“The Trip To Echo Spring” by Olivia Laing (2013)

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“Here’s a thing.”

Earlier this year a friend let me borrow The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, which tells the stories of loneliness behind some of the greatest artists in history. A few weeks later, I stumbled upon an earlier book of hers – The Trip to Echo Spring – which focuses on authors and their reliance on alcohol. As a writer who enjoys a glass of wine or six, it’s a topic close to my heart. In this book, Laing travels with width of the United States to explore the places inhabited by six of America’s greatest writers and their struggles with alcohol – Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, Tennessee Williams, and the poster boys for drunk authors, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Combining biography, literary criticism, travel writing and a treatise on the effects alcohol has on the body, Laing builds up a picture of these six men and the struggles they went through. My immediate confession is that while I’m aware of the impact they had on the literary scene, I’ve only read two of them – Fitzgerald and Cheever. I know enough about them all to be able to appreciate who they were, however, and the book helps fill in a lot of their, often tragic, backstories.

Laing travels, usually by train, around the USA, taking in New York City, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, St Paul, and Port Angeles, all places that meant something to our heroes. She explores their early lives, the relationships they formed, how they came to develop alcohol addiction, and which ones made it through the other side, and which ended their own lives over it. There are some poignant moments, including John Berryman struggling to come to terms with his father’s death, Cheever suffering from poverty in Manhattan, and Raymond Carver having marriage and fatherhood thrust upon him while still a teenager.

It is Fitzgerald, however, that shines for me. Perhaps because I know most about him and Zelda, but whatever misfortunes befall him, he can’t help but appear faintly ridiculous. Once, someone walks in on him in his room wearing several layers in an attempt to sweat out all the gin – while still drinking gin. Elsewhere, he drives around in a car with no roof in the rain until he decides he’s got pneumonia and has Hemingway take him to a hotel and promise to take care of his wife and daughter when he’s dead. Laing adds that a “few whisky sours put a stop to this nonsense”, and Scott and Ernest are out drinking again within hours.

Laing also uses personal experiences in the text, mentioning her mother’s lover Diana who was an alcoholic for many years, but has since become sober. Despite the humour of Fitzgerald, The Trip to Echo Spring is pretty sombre and a reminder that alcohol is indeed a poison and not to be messed about with. Like in The Lonely City, however, she shows how these people used their flaws and vices to create some of the greatest work in history, and she does a good job of exploring the relationships between alcohol and the written word. A thoughtful and interesting piece.

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Vintage Minis: “Drinking” and “Swimming”

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If you’ve been in a bookstore recently you may have noticed the collection of Vintage Minis. These are twenty tiny books that take selected highlights on full-length memoirs and novels to give you a sample of the writing. All human life is here, and some of the names behind them are particularly notable. Themes include “Home”, “Desire”, “Death”, “Calm”, and “Work”, with writers including Salman Rushdie, Nigella Lawson, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison giving their insights into their area of expertise. Intrigued by the concept, I bought the two that best fitted with my favourite activities. I read the first one a couple of months ago, but I present them both to you here now.

Drinking by John Cheever

“It was Sunday afternoon, and from her bedroom Amy could hear the Beardens coming in, followed a little while later by the Farquarsons and the Parminters.”

Taken from the anthology Collected Stories by John Cheever, this book gathers together all the excerpts that focus on alcohol and what it does to us. In “The Sorrows of Gin”, a young girl steals alcohol from her parents cabinets and lets the staff take the blame.  In “Goodbye, My Brother”, a family gather together and old wounds are reopened, and family is also present in “Reunion”, where a man goes out with his alcoholic, abrasive father for the last time. In “The Scarlet Moving Van” we see how dangerous alcoholism can be, and how it tears families and friends apart when it takes hold.

The pieces are wonderfully moving, and often drinking doesn’t even play a major part in the story, perhaps showing how insidious the habit of reaching for the liquor bottle has become in much of society. Drinking seems to be one of the ties that bind us all together as humans, and a number of us have on more than one occasion, tried and failed to find solace at the bottom of a bottle.

One of the stories, “The Swimmer”, in fact inspired…

Swimming by Roger Deakin

“The warm rain tumbled from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat.”

The excepts from Swimming are taken from Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog. In this, the only book he published in his lifetime, he decides to explore the British landscape by swimming through it. Thus begins a journey through rivers, streams, lakes, lochs and around the coast to experience the island through its’ remarkable waterways.

We are treated to several great excerpts here, such as his dip into the Atlantic Ocean off the Scilly Isles and discussion about what the locals do with shipwrecked cargo, his argument with locals in Winchester who feel the rivers should be off-limits to people not willing to pay for their use, meeting an otter in Suffolk, and a dip in the North Sea on Christmas Day. He has a beautiful way of writing and showing us the true beauty of our countryside. It makes you appreciate our waters and shows the island from a new angle, bringing to the fore some of the most wonderful denizens of the water, including salmon, water voles and even porpoises. It’s actually compelling enough that I’m tempted to buy the full version, proving that these books seem to be doing what they were made to do – get us excited about literature.

Hopefully these quick summaries will inspire you to pick up a Vintage Mini and dive into a topic you’re passionate about. I doubt these are the last ones I read.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Hangover Square” by Patrick Hamilton (1941)

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We've all been there.

We’ve all been there.

Click! … Here it was again.”

Anyone who knows me knows that I rarely turn down a drink. If there’s a glass to be had, I’ve probably already had it. Up until my early twenties, I also remarkably got away with never having a hangover, which, if you’ve never experienced it, makes you feel powerful and godlike. However, I’m twenty-eight now, and while it’s an age that means I should know better, it’s nonetheless also an age in which my hangovers have become more pronounced than ever. But at least they fade, whereas the characters in this novel seem to be cursed with hangovers that never end.

George Harvey Bone is a man with a problem. He is hopelessly, uncontrollably in love with Netta Longdon. She, however, is far cooler in her affections towards him. Knowing how he feels, she makes use of him to provide money and drink for her and her friends, often the men she is actually intimate with. But Bone is weak and drunk, and love is powerful, and he believes that if he keeps on trying, he will soon be welcomed fully as “one of the gang”, and then he and Netta will run away together to start the perfect life he knows they can have.

But Bone has a slight problem that might ruin everything. Every now and then, he slips into what he terms a “dead moment”. These can last hours or days and when he surfaces from them, he can never remember what happened in them. What he doesn’t realise is that in these moments he doesn’t seem to want happiness with Netta – he wants her dead. Bone is living two lives; one in which he worships her, and another in which he wants to kill her for treating him like she does. Which Bone will win out?

Set among the pubs and bars of London and Brighton, on the eve of the Second World War, the novel takes us to the seedy underbelly of society, where the unemployed rub shoulders with failed actors and everyone is three sheets to the wind. George Bone is a pitiful protagonist, but you can’t help but feel sorry for him. We’ve most of us been in a position where we love someone who has no desire to reciprocate our feelings, and often we know what fools we’re making of ourselves, but there are few people to fall in love with that are crueler than Netta.

While readers can see how hideous she is – beautiful but poisonous – Bone seems aware of it too, but is unable to help himself, though that’s probably due to the amount he’s drunk throughout the novel. You find yourself rooting for him, even in his “dead moments” when he is overcome with murderous rage and forgets the real world. He’s sympathetic, sure, but also fairly pathetic. As the novel progresses, you get caught up with his desire to kill as Netta becomes more and more vile, and her friends even more terrible. It all culminates in a tragically bittersweet finale where Bone has to come to terms with reality.

The threat of war coming up fast is never far away from any of the characters minds and, by the time the novel ends, Britain is at war with Germany at last. It’s a novel of worry and social inequality, about wanting and hoping, and life failing to deliver time after time. It’s darkly comic, and said to be Hamilton’s finest novel, but I’ve nothing to compare it with. It stands out though, and is definitely one to read if you have any feelings at all. It’s going to play havoc with them all.