Sober people are full of realism. All critical thinking and sharp anxieties. They tell you the cold, hard truth in a way you never want to hear it. AA Gill’s Pour Me: A Life reflects on the magic of drinking with crystal tumbler clarity: “There is a moment in the chemistry of drink and the sociology of alcoholics where you reach optimum dosage. You never quite know where that is; it’s a movable dram that peaks in the feeling that you’re completely in control and that your control is balletic; you are a pilot capable of great sinuous acrobatics.”
The book opens with Gill in an un-chummy dormitory in a rehab centre. There’s little to envy. But we travel back in time as he pumps his own stomach, recovering stories from the nest of recovery. We hear of his crippling dyslexia, his love of art without any discernible skills for it, the first rush of love, the marriages that lose their footing like the man himself—“I lay on the cold, wet pavement. I remember it really clearly, the feeling of my cheek on the sodden stone, cold as the mortuary slab”.
All of us drinkers are tethered, almost umbilically, to our own drinking tales. Of the lunches that poured into the afternoons and evenings. Of the nights we didn’t make home. Of the smears of burger sauce on a lapel. Of staring vacantly into the mirror in the work loos. But the things that happen to us when inebriated only really interest ourselves. Party monsters like the tune of their own narration.
But Pour Me doesn’t drone on about how hungover it is, or how many drinks it had last night, or how someone you don’t know is a “fucking ledge”. This memoir serves as a retrieval of Gill’s lost drinking hours, shining a light into the blackout drunkenness, bypassing the usual incohesive retellings of the recently sobered-up.
Few are able to wield the tonic of a good anecdote like Gill. It’s dream dinner party chatter—revealing and riveting in moreish gulps. Round after round of brutally honest revelation don’t serve to make our protagonist likeable, exactly, but that’s part of the cat and mouse game we play as writer and reader. I came away from the book wondering if we’d ever get on.
One assumes that these candid expressions of self were a more recent development, a by-product of looking back, his awkwardness whittled down to a splinter, with enough therapy and dorm-living and sober contemplation. But Gill’s lyrical phraseology curls round his accounts of drunken abandon, as he notices what and where and when he drank.
He says in the book that he’s not a funny writer and there’s a truth to this. His reality is absurd, to justify or rationalise an animal penchant for alcohol is itself bizarre. But within this futility is the startlingly comic, served matter-of-factly over ice by the writer with a slice of acerbic wit. It’s the elevated and thoughtful type of humour to which I personally aspire. (If I’m not making jealous notes every other page, what’s the point of any book?).
Somehow, despite the objective bleakness that couples the brutal truth of alcoholism, his drinking never feels like a warning. He drinks right up to the boundary of appropriateness, crashing through it and shattering himself in the process. He doesn’t give up, so much as give into sobriety—"When you stop drinking and taking drugs people say, ‘Well done.’ ‘Congratulations.’ ‘What inner strength.’ ‘What grit.’ ‘What willpower.’ Well, the truth is exactly the opposite.”