Alcoholics tend to be afflicted by a troubled relationship with the truth. Their shattered memories make accurate recollection impossible; their addiction makes them expert dissemblers; their sensibilities allow a capacity for remorseless self-criticism to sit alongside an equally robust talent for self-deception. In such circumstances, the difficulties inherent in the art of memoir become acute.
In this uneven account of his own struggle with alcoholism, AA Gill deals with such challenges openly. These pages will cover, we are told, the year between the end of his first marriage and the decision he took, at the age of 30, to stop drinking. "But", he cautions, "I have no reliable chronology. It might be only six months or eighteen... To call it a memoir is to imply memory, a veracity, a recall that I couldn't... can't put my hands on."
This means that we get no clear sense of how heavy Gill's drinking was when it was at its worst. He doesn't know now, didn't know at the time. But the contents of his morning pockets ("a constant source of surprise"; "like tiny crime scenes") would often offer a clue: their treasures had been known to include a votive candle, a lamb chop, and, on one occasion, a pigeon. The injured bird lived with him on his bed "for days... maybe weeks" until he wrung its neck and "threw it in the garden".
The fragility of Gill's memory means that anecdotes such as these are relatively scant; and he refuses to talk in any detail about the process of becoming sober ("I don't talk about sober club"). What he does talk about is the nature of addiction, and the development of his education and his career.
This is the story of how, after boarding school, art school, a spell in a Soho sex shop, rehab, some serendipitous freelance work for Tatler, he was hired as a columnist for The Sunday Times, for whom he still writes today. Gill brings to this narrative a peculiar blend of earnestness, self-aggrandisement, cant and anger.
He writes passionately and movingly about his struggle with dyslexia (he still phones his copy into The Sunday Times; this memoir has been dictated); disarmingly and defensively about his lifelong feelings of intellectual insecurity; evocatively about his relationship with his parents and the disappearance of his brother; pretentiously about art; incoherently about religion (unlike his atheistic parents, Gill is a wooly sort of Protestant); stirringly about his love of journalism.
Occasionally, as in his description of his arrival at rehab, Gill's prose is direct and affecting: "I was 30. I didn't need him to hold my hand, but he did, because he was my dad." But often it is hopelessly overwritten, full of clichés, and punctuated by attempts at wit and aphorism that repeatedly misfire. Does this matter? Not really.
This is a book to be read as one suspects it was written: quickly and carelessly, and in thrall to the joys of narrative.
It might not all be beautiful; it might not all be true. But that does little to diminish the pleasure to be found in its story.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20. Order at£17 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop
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