November 25, 2017

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Country Matters on Booksquawk

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
304 pages, Canongate

Review by Pat Black

The Outrun is a patch of land on the sheep farm where Amy Liptrot grew up on the Orkney islands - a wild, wind-blasted archipelago off the north-east coast of Scotland.

When the author’s mother goes into labour and has to be airlifted to hospital, her father is carted off in the other direction to a psychiatric unit. They pass each other on the landing pad. Drama seems seeded in Amy Liptrot from day one.

The Orkney and Shetland Islands are so remote, they used to be represented in their own inset boxes on TV weather reports when I was a kid – as if they had tried to escape, and needed dragging back to mother. The Orcadian archipelago is an apostrophe to the mainland, and Orcadians feel a sense of detachment from the rest of Scotland; islanders, themselves excised from an island.

Perhaps the most famous Orcadian is the actor Robert Shaw, who lived there between the ages of seven and 12. He referred to being bullied on account of his English accent, or maybe just his plain Englishness. I’ve never been to Orkney, but it has an ends-of-the-Earth feel to it, and a strong Scandinavian influence clashes with the salt and flint of Scottish rural life. Every single photo could be a screensaver; every crashing wave wants to reach out and shake your bones.

People move there to escape. But you can imagine a teenager being desperate to go the other way, to the bright lights and big crowds. This is what Amy Liptrot does, heading – inevitably – for London and a party lifestyle, aged 20. After a full-blown descent into alcoholism, she bobs back, 10 years later, completely lost.

The Outrun is the story of Amy Liptrot’s ongoing recovery, and how she managed to transfer her love of alcohol’s brittle euphoria to a passion for the natural world.

The book clobbers you with metaphors for “the edge”. The Outrun is on the very edge of the planet, it seems, rocky and high above the sea, blasted with rain, seawater and high winds even on good days. Anything not securely fastened to earth has a good chance of leaving it when the conditions get really bad. They have to make sure the kindergarten children don’t get blown away. The sheep are, frequently. I imagine a handful of fluffy snowflakes being scattered off a cliff during the gale force winds. Liptrot makes an obvious connection with her mental state.  

She drinks. She has a talent for it. Tellingly, she reveals that when she experimented as a teenager, she was over-the-top from the very first, the one who always went from nought to noxious faster than anyone else. Her default position is “a bit much”. 

I have to confess to twinges of dislike for the author when she describes her proto-hipster lifestyle in London’s up-and-coming boroughs in her twenties. Although this charts her descent into an abject, bottom-of-the-fish-tank lifestyle, I can sense her relish for her crazy days. The language becomes flowery and a little bit pleased with itself. It reminded me of an open letter I read in a newspaper from a London scenester who was friends with Amy Winehouse, lamenting her passing. His attempts to turn the singer’s appalling tragedy into some sort of Byronic romance, both in his prose style and his recall of events, made me want to punch him in the head, more than once. I should stress, I never want to go there with Amy Liptrot, but her salad days chapters jarred.

This is unfair of me. It’s not really her fault. Perhaps it’s a little bit close to home. I recognise this impulse to turn partying into art. It isn’t. My lifestyle in my twenties seems hellish now – it probably seemed hellish at the time, in fact, but there were few other options available, and not much in the way of role models. My memories of squeezing into overcrowded nightclubs with sweat rolling down the walls are a vision from Bosch – something I can’t quite believe that I did voluntarily; that I paid to do. In my biggest highs, outside of my own head, I was an irritation at best, a menace at worst.  

Though her antics are refracted by the death of a relationship, Liptrot is honest enough to admit her behaviour was unacceptable. Her fella must have been a saint to tolerate her for as long as he did. This abandonment leads her into deeper water, ever more depressing and dangerous situations.

First of all – the dead giveaway for any out-of-control boozer – she starts losing jobs, turning up to work still drunk, having drinks on her lunch breaks, getting into high gear on the bus home, and then starting all over again the next day, escaping the shame of whatever mess she was in the night before.

She’s swimming in seas striped with shark fins. One drunken night she takes off on a bike ride through the dead city, and ends up in a canal. She goes to house parties and strips naked – about the most basic attention grab you can make, short of soiling yourself, or simply screaming. Finally, she encounters a psychopath and is seriously assaulted. This is rock-bottom, the classic point where substance abusers must decide whether to stay sunk, or start swimming. From here, she gets involved in rehab, takes the Twelve Steps, and sorts herself out.

It’s only when she arrives back in Orkney – single, sober, fragile – that the book finally takes wing. She finds a job counting rare birds for the RSPB, and gets herself the nickname of The Corncrake Widow (surely a strong contender for the book title). She drives around the island in the pitch dark, hoping to find nesting sites for the bird, one of many species which use the archipelago as a stop-off point. It’s weird, but thrilling work.

She joins the dots in the night sky, taking an interest in the constellations instead of igniting them at the bottom of a glass. She studies the landscape, considers how old the rocks are, and examines the wildlife surrounding them. And she heads into the dark sea itself, thrilling to the cold shock of wild swimming with a group of like-minded maniacs. She isolates herself in a cottage on an even more remote island, and writes – another addiction, perhaps even more deep-rooted than her drinking. She figures herself out, putting it all on paper. She reaches out to people through the internet, and begins to enjoy human company divorced from the bottle.

In the middle of this, there’s an inch-perfect examination of what it is that drives us to destroy ourselves with drink – the blessed relief, the initial rush of well-being, and deeper still, the love of mania, the craving of excitement. Liptrot likens mania to a wave, in its construction, its movement, its crowning glory, and its spectacular breakdown.

The Outrun is a natural history book, though it also serves just as well as a survival memoir. Every addict who’s lucky enough to break the chains has to play it cool, every single day of their lives, from that moment on. I can only wish them well. Liptrot is sceptical about the higher powers invoked during her time in AA – by that I mean the idea of a god – but the natural world is certainly a higher power she recognises. She does accept the things she cannot change.

But she must have realised, as the waves go to work every day on the cliffs buttressing the Outrun, that given time and effort, everything can change - and eventually does.

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