Pour Me, A Life by A.A. Gill; Blue Rider Press 268 pages ($26)
A.A. Gill bucks the tide in his singular new memoir – “Pour Me, A Life” – simply by waiting 30 sober years to write it. He also comes close to executing the impossible by depicting alcoholism – both the disease and the experience of it – in a chronicle meant neither to convert nor inform.(In other words, he may be someone we can trust.)
But first, a bit about this British author and journalist in terms of alcohol – which, for him, is the forbidden fruit: One drink and he’s off and running, God help any person, place or thing on his path. Gill tells us this up front – but with a clear eye and a steady hand as he hasn’t touched even a drop of the stuff for the last half of his 60 years.
Yet the demon lurks and in fact dominates “Pour Me, A Life,” an often amusing but always profound recounting wherein he describes alcoholism as “an incurable condition that leads to the death of almost all who contract it.”
That he is among the healthy living, he says, has to do with the “ridiculous good fortune” of his stumbling, circa 1986, “upon one of the very few doctors in Britain who didn’t treat alcoholism as Valium deficiency.”
It is Gill’s three decades of continuous sobriety that distinguish “Pour Me, A Life” from the legions of other alcohol memoirs out there, many of them penned by men and women with but a year, or three, away from a drink – and no way of assessing the deeper rewards of long-term, continuous sobriety.
Not that Gill is out to do that. Not actively at any rate. He lays down his ground rules early on, saying, “let’s get one thing straight, this is no faith-infused pulpit tale of redemption. This isn’t going to be my debauched drink-and-drug hell, there will be no lessons to learn, no experience to share, there won’t be handy hints, lists, golden rules, you will find no encouragement for those who still stagger. I’m not shifting through this soggy tangle of a shredded life for your benefit, I have no message, no help. This isn’t a book to give to your sister whose son is having too good a time, or the friend who struggles with his cravings…”
But it is – and, if Gill doth protest too much, so be it. He has given us an extraordinary memoir, and we may respond to it as we like, starting with his description of his chronicle as “a retrospective truth gleaned from the shards and tesserae. An attempt to reimagine something lost, an emotional archaeology sifting through the midden for a bone, a coin, a few words scribbled on a flyleaf…”
Clearly an unconventional thinker, the Scots-born Gill is also highly controversial in London, where he is television and restaurant critic for the Sunday Times – and not always “polite” about the English and (especially) the Welsh, not to mention certain individuals and causes.
Yet on the subject of alcohol, he is humble – and emphatic that his words stem from his own experience and bear no other authority. They are strong words, however, particularly when he addresses the near-universal misconception that alcoholics must be made to see that alcohol is killing them.
“Understand this,” he writes, “it’s not death that terrifies – it’s life. Life is the horror, the unbearable living. We are suffering from life trauma … the miserable, shaming, boring, self-pitying lives we have fashioned for ourselves, alone, with shaking hands and a tearful despair.”
On the further misperception that ceasing to drink is a matter of willpower, Gill clarifies:
“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.”
Gill’s style, it should be noted, is always straightforward when it comes to alcohol (or drugs, which play only a minor role here, alcohol being Gill’s primary choice). But the remainder of “Pour Me, A Life,” is a wildly peripatetic inner monologue with no discernible end – not that this matters, Gill being such an amiable and engrossing writer that one barely notices.
He covers a life’s gamut here – from a confused childhood wherein his parents’ home was “full of the town’s intelligentsia” yet, despite Gill’s high IQ and verbal skills, he was unable to learn like other children. A diagnosis of dyslexia followed (to this day, he dictates all of his writing) and “Pour Me, A Life” contains several beautifully expressed sections devoted to his lifelong dance with this disease as well.
Dyslexia played into his initial career intention – of becoming an artist – and he studied at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London before going out, unsuccessfully, on his own. Alcohol fueled this failure, and that of his first marriage – to author Cressida Connolly. Yet another year passed before Gill came to sobriety.
“The bliss of drink,” he notes, “is that it is a small death. The difference between you and us, you civilian amateur hobbyist drinkers and us professional, committed indentured alcoholics, is that you drink for the lightness, we drink for the darkness. You want to feel good. We want to stop feeling so bad. All addictions become not about nirvana, but about maintenance. Not reaching for the stars but fixing the roof.”
What, in the end, jump-started sobriety for Gill was that London physician. And it wasn’t the doctor’s words, as he asked about Gill’s drinking, it was his manner: “On any other day, I’d have lied,” recalls Gill. “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 nonjudgmental, almost unconcerned, tipped it. I appreciated the insouciance.”
Gill’s initials – A.A. – are for Adrian Anthony. But they could just as well stand for Alcoholics Anonymous: He dedicates “Pour Me, A Life” to “the friends of Bill” (code for members of AA, co-founded by a man named Bill). And, although he only speaks of AA in connection with his initial meeting – when he learned “the first rule of sober club is, I don’t talk about sober club” – one gleans that he remains a grateful member.
In the end, he writes, “the drug it was that lied” while it was sobriety that brought him, by serendipity, to writing -- a path that has led him to such assignments as reporting from war zones. American readers will recognize his name from his columns for Esquire, and his contributions to Vanity Fair.
His new memoir – also the repository of wonderful riffs on friendships, and on becoming a parent– is, at its core, a remarkable and revealing book. Gill being Gill, he ends its “About the Author” portion by confiding that he “has been nominated for more awards than he has won.”
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.