamilton Fairley, the cancer specialist whose dog set off a car bomb that was meant for Sir Hugh Fraser, so there was a rising bat squeak of “fuck you all” in my stance. I can’t pretend that what came out of my mouth was political or committed, it was just a moment of omnipotent, golden, untouchable, witty brilliance.

“Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules, of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these,” I swelled to a Sunday baritone, the Fenian faces watching with a stony blankness, “but of all the world’s great heroes, there is none that can compare, with a tow, row, row, row, row, row to the British Grenadiers.”

If you haven’t heard this before and you’re an active, hands-on member of an Irish Republican paramilitary group, then the surprise, the punchline, is right at the end. I sat down. The bated moment hung in the tarry air. No one moved. There was a shrill silence, and then the man opposite me who had said little, the man I’d been told I should forget having ever seen, reached forward with remarkable speed and a big, practised hand, grasped the back of my neck and pulled my head across the table until his face was an inch from mine and I was staring into his pale, unreadable eyes.

“You,” he said quietly, but loud enough for his voice to shiver the furniture, “you are either the bravest or the stupidest man in all Ireland tonight.”

There was a beat. He let go of my neck, rocked back in his seat and breathed out a great guffawing laugh. The room erupted in Hibernian hilarity. My head was slapped, the pints lined up. I was so full of retrospective adrenalin that I drank the lot of them under the table. And as we walked home through the silent, miserable Derry streets, one of the brothers said, “You know, they were the worst regiment we ever had here, the Grenadier Guards, bastards… kicked in doors, wrecking houses, beating the shit out of kids… really vicious fucks.”

The song, “The British Grenadiers”, was originally Dutch, “Mars van de jonge Prins van Friesland”, brought over to England by William who was married to the Stuart Mary and became our royal Bill who beat James II at the Battle of the Boyne, just up the road from where we were, so this may well have been the first place anyone heard that song. I was, inadvertently, bringing it home.

That would be a good rock-bottom story, an illustration of the wilful out-of-controlness of drink, the edge it pushes you over. So let’s leave it there and cut to the bit where I shake hands with the doctor and am hugged by other hopeful patients as I leave Clouds House Rehabilitation Clinic for the variously addicted and walk into a new sober life. But it wasn’t like that. I continued to drink for years after that, and the real rock bottom is when all the stories and the tales are past but their consequences litter your life, and inside, you’re like… shellshocked. It was just me alone in a room with the curtains pulled and the telly on, twisted and desperate with guilt and frustration. The end isn’t dramatic or an exclamatory narrative, it’s just when nothing works and nothing helps and there are no more angles and no more panaceas. There’s nothing left to say and no one left who’s listening.

When you stop drinking and taking drugs people say, “Well done.” “Congratulations.” “What inner strength.” “What grit.” “What willpower.” Well, the truth is exactly the opposite. All the stubborn willpower, all the straining, all the fight goes into trying to keep going, to keep using. Stopping is surrender, putting up your hands. Living sober is nothing like as heroically gritty as trying to live stoned and drunk. So this is what really happened. I went to a doctor to pick up Melanie’s daughter. Melanie was the woman who had taken me in, and I loved. Her daughter Fleur needed an injection, she was going on holiday. I avoided doctors, I didn’t like them… I didn’t want to hear what they had to say. The little girl bounced out of the consulting room and the doctor followed; he was about my age. I stood up to go.

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“Are you Adrian?” he said. “Do you want to just step into the office for a moment?”

“No, I’ve got to take Fleur home.”

“It’s all right, she’ll be fine here, it’ll only take a couple of minutes.”

“There’s nothing the matter with me.”

“Well, Melanie is worried about you and asked me to see you.”

So I went into Guy’s room and sat down… and he said it was the drinking, and I said, I thought as much, but it was fine. She was overreacting. You know women, always worrying. And he said could I answer some questions as honestly as possible… And I said as long as I don’t have to write the answers… And he started the standard 20 questions that are used to ascertain alcohol abuse.

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On any other day I’d have lied. Any drunk worth his drink would have lied, but for some reason I told the truth. I think the fact that he was quite like me and noticeably non-judgmental, almost unconcerned, tipped it. I appreciated the insouciance.

He came to the end and said, “Well, if you answer yes to three of the questions we consider you have a problem with alcohol. You have only answered no to two – have you ever lost any time off work through drink, and did you drink whilst pregnant? I’m pretty confident in saying that you’re an alcoholic.”

He wasn’t the first person to mention it. I paused and said, “OK, what can you give me for it?”

“It doesn’t work like that,” he said. I had, by some ridiculous good fortune, stumbled upon one of the very few doctors in Britain who didn’t treat alcoholism as valium deficiency.

“You should go into treatment,” said Guy. “It’s a new idea that’s come from America. You go away to a house in the country and stay for as long as it takes, but it’ll be a minimum of three weeks and you come out with the best chance of leading a sober and clean life. The answer, I’m afraid, is abstinence. There is no controlled drinking or casual drug-taking, no exeat for Christmas and birthdays or very, very good claret.”

He pointed out that I would already have tried all that, tinkered with the dosages and volumes, set up numerous rules, made promises, tried to do deals with fate and God… and that doesn’t work.

“Do you have health insurance?”

Of course I didn’t have health insurance.

“Well, I’m afraid this is going to be quite expensive.”

I said I’d go, and Guy said, “Can you go now?”

Oh, no, no, no, no, I have things to do, business to settle. Of course I had nothing to do or settle.

“When will you go?” he asked.

“Two weeks, a fortnight.”

He looked at his diary. “That’s April 1st — is that a joke?”

The second fortuitous thing was that I didn’t walk out of the surgery and tell Melanie everything was fine, but she needed a new doctor; I went to see my dad, sobbed and asked him to pay for me to go to treatment. And he said how relieved and pleased he was, and did I want to do Freudian analysis instead? Miraculously, I said no. And two weeks later I was on the train to East Knoyle in Wiltshire. My dad came with me, Melanie took us to the station and gave him a wicker basket with a gingham cloth. Inside were pork pies, a fruit cake and two bottles of vintage Champagne – dad and I drank the Champagne. He had a glass, I had a bottle and a half. But I think he ate most of the pork pie. I don’t know if I ever thanked my dad for taking me. At the time, obviously, I was drunk and frightened and desperate, wearing a suit with a bow tie. I remember the journey as being pleasant, like travelling through an Eric Ravilious illustration, pale, rhythmic, nostalgic. I was 30. I didn’t need him to hold my hand, but he did, because he was my dad. And now I wish I’d told him it meant a great deal to me. At the sanatorium they breathalysed me and the nurse said she hoped I hadn’t driven there. Daddy hugged me, wished me well and took the train back to London.

 

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