A difficulty with the rehab memoir is the decline in interesting material after the protagonist finally sobers up. The invaluable Popbitch website demonstrated this in its review of Steve Coogan’s autobiography. Coogan was something of a tabloid wildman until he settled down and discovered the quiet joys of arthouse film and statutory press regulation. The Popbitch piece quotes dull anecdotes about Philomena and Judi Dench. The website’s reviewer is all but shouting: ‘Forget all this stuff about gym car parks and the Oscars! Tell me about Courtney Love and coke!’
When Orcadian writer Amy Liptrot gave up drink and drugs forever, her worst fear was that abstinence would take her essential self: ‘my cool, by which I mean my enlivening sense of discontent, and my youth, and sex – narrowed eyes and full lips – and enjoyment of testing the boundaries, of saying something uncomfortable and an excitement in the unexpected.’ She was aware of the personality dangers associated with quitting. Some twelve-step graduates become new-age temperance fundamentalists, wagging their fingers at any succeeding generation that seeks the bright lights and pleasures of the evening: others go on endlessly about their old session life, as if trying to reclaim a contact high. ‘I don’t want to become someone sanctimonious,’ Liptrot writes, ‘who tuts at teenagers drinking alcopops; neither do I want to talk in therapy platitudes nor acquire the evangelical tone of voice I know from church preachers.’
But Liptrot had somewhere interesting to come back to, and this is where I have to declare an interest of a kind. Orkney is a love-hate place. Many mainlanders move to the islands to find a fresh, more natural way of life, only to leave after they discover that the Orkney life is rather more fresh and natural than they had supposed. The artist Max Scratchmann spent six years on the archipelago and described Orcadians as ‘veritable Jekyll and Hydes when the midnight sun sinks and rum and whisky washes away their numerous inhibitions’, adding that ‘The two major pastimes on long winter nights are gossip and adultery’ (presumably there are also some negative sides). Myself, I have family friends on the island and enjoyed my few visits there: people were friendly, there were decent pubs, beautiful stone circles and you could see the sea from wherever you were. Reading The Outrun, I could feel undiluted wind and hear the local accent sing in my ears: a combination of mainland Scottish and Wirral Scouse, if memory serves.
But I don’t know if I’d love the place so much if I’d been raised there, and knew the place like Liptrot did. She grew up yearning to get off ‘the Rock’ and escaped to London as soon as she could: after numerous lost jobs, failed relationships, nasty encounters and dissolved houseshares, she returned to the island to get her head clean and the book details her struggle to reconcile herself with place and roots.
This is where The Outrun diverts from the traditional rehab memoir. There’s a sense that the last drink is where the story really begins. Like many such books it’s very I-centred, the observations derive from her own individual experience – but always in an arresting and seamless way. This is what I mean:
It wasn’t the out-of-the-way location, the tatty seats or the blank bureaucratic dealings that made me sob when I was in the waiting room at the addiction clinic: it was the smell. It was the same sour odour that had filled my London bedrooms, the smell from an ill sheep you are going to have to spray with a red X and send to the mart.
I remembered that acetone smell from when I was a child and sheep lay dying. One morning Dad went into a field and found more than twenty ewes on their sides or backs, blown up like balloons, others stumbling around as if they were drunk. They had been put into a new field the night before and gorged on chickweed in the grass.
In a more subtle way, Liptrot writes that ‘For those of us susceptible to addiction alcohol quickly becomes the default way of alleviating anxiety and dealing with stressful situations. Through repeated use of the drug, our neural pathways are scored so deeply they can never be repaired.’ Later, when she is building a drystone dyke, Liptrot marks ‘the sun’s short journey across the southern sky, over the Bay of Skaill and the hills of Hoy before it falls below the Atlantic horizon and I can no longer see my stones. I start to think in decades and centuries rather than days and months.’ She is beginning to build new neural pathways and doesn’t need to explicitly say so.
Liptrot gets a job with the RSPB tracking corncrakes by GPS and later moves to one of the northern islands, the ones populated by just handfuls of people, or else only monks and sheep. She rents a cottage from the RSPB – inevitably known locally as ‘the birdy hoose’ – on a rock of just 371 souls. Come reflections on the urban versus the remote – some predictable (you can’t leave your door unlocked, but you can in Papa Westray) and some not so predictable. Cities have their problems but small communities too nourish sprouting evils. How long can you live by yourself and still stay sane? What number constitutes the perfect and harmonious community of peoples? 500? Seventy? Two? One?
The Outrun has moments of luminous, almost surreal beauty and an understated sensuality in the prose that recalls Alan Warner at his best and brightest. Liptrot captures something of what it must be like to live in a remote place where the sky is on fire and you become acutely aware that people are little more than transitory witnesses to life and time. It’s proof that the unintoxicated life also bears examining and of a happiness that doesn’t write white.