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After an aborted attempt at university in Hull, Doran found that his spiritual needs had been replaced by an obsessive interest in music, boozing and drugs.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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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt