What's your poison? John Doran describes 24 years of drunkenness. Photo: Al Overdrive
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Life after addiction: John Doran on music and other drugs

“Alcoholism is a self-inflicted leisure injury. . . I refuse to portray myself as this helpless victim. I sound like some anxiety-ridden heroine in an Oscar Wilde play but I couldn’t deal with life.”

John Doran, the editor of the music webzine the Quietus, describes the process of writing a memoir as being like “a dog going back to its vomit and eating it over again”. Raking through decades of excessive alcoholism and drug-taking was “utterly painful and abject”, he says, when we meet at his home in Stamford Hill, north London, where the walls teem with rare vinyl, books and posters.

The result of his painful self-analysis is Jolly Lad, a pugnacious account of Doran’s descent into addiction – “I started drinking when I was 13,” he writes, “[and] stayed constantly drunk until I was 37” – and subsequent recovery. And yet its author is not, so far as I can tell, ready to evangelise about Alcoholics Anonymous or the benefits of the ascetic life. The book does not seek to be “Angela’s Ashes set in a Wetherspoon’s”. Rather, it tries to address a form of problem drinking that “is never addressed in this country” – that of the Everyman drinker who can maintain a job and a family, yet needs alcohol daily “as a strategy to get through life, until you just end up in a position where you’re poisoning yourself”.

Doran, who is 44, was born in Rainhill, a village on the outskirts of Lancashire and Merseyside. His formative years were defined by a staunch religious upbringing that still affects him. “I used to aspire to be an atheist,” he says, “but I don’t have it in me. Once religion was gone, I felt lost. And it doesn’t leave you – how could it?”

After an aborted attempt at university in Hull, Doran found that his spiritual needs had been replaced by an obsessive interest in music, boozing and drugs. Deranged hallucinations, blackouts and deteriorating mental health became the norm as he spiralled out of control, living in a blood-spattered, quasi-derelict squat and working shifts at a factory in Welwyn Garden City. Incredibly, he kept it together long enough to become a full-time music journalist at the relatively late age of 31, co-founding the Quietus in 2008. The site soon established itself as an expertly curated source of music opinion and insight, with Doran’s passion driving its eclectic and often contentious output.

Music is central to Doran’s life but is also a means for him “not to discuss other things”. After finally becoming sober, he threw his energies into fatherhood and “wasn’t doing anything other than sitting at home, writing about heavy-metal albums and changing nappies”, before realising that he had a well of untapped material from his drinking days – a period he looks back on, for the most part, as a really good time. This forms the basis of Jolly Lad.

A dichotomy is central. The book is stocked with all manner of chaos – endless benders, fluorescent acid trips, self-mutilation and debt – yet it adheres to an unusual ethical code. “I had a responsibility in writing this book,” Doran explains. “The way I was brought up was to be told that if you take acid once, you end up in an insane asylum. That type of scaremongering doesn’t work. If anyone reads this book and it inspires them to seek help, that’s a vindication for me.”

Yet he appears cautiously sanguine about his own recovery. “Alcoholism is a self-inflicted leisure injury,” Doran says. “I refuse to portray myself as this helpless victim. I sound like some anxiety-ridden heroine in an Oscar Wilde play but I couldn’t deal with life. In the short term, drinking allowed me to act out my fantasies of being a cool, level-headed person. But I know I’ll never be that cool guy.

“The coolest I’m ever gonna be is this goofy, middle-aged dad who doesn’t drink. I’m happy with that now.”

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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The Gallows Pole's ultra-violence turns reading into a kind of dare

Author Benjamin Myers's capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.

A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious ­late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.

When we first meet him, we are told that he “appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills.” A man of viciousness and visions, who sees stagmen dancing on the moors.

That relationship between man and land (and it is men, because Myers’s world is ­intensely masculine) is about to be ruptured for ever. The Industrial Revolution is coming. Ground that was a birthright to the labourers and farmers of Yorkshire is being bought up for factories; capitalists are even re-carving the waterways. Hartley and his men will take no share in the wealth this generates. They are the left-behind, and in this context, forging is not merely theft: it’s insurrection.

“Clip a coin and fuck the crown” is the Coiners’ cry. Their attack on the currency is also an attack on the nation state attempting to impose its rule on the countryside. Money is a circulating manifestation of the social contract, passing the impress of authority from hand to hand, and Hartley wants none of it.

The government takes their threat absolutely seriously and sends the relentless exciseman William Deighton (or “that cunt Deighton”, as Hartley inevitably calls him) after the gang. It is clear from early on that Hartley and Deighton, bound by mutual hate long before they ever meet, are willing themselves to destroy one another. Coercion and rebellion mirror each other, drawing purpose from their opposed positions.

Although the setting is historical, Myers’s obsession with place and power is urgently contemporary. Society is fragile. The walls can, and do, collapse.

Today the political shocks of Brexit and Trump make this obvious in a way it hasn’t been for a long time: the strand of malevolent machismo that seemed like deliberately shocking Gothic in Myers’s 2014 novel Beastings feels closer to home now. It seems as though Myers, seer-like, has merely had to wait for the world outwardly to become as he long ago divined it to be. Yet that is not to say there is no invention here, and Myers’s use of language in particular is notably creative.

The story is told between terse, third-person portions, and Hartley’s diary entries are written in a rich pidgin of semi-literacy. It resembles more than anything the dense, punning future dialect of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and like that novel it suggests a society where the bonds are so frayed that even words are unreliable. But where Hoban can fairly claim use of any word ever to have existed, Myers’s playfulness sometimes presses at the edges of his historical fiction: when Hartley writes “foghorn concollusion” for “foregone conclusion”, for example, the maritime vocabulary is jarring coming from this landlocked man.

Foregone conclusions are a problem in another way. Even if you don’t already know about the Coiners, Myers foreshadows the story’s end well in advance, and the plot occasionally sags.

Though his general register is frankly abrasive, Myers sometimes sacrifices tension to sentiment in the lead-up to a set piece: when a character has an unusual access of tenderness, you can hear death stalking in the background. Another weakness of his is in writing women and children – the latter tend to the syrupy and the former barely exist.

In The Gallows Pole, if a character isn’t likely to raise a hand in anger, he isn’t likely to interest Myers. His element is violence and, in his element, he is thrilling: intelligent, dangerous and near untouchable.

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 363pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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