Saturday, April 25, 2015

Last Drink to LA - John Sutherland

As a general fan of Sutherland's books I felt some trepidation about reading this one about his experiences and thoughts on being an alcoholic. I've never liked to know to much about writers I admire just in case they turn out to be total arses off the page.

On the other hand I am interested in alcoholism. Or at least I'm very interested in our relationship with alcohol as a society, including alcoholism, because I make my living selling the stuff. Early on Sutherland talks about the modest estimate that 10% of the population are problem drinkers. One in ten bears thinking about for a moment. Statistically it's likely that you will have a problem drinker in your reasonably immediate family, amongst your friends, work colleagues, that one of your exes was a drunk, and so on. I can tick all those boxes from the habitually (and irritatingly) drunk at any occasion uncle down. It's not encouraging.

The back blurb seems better at describing what this book isn't than what it is. It isn't a temperance tale, or a drunkalog, though in it's way I think it might serve as both. Rather it is a meditation (moving, and thought provoking) on thinking about drinking and the devastating effects it can have - which turns out to be as good a description as any - and is absolutely worth reading.

Sutherland does describe his moment of clarity (as something of a wine snob I fear I was more shocked by his choice of drink for a final binge than the event that actually made him decide it might be time to stop) and it's a cracking story but perhaps because it felt like just that - a story, it was the least interesting part of the book for me. The reader would feel short changed without it; I won't deny I was curious to know what the tipping point was, but what will stick with me, what I find more disturbing, is the discussion of how dull sobriety can be for the problem drinker. It makes more sense of why it's so hard to give up something that will kill, along with causing humiliation and distress to the drinker and anyone close to them, and I guess it's the difference between that 10% and the other 90.

I needn't have worried about reading this, as with everything else I've read by Sutherland it was as thought provoking as the jacket promised, amusing too in places, as well as occasionally shocking but in this case particularly it's the thought provoking bits that matter.

We glamourise alcohol and heavy drinking, tolerate the cost it has on society, accept drunkeness as an excuse for otherwise unforgivable transgressions, and we really need to think about why we do that.


  1. I'm also not sure how much I want to know about writers whose words I enjoy, but the interconnection between alcoholism and creativity, for instance, is in its own (terrible) way quite fascinating.

    1. the nature of addiction is interesting, why are some people so much more susceptible than others? Depressing too.

  2. This is an interesting review and I agree - we do need to think about how we consider drunkenness.

    I have recently been quite obsessed with reading memoirs about drinking. I live in Australia and drinking to excess is accepted and almost expected but at the same time almost completely critically examined, instead considered as something that people do. But, at the same time, I also like a drink and don't want to feel guilty for having splitting a bottle of wine over dinner. I've read Drinking: A Love Story and Drink: The Intimate Relationship between Women and Alcohol. My favourite is High Sobriety. I will add this book to my list.

  3. It's all those contradictions that make it interesting including that for most f us drinking isn't a problem, but a pleasant thing to do in moderation, which after a few youthful excesses has no ill effects (I learned my lesson regarding hangovers many years since, and more than a couple of glasses makes it hard for me to sleep, but I very much enjoy a good wine so these days it's all quality rather than quantity). it was certainly a book that gave me a lot to think about in terms of what we expect and accept and quite why it should be that way.