The Outrun, Amy Liptrot
Recommended by Juliet Fraser. Juliet and I knew each other at Cambridge, but not well, despite both being musicians. EXAUDI was Juliet’s brainwave though, and having been lucky enough to have been part of their adventure for most of their first 15 years, Juliet and I spent a lot of time together over those years, at irregular intervals, but often with good chunks of time to sit and talk about anything from travel to red wine, moral and political issues to a good natter about music or a good book. I knew I’d get a good recommendation from Juliet after the last book she lent me (Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places – also very worth reading).
I was not disappointed with The Outrun. This is a fierce, heart-rending memoir from a 30 year old, telling the story of her upbringing on Orkney with issues coming from her father’s mental illness, her graduate reaction against this by moving to London, her descent into alcoholic addiction, her rehab and her move back to Orkney.
The majority of the chapters deal with Liptrot’s return to Orkney and the subsequent year, but interwoven into her stunning descriptions of scenery, friends and family, wildlife, local traditions and folk stories are parallels and contrasts she draws with her life in London or her fight against the desperate desire to have a drink. I’ve been to the Orkneys twice; once on holiday and once working, and her prose conjures memories aplenty of the fragile archipelago, pounded by waves and scoured by wind yet stunningly beautiful and a definite must-visit location.
Furthermore, having spent such a large proportion of my childhood on a similarly remote island in Scotland – Raasay, where we started going on holiday when I was 5 and bought a house when I was 12 – I can entirely identify with Liptrot’s rebellion against life on the islands. I was lucky – we went there for holidays and it was utterly brilliant, but we always went back to our other home (or boarding school!) for term times. I saw plenty of the local children disappear off the island as soon as they reached school leaving age, some only to return for family occasions, others to return for work after a few years of experiences elsewhere. It is easy to cast the die of greener grass on the other side, with the city folk yearning for the countryside and vice versa, but there is something particular about island life, with the additional restrictions of weather-dependent ferries, shops that might run out of basic necessities, and the fact that EVERYONE knows EVERYTHING!
I was deeply affected by Liptrot’s description of her descent into alcoholism. With the ever-increasing awareness of mental health issues, and I’m particularly pleased at how often we discuss this sort of thing as a staff at school, one would hope that the impact of parental mental health problems on children will continue to be increasingly more recognised, as one cannot help but wonder as to the extent to which Liptrot’s addiction was a result of her harrowing experiences seeing her father struggle with mania through her childhood. She reaches the same conclusion herself, wondering if her drinking was an attempt to recreate the manic episodes she witnessed. She describes these issues, both her father’s and her own with an almost matter-of-fact manner, not over-sensationalising things but instead illuminating the facts with sharply observed details.
I found myself increasingly worried throughout the book that our leader would relapse. A couple of chapters from the end she describes finding a washed up bottle of vodka on the shore
“with a couple of shot’s worth left inside. I open it and take a deep smell. The hollow tang of teenage parties, plastic cups in dark discos and finishing the bottle down an alleyway. An impulse pulling at something deep within me, something strong, tells me to swig it down, all mixed with seawater and sailor spit… … it seems so perfect, this mouthful of oblivion sent from the sea.”
At the best part of two years sober by this stage, I found myself terrified to read the next sentence, and then incredibly grateful that:
“But everything I’ve found in the past year is pulling me more strongly: the clear eyes and shooting stars, the fresh mornings when sleep has made me feel better rather than worse. The strength I feel when I end a day without having inebriated myself is true freedom. I screw the cap back on, throw the bottle down and laugh loudly and wildly out into the waves. Is this all you’ve got, North Sea? I can take it. I can take anything you throw at me.”
This is not an evangelical tome on the benefits of sobriety. Instead it is a paean to the healing power of nature. Liptrot works on her family farm, does a summer night shift for the RSPB counting corncrakes, a hands and knees survey of Primula Scotica (a task I can particularly empathise with having been out recording with my Dad!), takes up sea swimming (in the Orkneys – highest average sea temperature a chilly 13C!), learns to snorkel, walks in increasingly minute detail around the coastline of the island on which she overwinters and goes on pilgrimages to other even more remote islands and holms. If only everyone took the opportunity to explore our rich natural heritage in such detail rather than losing themselves on the internet…