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Book review: Pour Me A Life

Pour Me A Life, AA Gill.

(review written at uni in 2018)

We often forget big chunks of our lives until something dredges the subconscious back up like a buoy resurfacing after a storm, but imagine forgetting entire months of your life and waking up with no idea as to your actions for the last week. Adrian Anthony Gill is an acclaimed writer and critic, most notable for food, travel and controversy. His book Pour Me: A Life is a memoir to his turbulent existence. 

“to call it a memoir is to imply memory”

Pour me a life, AA Gill

What is so absorbing about Gill’s memoir is the vast cavities of lost and distorted memories he delves into. With black-outs common in his early years, Gill has had to fill in those blanks, weaving a story that even he admits has ‘no reliable chronology’. His early memories like a game of Chinese whispers he played with only himself and the erratic addicts he socialised with, ‘to call it a memoir is to imply memory’ Gill admits and explains that addicts slowly forget more than they remember. Memories discarded like empty bottles and lost forever.

In his early years Gill found himself seeing life through the glassy blur of empty bottles. All the while he drained them of their spirits, they drained him of his. His only solace came briefly when the next drink passed his lips. He explains that ‘the actor is a sober man pretending to be drunk, a drunk man is an inebriated man desperately trying to look sober,’ and there is heroism in the attempt, the act is a fight filled with determination and perseverance. 

The reader is given an incredible peek into the world of addiction, the indiscernible memories that slowly become an addict’s concrete. How the contents of his pockets gave more of an idea to the previous night’s actions than his own brain did. From a decade he can only decipher around two to three years’ worth of memories, none consecutive or related. Like pictures in an old film reel, they flash up but give no fathomable storyline. Gill retells one of his most painful memories of waking up, head on the table next to a knife and surrounded by blood with no memory as to the previous night. Thinking of the worst scenario, he looks around with severe trepidation, only to find two finessed Grouse dinners sitting amongst their strewn feathery remains.  He had worked like a professional chef but as a puppet whose strings were in the unconscious hands of alcohol. 

As Gill finds himself in ‘the last-chance saloon’ given only months to live if he carries on drinking, he begins his painstaking journey to sobriety. With disastrous marriages, troubled home life and a long list of failed jobs and careers under his belt, he finds his saviour most surprisingly in words. A stark contrast to what he always assumed his true vocation: alcoholism. But, like his alcoholic-self waking in the morning, he is again crushed by reality. He has severe dyslexia and dyscalculia making any future in writing ever-more difficult. He discusses being dim at school, ‘tongue-tied and word-curdled’, although later finds out he has a remarkable IQ for someone of such little academic achievement. An anger had risen out of repeatedly being spoken over, taunted and made to feel inept and that anger manifested itself into wonder. The understanding that language is ‘the one truly, wholly democratic free and limitless thing we all own, it is yours.’ And it is this understanding that drove his professional career, his memorable life that followed the black-outs, his ‘few, but worthy, triumphs’. 

However, this book is no more self-pity than it is entirely accurate and truthful, ‘self-pity; so universally derided it should feel sorry for itself’. He acknowledges his flaws and picks apart his success. Gill argues the belief that ‘addicts are weak people and their real failing, their real moral delinquency, is self-pity.’ He explains ‘in truth, it’s usually quite the reverse’ nothing parallels the torment and criticism they hurl at themselves. Gill retells his sparse memories with the criticism and brutality of a drunk. He holds no time for pity or regret, instead he pulls apart his life bit by bit, in the way he did to others during his time as a critic. Who better to financially gain from criticising than a man who tore his own life apart at the seams and then pieced it back together with an eye of scrutiny over his every action. 

Gill ends by explaining ‘I misused a life for 30 years and I had 30 more of a second chance that I used better.’ He found solace in religion as he grew older, but words remained his primary salvation. His awe for the English language and for the literary word is clear, ‘it is a thing of not just unparalleled power and accuracy but of peerless beauty and elegance’ and his own use of language is just that. If you appreciate the poise of words, then Gill’s book should be next on your list. Pour Me: A Life is a brilliant document that tracks Gill’s voyage from inebriated to sober, but sadly, following his untimely passing it is also now a tribute to the flawed man he knew himself to be. 

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