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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The reason chicken is a popular British food? Because we started factory farming

In the 1950s, chicken was seen as an elite food and was expensive.

Chlorine-washed chickens, hormone-fed beef and pork raised on growth-promoting antibiotics. It doesn’t sound very tasty – but this is what could be lining our supermarket shelves after Brexit. Trade deals could allow an influx of meat into Britain from the US, where lower animal welfare standards mean it can be produced more cheaply. A House of Lords report this week warned this could spark a change in our farming. The high animal welfare and environmental standards we have in the UK (set by EU law) could be eroded to allow British meat to compete with cheaper imports.

Last week, Michael Gove, Defra secretary, reassured parliament he was committed to maintaining current standards after Brexit. "One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country," he said. Yet some argue US-style farms have already taken over British agriculture, largely under the radar and without a national debate.

Gove was reacting to last week’s report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which revealed there are now 800 “mega-farms” in the UK, huge industrial units mimicking the feedlots of California or Texas. The biggest can house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 cattle. Their emergence is part of a 26 per cent rise in intensive farming in the UK in the last six years.

This rise is mainly due to Britain’s insatiable appetite for chicken. In the 1950s, it was seen as an elite food and was expensive. Just a million were produced a year. Then, intensive farming methods were imported from the US. In 1959, the first fast-processing "poultry factory" was opened in Aldershot. By 1965, the price of poultry had fallen by nearly a third, causing demand to soar. By 1990, almost a quarter of the meat eaten in Britain was chicken or turkey. As birds can be brought to slaughter much more quickly than cows or sheep, it remained cheaper than beef or lamb.

People also began to change their meat-eating habits for health reasons. From the 1970s, government campaigns advised people to eat less fatty red meat. Chicken was seen as a leaner, healthier, alternative.

Now, it is the nation’s favourite meat. Last year, nearly a billion birds were slaughtered and another 400 million imported. Five companies – two of which are owned by multinationals - control most of the poultry production in the UK. Industrial farms are clustered in pockets of the country near their abattoirs and factories. It is causing conflict in the countryside, as local people and campaign groups say they are a blight on the landscape and complain of the smells and disturbance of lorries bringing in grain or taking birds to the abattoir.

Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy at City University believes the change to intensive farming has entrenched cheap chicken into our culture. "The more cheap meat these farms produce, the more people eat, the more cheap meat becomes part of the culture and lifestyle. We now have chicken and chips, chicken nuggets, chicken burgers. Chicken is the processed meat of choice," he says. Free range chicken accounts for 3 per cent of the market. Organic – which has the highest animal welfare standards – makes up just 1 per cent.

Yet the actual meat has changed since intensive farms arrived. Experts tested chicken from such farms in 2008 and found it had twice as much fat, a third less protein and a third more calories than in 1940. Gram for gram, it had as much fat as a Big Mac.

Chickens grown for meat are kept in computer-controlled warehouses, with up to 19 birds per square metre (roughly the same amount of space as an A4 piece of paper per bird). They are fed additive-filled, high protein food and the temperature and humidity is controlled so they gain weight. They are taken to be slaughtered when they are five to six weeks old.

Farmers and the food industry say this is the most efficient and green way to produce the meat people want. Inside sheds, the birds are protected from predators while disease and pollution can be controlled. Putting these birds out to pasture would use up more land – land which could be used for houses, parks or kept as countryside. Last June, a Defra survey counted 173 million poultry birds on the ground at that point – though as there are many "crops" of chicken many more are slaughtered in total. If we wanted to raise all those birds to organic conditions, we would take up the same amount of space as the whole of the island of Anglesey.

Animal welfare campaigners say the current "factory farming" system is cruel. Chickens want to feel the sun on their feathers, roll in dust and forage for seeds. Cramped inside a shed, they become stressed and start injuring or cannibalising one other. Food poisoning bugs such as E.coli or campylobacter, many of which are becoming resistant to antibiotics, can spread quickly through a herd. Some 63 per cent of supermarket chickens are now infected with campylobacter, the latest government testing shows, although this has decreased since last year.

The latest report, written by the House of Lords’ EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, said polls show 80 per cent or more of the UK public want animal welfare standards to be maintained or improved post-Brexit. Yet many consumers are not aware of the difference between intensive and organic farming – and may not be willing to pay a price for premium welfare products, it said.

Lang believes debate should be opened again. People need to understand where their meat comes from and whether they are comfortable with the methods used to make it. The rise in intensive farming is driven by our choices, with food companies and supermarkets acting as our brokers. “If we don’t like it, we must vote with our purses, demand retailers change their contracts and specifications in our name," he says.

‘With Brexit looming, British consumers need to be very clear: do they want animal welfare standards to rise or get swept away in pursuit of cheaper food?’

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.