Book Review: 'Jolly Lad' by John Doran

At times, this book feels more like an film than anything else: at vital moments, the prose is so vivid as to be cinematic. Witness, for example, Doran's account of his first beer, a delight at odds with the attendant ruin it would bring to his health...

Upon finishing "Jolly Lad", a lyrical, endlessly compelling memoir by the music journalist John Doran, you will probably wonder how he is still alive. You will not be alone. The co-editor and co-founder of acclaimed music website The Quietus apparently has organs that could endure a nuclear firestorm. Born and raised in Rainhill, the Northern town that he fled as soon as the opportunity arose, Doran describes in brutally bleak detail the chemical warfare that he waged against himself with alcohol and other drugs. That he is still here, and now a proud and attentive father, is something of a marvel. His book is remarkable in its own right. It is the ruthlessly honest tale of his dependency upon drink that began in his teens and ended only a couple of years before the arrival of his son. If there is an immediate clue as to how Doran survived this self-inflicted onslaught, then it perhaps lies in his scathing wit, which presumably turned Death timid whenever it plucked up the guts to approach him. (That, and the fact that for the most part, he really enjoyed himself.)

At times, this book feels more like an film than anything else: at vital moments, the prose is so vivid as to be cinematic. Witness, for example, Doran's account of his first beer, a delight at odds with the attendant ruin it would bring to his health:

"During the first demonstrative swig, things in exterior life seemed to become time-stretched and then broke away from me in ragged chunks. The light from the window was ripping my throat open, letting the sun's rays slide into my mouth and then, gradually spilling warmth into my belly. I always knew that there was something missing inside of me. A hole the size of a grapefruit or a clenched fist in the middle of my chest where I felt my soul or something important like that should be. In church my priest, the one who looked like Bob Monkhouse, talked about how the Spirit Of Our Lord would fill our bodies - would we only open our hearts to his love. But I couldn't feel it. I couldn't sense his presence in the room and my heart was standing open and completely empty. I had ached for this sensation for so long with no joy and now Compass lager had given it to me."

Doran tells his story in spectacularly unsentimental fashion, so much so that it is possible to miss just how traumatic it must have been to end up almost blinded by an unprovoked attack in his teens. A few years after that assault, from which the perpetrators fled unidentified, he dropped out of Hull University, by which time his copious ingestion of substances was already well underway. It is telling that, so lacking in self-pity is Doran's account, the only sustained look at his wider family circumstances comes very late in the book, almost at its close. There, he discusses how his father and his grandfather had long been stalked by a relentless nihilism, a character trait which perhaps foreshadowed his own depression.

Depression, though, was something that he seems to have keep at bay for substantial periods of his life, hidden from view by the merciful mist of alcohol. This mist brought him some of the times of his life, and saw him sway - often serenely - through a never-ending array festival fields and water-holes. By his own estimation, he spent over two decades in a pretty much continuous state of inebriation, and by the end of it was unsure who he truly was. In his own words, "twenty-three years of ecstasy, cannabis, amphetamine, cocaine, LSD, mushroom, plant food, ketamine, crack, grass, alcohol and MDMA misuse plus several severe beatings have seriously affected the way I remember very recent events." Along the way, Doran delivers several superb riffs and asides, notably a brilliant critique of coke ("The trouble with cocaine is it gets you ready for the party but doesn't take you there"), and an insight into the power of ambiguous songwriting. "I'd always cursed musicians for refusing to discuss the concrete meanings to their lyrics", he writes, "but...I learned that this reticence was a benefit... that songs were hardly ever written for critics, and were nearly always written for listeners and that a song could lose its power as a tool for the listener when the author's intents were spelled out for them."

Despite Doran's litany of lost years and lost loves, you may find yourself rooting for him, primarily due to his doggedness - whether he rises or falls to ruin, you sense he will always do it on his own terms. His greatest gift, beyond even his technique as a writer, is ultimately his power of observation. As he eventually finds his way as a music journalist, having grown up celebrating (early) U2 and far-from-mainstream metal bands alike, he provides as thorough a deconstruction of the modern man as you are likely to read:

"As a society we have always told men that they can have whatever they want and that they can be whatever they want as long as they try hard. It feels like men are told this every single day of their lives by their parents and the media and most producers of culture until the day they graduate from university... and then, blinking in incomprehension, they end up working in Foxtons in a £110 suit while marinating in cheap lager and hatred, going home each night to frozen meals, and ultra-violent first-person shooters on the Xbox, wondering exactly whose fault it is that they haven't ended up as Ryan Gosling or the guy who invented Facebook."

If Doran's life could be expressed as an LP, then it would be as far from a sterile pop record as you could imagine. Instead, it would be a complex and beguiling listen, without catchy choruses, stubbornly daring you to stay with it. Those who have walked - and survived - a similar road to him will very possibly respect his gutsiness and his pragmatism, his refusal to see family life as a happy ending. Despite Doran's best efforts, though, there is still an element of redemption in there somewhere. As The Quietus gains the respect of its peers and becomes more commercially viable by the year, you have a sense of wonder that he has come out the other side: whether in success or failure, Doran remains resolutely self-made. This is a stirring, moving tale, carved out of a cruelly formless world. As the author himself writes, "It's up to us to shape stories out of the chaos. I have to impose a narrative, to make some kind of sense out of it. We have to end up in the deep perfection of the low dark. Still and at peace - that is a good place to end the story." As a far more religious soul might say, Amen to that.

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