The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing: On the need of hyperarticulate people to get raving drunk

The lives of six writers, and the reasons why they drank so much, are explored in this nuanced portrait which give pleasure in every sentence and offers bright collisions with the past.

The Trip to Echo Spring
Olivia Laing
Canongate, 284pp, £20
 
Olivia Laing’s second book takes its title from a line in Tennessee Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s an apt phrase for a book about writers and alcoholism, with its combined dose of the sublime and the helplessly mortal. But “Echo Spring” is only the liquor cabinet, named after a brand of whiskey.
 
Laing’s ear was apparently made to catch such notes of melancholia; the book’s subtitle, Why Writers Drink, undersells her achievement. She has produced not an answer to a glib question, but a nuanced portrait – via biography, memoir, analysis –of the urge of the hyperarcticulate to get raving drunk.
 
The biographical focus is on the lives of six writers – Williams among them – and Laing visits the places in America where they variously lived, drank and dried out. The journey imposes a stagey narrative that the book could have done without, but Laing’s experiences give line-by-line pleasure and make for bright collisions with the past. A pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli in New York in hand, she walks to the Queensboro Bridge and remembers that this is where “John Cheever once saw two hookers playing hopscotch with a hotel room key”.
 
When the narrative device recedes, Laing is free to use quotation and analysis. The alcoholic writer’s sense of mortality is key. F Scott Fitzgerald, an insomniac, had an annihilating vision before sleep; he imagined he was “only one of the dark millions riding forward in black buses toward the unknown”. In his autobiography, Williams recounts a teenage realisation that he was “a member of multiple humanity . . . not a unique creature but only one among the multitude of its fellows”. Yet it is tough to embody epiphanies; at the height of his drinking, Williams’s diary shows him in the opposite mode: “ ‘Me’ – that would be an adequate one-word, twoletter entry for every day.”
 
Laing comes from a family affected by alcohol and her hyper-vigilance to inconsistency makes her a good match for her muddled subjects. As she says, writing about writers poses various challenges – they use autobiographical material in unpredictable ways. But, she writes, “when the writer is also an alcoholic . . . this migration of lived experience becomes entangled with another process: the habit of denial”. When Ernest Hemingway refers to his own insomnia in a letter to Fitzgerald, for instance, he makes the imperious claim that “since I have stopped giving a good goddamn about anything in the past it doesn’t bother me much”. But, during a period of moderate drinking, this same exemplar of self-mastery wrote in a quite different tone – abject, self-abasing – to another friend, “In about ten hours from now I will have a nice good lovely glass of Marqués de Riscal with supper.”
 
Self-ironising is another muddling habit. A plastered Fitzgerald might, in the words of his friend H L Mencken, have shocked a Baltimore dinner party “by arising at the dinner table and taking down his pantaloons, exposing his gospel pipe”, but, as Laing writes, “you can yank down your pants . . . and still be a man in mortal terror of exposing who you are”. And you can show that you have a naked body just like every other man’s and still be in mortal terror of accepting it, which is also to say that it is possible to be in mortal terror of mortality – at which point drunkenness might seem like a solution.
 
The book achieves its greatest force through Laing’s mix of intellect and intuition, which often recalls the New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm. Of a childhood scene involving her mother’s alcoholic girlfriend and the police, Laing notes that her strongest memory is “my conviction that if only I were allowed to speak to her I could calm her down – a piece of absurdly unrealistic co-dependence that’s had long-reaching consequences in the relationships of my adult life”.
 
By the final chapters, Laing maintains this psychoanalytic style; though neuroscience and biochemistry feature earlier on, their offerings seem as poignant as Laing hoping for insights on the Tennessee Williams Walking Tour. She notes that submersion in water is a prevalent image in the work of alcoholic writers. Fitzgerald’s story “The Swimmers” implies that it is the cure for the hero’s unhappy marriage; Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” describes it as “the resumption of a natural condition”. There is, as Laing writes, “some hint of regression” in all this.
 
There is also an expression of longing. As John Berryman put it in an autobiographical poem: “Hunger was constitutional with him,/wine, cigarettes, liquor and need need need.” In a letter written in 1962 to Bill Wilson, who later founded Alcoholics Anonymous, Carl Jung described the alcoholic’s “need” as “the equivalent . . . of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness . . . You see, alcohol in Latin is ‘spiritus’ . . . The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”
 
Talitha Stevenson is an author and psychotherapist

 

Always thinking, always drinking: Tennessee Williams in 1970. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times