Review of AA Gill, Pour Me
The Australian, January 16, 2016
Whenever a publisher tweets another hand-rubbing picture of tea and cake, I hang back in my chair and bellow, When did literature become so mimsy and twee?! Where have the furniture smashers gone? The writers who stumbled in pissed with torn knuckles to collapse on a publisher’s couch, demanding a cigarette, an advance and a drink? And then I found AA Gill’s memoir Pour Me and was happy.
I knew of Gill from my time in London. The facts of him that stuck were these: reputedly Britain’s highest paid columnist, raced Jeremy Clarkson in a tank in Baghdad, shot a baboon to see what it felt like to kill a man. The last, I admit, put me off. But he seemed a thoroughly odd bird and I found that intriguing. So when I heard he had a booze memoir out, I signed on.
Pour Me is an antidote to the glaze of Instagram and Twitter bleats of brunches – a vinegary, pungent memoir of life as a drunk. In his 20s, Gill made Hemingway look like a delicate fizzy-water sipper. “I don’t know how much I drank,” he writes, “I suppose it was probably a bottle of Scotch, half a dozen cans of Special Brew and then five or six or 12 pints in the pub … I didn’t want to be drunk all the time. I just didn’t want to be sober ever.”
He takes us into addiction’s grime and chaos: to his sodden late-night boozer “coated with nicotine and despair” where the barmaid looked like something “made by workhouse orphans out of parchment, tannin-stained calico and chicken bones”. There, he drank with “men with stinking blazers and burst veins, women who had compacts and cigarette holders and wet themselves on bar stools”.
In a basement flat, his body giving out, Gill hallucinated cat-sized spiders: “I sucked a whisky bottle in a corner, not daring to look up.” Chunks of life were gone, blanked. He once woke, terrified, to a blood-slicked kitchen knife, “the wall spattered with matt-maroon”, only to see the floor “aflutter with feathers”. His victim was a grouse. “Dead drunk” he had “plucked, drawn and cooked” it, with all the trimmings. “The spooky, unhinged bit was that I’d done it twice.”
During this time, Gill studied art, charged through London with friends, “vivid … louche and giddy”, and lived with “a Playboy Bunny in Balham” whom he loved “with a Narnia-like joy”: she had “a look of knowing innocence like a bishop’s niece caught taking a piss in the font”. But he “knew, in briefly sober and lucid moments, that I had had dropped the reins, I was not in control”. At 30, a doctor told Gill he would die before Christmas if he didn’t stop. “Drunk and frightened and desperate”, he went to rehab “wearing a suit with a bow tie”. His father held his hand on the train.
Gill’s discussion of his drinking is unsparing: “the dying, shaming unhappiness”, the realisation he has caused his own near-death, the way that drink becomes a “cauterising of the panic” at the prospect of not drinking. He stares back at “the pathetic ashes of my life, in all its grubby foul-breathed motiveless hopelessness. A tumour,” Gill remembers, would at least “give it purpose”. He prayed for one.
But Gill also criticises society’s judgment of alcoholics: “You shouldn’t mock the crumpled failure of drunks but wonder instead at the repeated, determined, hopeless bravery of so many postponed calamities.” He writes of getting a dog to give life an appearance of normality, and reminds the “civilian amateur hobbyist drinkers” that there’s no harsher critic of the “indentured” drunk than themselves.
There are lighter glimpses. Gill recalls the joy he found in cooking, which connected him to “something wholesome and decent” and brought him closer to his brother, Nick, a chef who disappeared. He remembers his “first acid trip that went on for hours in the summer sun like a brilliant cartoon”, and his first girlfriend, 26 when he was 18. She “took me to her bed … stoically, firmly, with much hilarity’’. Afterwards, she “beamed” at the news that it had been his first time. “We will do everything — at least once,” she told him. Later, when Gill trod on a sea urchin on holiday in Greece, she “hobbled me up to an olive grove, stepped out of her shorts and pissed on my foot. ‘I said we’d try everything.’ ”
Gill claims Pour Me is no “pulpit tale of redemption”; rather, an attempt to remember “the lost years of my twenties”. But this isn’t strictly true: his story is substantively redemptive. After getting and staying sober — which involved “collecting the components of a whole new person on the move” — Gill rose to be one of Britain’s most successful columnists. That didn’t happen immediately: he failed as an artist first, and started writing only in his late 30s.
And he doesn’t, in the traditional sense, write. Gill is dyslexic. When his father suggested he become a journalist in his teens, Gill’s response was to “shimmy with rage … How can I be a fucking journalist when I can’t fucking write?” But he later realised that his way of writing was someone else’s problem. Now, his words are crabbed into a laptop, so snarled he can’t decipher them a couple of weeks later. He reads them down the phone to his copytaker late at night. “This book,” he says, “isn’t written by me, it’s written by Michelle. She’s typing it now.”
The result is magnificent: Gill writes with prickle and vim, verve and sneer, and shifts from wit to silver lyric in a paragraph. He makes you wince and weep and guffaw with a full-throat. Pour Me is a polished snarl, a memoir of living strangely and hard, and a corrective to the mawkish anodyne of so much contemporary writing. It’s probably not for your book club.