A quick sweep through the various social media feeds easily gives the impression that drinking alcohol has become everybody’s number one pastime activity. Who hasn’t posted a picture of the ubiquitous glass of chilled champagne next to a tiny bowl of toasted almonds on a sunny terrace/beach/airport lounge on Facebook?
Somehow I had missed Leslie Jamison, as her first novel “Gin Closet” came out already in 2010 and was met by critical acclaim. My first book by her was an essay collection “Empathy Exams“, a highly potent compilation of texts about mainly injury and pain in their various forms.
Ivy-league educated, Jamison is a masterful user of the English language. She was described as the literary “granddaughter of Susan Sontag and Joan Didion” on the sleeve of “Empathy Exams”, and that was quite possibly what sealed the deal for me to buy the book. None of the “Exams” was exactly feel good -read, but there was something strangely powerful in her writing – also some of the topics were off the beaten literary track, which is always refreshing.
Despite being young and already having a respectable academic background (Jamison is an assistant professor at Columbia University nowadays, after having acquired a doctoral degree in literature at Yale and her first degree at Harvard), Jamison is also a recovering alcoholic. Her latest book is non-fiction “The Recovering – Intoxication and its Aftermath“, and again, while it’s not exactly comforting escape literature, it is absolutely raw in its honesty.
It was difficult to read “The Recovering” without reflecting the way it’s become normal to incorporate alcohol in the daily life. No-one (apart from pregnant women) go for coffee anymore. It’s always drinks. I started university in the late 90s, when the ladettes* were sweeping across the UK. It was all about women being celebrated getting drunk in public, and the inspirations du jour were Kate Moss, Meg Matthews, Sadie Frost and Zoë Ball, just to mention a precious few of those whose drunken antics were fêted in the yellow press each Monday.
The introduction of ladettes coincided with the start of Sex and the City, and all of it was interpreted by women’s magazines as some kind of women’s liberation movement giving us females the official licence to get royally pissed and not give a damn.
Then a backlash followed, because of course women cannot quite behave the way men do, especially not in public. The press were quick to point out that some celebrity –ladettes had children. What kind of a mother flashes her knickers in public while drunk? Should we be worried?
While the morning shows of TV- and radio stations were permanently jammed by experts pondering the morale of celebrity binge-drinking, their focus always on women, the movement, if there ever was one, had gotten traction on campuses and high streets across the UK, and well, everybody was drinking. A lot.
Fast forward 20 years and situation has not changed much. It’s not even the portion control that is the point here, it’s just that drinking has been profoundly interwoven into our daily lives. It is rare to meet people these days (after office hours, I would like to add just to clarify that we’re not totally out of control) without a glass of rosé making an appearance at some point. I actually almost cannot recall a recent social gathering involving more than one person, where drinking alcohol was somehow not part of the program. The possible upside: alcohol has finally become fully demystified and de-stigmatised.
Coming back to “The Recovering“, it is a highly personal account of an addiction, but another underlying topic in the book is the association of addiction, alcoholism and substance abuse with artists and writers. Such a cliché, no? Think of Billie Holiday and Amy Winehouse, for example – drugs and alcohol kind of were their thing! Both artists and their battles with substance abuse are also covered in the book.
Jamison writes how Stephen King, while writing “The Shining” was doing so much cocaine that he had to stuff his nostrils with tissues so that he would not bleed on his typewriter. She accounts her own creative writing process, too, both with and without alcohol and drugs. I suppose we have always given the creative professions far more liberties with substances than, say, the civil servants, because, well, they have to create stuff whereas we are actually encouraged not to come up with anything artistic.
Read “The Recovering“, whatever your relationship with alcohol is. It is a truly good and thorough book that shoots down some of the aforementioned clichés of the “artists need drugs and alcohol to support their work” kind. Then also read the “Empathy Exams”.
Finally, in case you have over-indulged during the long weekend and need something more comforting and less confrontational to have on your night stand, have a look here for books for, ahem, hangover.
* I hated the term ladettes in the 90s and I still hate it.