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After an aborted attempt at university in Hull, Doran found that his spiritual needs had been replaced by an obsessive interest in music, boozing and drugs.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.”