Sobering thoughts

<strong>Cleaning Up: How I Gave Up Drinking and Lived</strong>

Tania Glyde <em>Serpent's Tail, 24

It wasn't anything she'd planned on, but at the age of 36 Tania Glyde came to in a bath full of cold water and understood that 23 years of waking at noon and getting wasted was probably enough. Cleaning Up is her memoir of her life as a novelist, performance poet, alcoholic and full-time girlfriend to various wealthy junkies, building up to her eventual turning away from depression, drugs and the bottle. It is also a fact-packed handbook on why women drink, and "what life after alcohol is really like". Not much fun, from the sound of it.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First come the oily years of intoxication, the dark nights of the honk, dawns spent looking for corkscrews in bad flats in Kilburn; afternoons chaining comedown cigarettes while a BT man bemusedly fixes the broadband connection; days whizzing by in an LA motel to the sound of a cokehead boyfriend paying for prostitutes with a swipe of his credit card. It's a wonder Tania didn't croak.

But then she wouldn't have been able to set the record straight - and Glyde has issues with several people. Her mother, for starters. Her father. Her first boyfriend, for telling everyone she was easy. The girls on a Duke of Edinburgh's Award weekend, for exposing her for wearing eyeliner. Her tutor at Oxford, for suggesting she might have come to the wrong university. And an Italian woman, for pointing out how pale Glyde was once on a beach. There are more. Particularly the best friend who encouraged her into a foursome from which Glyde emerged with the clap and a septic nipple ("I am utterly sick and tired of being subjected to other people's theatre"). And an acquaintance, for accusing Glyde of posing when she first described herself as a writer ("None of my immediate crowd have any experience of being a published author themselves").

Then there are the people who have really got on her nerves. Glyde emerges, vivid, through these anecdotes, like someone single-handedly clearing the road of rubble. The one-night stand who was uneasy about taking her to hospital after a vodka session ("The fact that I actually have to ask him to do this for me is a warning sign for the future of this association"). The trustafarian who went to a wedding in America without her ("those living other lives might wonder why any boyfriend worth the name would be happy to leave me home alone"). The nurse at casualty who refused to compute that Glyde was stricken with sinusitis ("with another cold, suspicious look she despatches me to the waiting room"). The musician lover, for trying to come off heroin without considering how stressful Glyde might find the experience ("This is the final straw"). And the guy she shared three grams of cocaine, five Ecstasy tablets, a bottle of vodka, ten pints, six spliffs and 60 B&H with, who then refused to go out and buy fish fingers for lunch.

And finally, sticking it to the people who are just plain idiots. Like the friends in Paris who got in only one bottle of champagne on Bastille Day. She totally has a point here.

Speaking as an ex-druggie who spent several years incapable of opening my own front door, I would say Glyde is spot-on about one thing, specifically the force with which one can hold on to such certainties as sleep is for insecure potheads, and sucking old chicken bones out of the bin is way preferable to dating sober. But must Glyde be quite so nitpicky? "Make no mistake," she snaps, as though brushing the dandruff from a black T-shirt, "other people are the problem. And there are a lot of them around."

After a while, Cleaning Up's wodge of "why women drink" chapters - with their many statistics about units a week and binge drinking - starts to sound like dinner jazz while Glyde limbers up in the dressing room for her next assault. Ultimately, as a study of overwhelming unconscious resentment, Cleaning Up rivals only Kathryn Flett's The Heart-Shaped Bullet, which was basically about how her bloody husband wanted a different kind of wife.

Yet when Glyde describes her sober life of the past five years (no rehab for her, just an impressively determined closing of several doors), her rage falls away - and she becomes markedly less articulate, less engaged. She is standing on the threshold of her ice cave, sniffing the atmosphere. The reader's pulse returns to normal. And then it strikes you that nowhere in the book has Glyde told us anything she has loved. No writer, no record, no city, no body, no sight, no taste. There is a revulsion with life in these pages more obliterative than any drug, a quite awesome control. Corrupt, imperfect human love. Baby, please try it.

Antonia Quirke is the author of "Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers" (Harper Perennial)

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters