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 amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain