Books: Booze and hisses for a man keen to please

Through a Glass Brightly: The Fall and Rise of an Alcoholic by Nick Charles, Robson pounds 16.95
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The Independent Culture
Yet another book by a reformed alcoholic. Nick Charles's descent into alcoholism led him into a sustained period of vagrancy. There were times, reading this book, when I felt Nick was as proud of becoming a dosser as he was in his subsequent recovery. It's as if by becoming a down-and-out he perceives that he reached the zenith of alcoholism. Perhaps this heralds a new breed of post-modern alcoholic where the worst failure is the best success. On the other hand, if you now run, as Nick does, the Chaucer Clinic (a rehab unit) I bet it's handy being able to regale the suburban accountants, rich, lonely housewives and professional footballers with terrifying tales of hostels and skips.

After an absurdly over-the-top first chapter which finds Nick in the throes of DTs, the book charts the life of a West Midlands boy. Son of a policeman. Born towards the end of the war. From a childhood which was "quite normal in the main" to a successful career as an entertainer, and onwards to the hell of the suffering alcoholic, sleeping rough on the mean streets of London's Whitechapel. In 1989 he founded the Chaucer Clinic and in 1997 was awarded the MBE.

The book was obviously written (or dictated) in a rush. I suspect that some of Nick's stories are exaggerated. I'm very surprised that he can rem- ember so often exactly who he was drinking with and where 30 years ago. I'm also astonished that he seems to remember his drunken dialogues with such exactness.

There is never any real sense of an inner world conveyed to the reader; never a feeling that Nick has ever tried to look beneath the surface layer of his alcoholism, or life for that matter. He simply documents "facts". Booze came along when he was 17 and that was that.

I have two things to say at this juncture. One, alcohol is a depressive drug. An anaesthetic, it was used in operations before ether was formulated. If somebody is misusing alcohol it would seem quite likely that they are in some (chronic) kind of pain. This pain must have originated before the abnormal drinking. Two, the word alcohol derives from an ancient Arabic word which meant "the desire to be whole". (Of course ultimately alcohol does not deliver wholeness.) This would suggest that the problem for the practising alcoholic is not when he's on a bender, or shamefully recovering from one, but the periods in between when he or she is feeling decidedly unwhole.

Nick Charles never seems to ponder or address these issues. Everything was fine until Old John Barleycorn came along. Up to that point his family life had been idyllic. Nick describes what a terrible disappointment he became to all of them, especially his mother. I got the distinct impression that there was nothing he could ever have done to curry favour with them. He does not seem to have really examined these relationships; instead he seems content to have been cast in the role of the black sheep. It looks as if he's spent the rest of his life desperately seeking approval.

The most poignant part of the book, for the wrong reasons, is the occasion of the presentation of his MBE. (There is a cheesy photo in the book of Nick meeting Prince Charles.) After the ceremony he wants to show it off, so he ends up going down to the Embankment and manages to find one man who remembers him from his dosser days, and even he disappears sharpish. I imagine that those left behind, far from sharing in his success, would simply feel patronised.

One of the stranger parts of the book features an attack on Alcoholics Anonymous. As one of the main reasons for publishing this book was to publicise the Chaucer Clinic, I can only assume this bitter attack is out of resentment towards what Nick appears to perceive as a more successful rival; and of course AA, so they tell me, is free. I'm cynical about clinics (and those that run them) "dealing in" (an apt turn of phrase) addiction problems. I also tend towards cynicism concerning recovering alcoholics using their condition as a way of raising their own profile.

Having said all that, I suspect that the presence of Nick Charles has made a difference, for the better, to the lives of several people. It's a shame that he should boast about it in such a cheap and thoughtless way. Surely attraction is more effective than self-promotion.