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The Ugly-Pretty Lad: A review of Jolly Lad by John Doran

By C.D. Rose.

Jolly Lad by John Doran

Jolly Lad by John Doran (Strange Attractor, 2015)

So I go to see John Doran presenting his book Jolly Lad at my local independent bookshop (the excellent Book Hive in Norwich) to find the usual half-dozen slightly lost looking people clutching their glasses of white wine. But instead of a polite pile of books and a nervous writer waiting to sign them, the far end of the small events space is instead occupied by an immense Marshall amp, Moog bass pedals and a voice synthesizer.

We’re not in for a typical reading.

Half an hour later, Doran – a music journalist and editor of fine music and culture website The Quietus – ambles in and mumbles his way through a disarmingly polite and friendly greeting: “This being a bookshop,” he says, “I can do the intellectual stuff, and not just the drug stories.” Doran’s accomplice on this tour, Kjetil Nernes of Norwegian “noise-rock, sludge metal, post punk” band Årabrot, puts on a hat. The act of putting on a hat may not seem much but the intensity of the gesture, and that hat, leaves me somewhat afraid.

Nernes sets up a low grumble, enough to make the floor of the bookshop vibrate, and Doran begins to speak: “Augury of bones…” he begins, his voice made cavernous by the synthesizer, and for a moment I wonder if I shouldn’t be in an equally cavernous basement club – sweat dripping from the walls, brain-mashing strobe lighting – rather than being surrounded by handsome small-run editions from independent presses. But as Doran’s tale (a mash-up of the Shipping Forecast, a Lovecraft story and a keen-eyed observation of the minutiae and detritus of any UK crap town) continues and Nernes’ drone intensifies, together they carve out another space, the one inhabited by Jolly Lad.

Jolly Lad is a series of sixteen autobiographical essays, beginning with Doran’s meandering account of drinking his first beer in 1984 (via the history of Catholicism in the Merseyside town of Rainhill, and its attendant Victorian insane asylum) running through to March 1985, several months after his last beer. Beer, and indeed any other kind of ethyl alcohol, as well as drugs chemical, herbal and otherwise, do indeed make up much of the book.

To be clear: this is an addiction memoir.

The addiction memoir genre isn’t one filled with greatness. It is perhaps because both addiction and memoir share the concomitant perils of self-mythologising, artful fashioning, self-deception and outright lying that has led to the existence of a dozen A Million Little Pieces for each Junky or Basketball Diaries. Autobiographers lie to themselves as much as to their reader, the attempt to give some shape – and thereby meaning – to the random facts and events of a life being an irresistible temptation (indeed, probably the very reason for writing a memoir or autobiography.)

Jolly Lad is an addiction memoir, but one which deconstructs the macho bullshit, the self-pity and the outright lying that surrounds the literature of addiction. There are no platitudes here, no lost years, and although there is a struggle to be clean, Doran makes it clear that he enjoyed much of what he did. From kitchen-jousting tournaments as a student (obligatory saucepans on heads) to remembering his first E at a DJ Shadow gig (“Weird details… rising out of the music. Aeroplane noises, baby glossolalia… ecstatic moans and groans… a literal immersion, a communion… Perfect moments captured in amber, time-stretched ‘til they broke apart into honey-coloured fragments”), a surprising number of his adventures are, though often borderline terrifying, highly amusing. The pay off comes as Doran balances each anecdote with a Gothically-detailed description of its subsequent hangover or comedown (being led into a spider-filled Hell by 70s TV presenter Larry Grayson a particularly disturbing one).

The risk inherent in these essays is that they become glorified tales from the pub, those of the rheumy-eyed, red-faced bloke who leans over conspiratorially and begins, “Let me tell you about the time…” But the danger of Doran’s becoming the chemical generation’s version of The Fast Show’s Rowley Birkin QC is averted not only by his wit but also by the thoughtfulness and depth of reflection. After misguidedly spending an inevitably drunken evening in a tacky nightclub in Hull in the early 90s, Doran and his fellow drinker are so enraged by the DJ’s choice of the charity version of ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ (released to raise money for the victims of a recent ferry accident, but largely a publicity stunt by The Sun newspaper) they decide to accost him, screaming “Turn this off you fucking cunt!” only to find themselves in turn accosted by the male clientele, and in for another kicking. Instead of anger, Doran merely notes: “these lads were merely cracked mirrors reflecting the astonishing moral abyss at the core of that human abscess, Kelvin MacKenzie [then editor of The Sun]. They were conduits for a hatred that they barely understood or registered,” before going on to remember: “There was so much violence when I was young… bloodshed between lads who were all utterly identical bar from which town they came from or which football team they supported or which band they followed or what haircut they had. You either learned to bang your head against a brick wall or to pummel your fists into your neighbour’s face… Imagine the power if they’d stood together.”

There is no blame here. Doran hints at a genetic lineage and a poor but relatively untroubled upbringing while giving utmost respect to his parents. A severe beating at the age of 14 is often referred to, and certainly the starting point for much of Doran’s later path, but his addiction is there because it is. This clarity leaves Doran refreshingly free of self-pity (though the feelings of his long-suffering partners are occasionally sidelined – possibly due to a fear of dragging them into a story they don’t want to be part of) and also at liberty to write about much else other than addiction. Doran’s book is an addiction memoir, but it succeeds because it is also a story of growing up through the eighties, nineties and noughties in the UK. It’s about music while thankfully not going down a Gonzo road of Hammer of the Gods new journalistic excess (the tale of his copy of U2’s Joshua Tree will not make me ever listen to the godawful thing, but it will make me smile ruefully every time I see a copy lying in a charity shop rack, and an offhand comment in a later chapter made me discover the astonishing ‘Pipes’ by Katie Gately). It’s about dead-end jobs (the worst in a bonded warehouse near Welwyn Garden City, surrounded by “shaven-headed bruisers… chanting… ’Southern jobs for Southern lads not Northern cunts’”). It’s about depression (“I felt like a b-side to a Tindersticks 7” played at 33rpm. I felt like the typeface on the lyric sheet of an unloved, late 90s Morrissey album,” he rues, and later – more incisively although perhaps less humorously – describes himself as “a misery-seeking missile,” intent on making the worst of any good situation).

Each chapter takes a focal point and becomes an essay on something as small as the eccentric/genius/nutcase continuum, holidaying in the UK, Nazi baked beans or whether Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie is a complete bell end or not, to something as big as impending fatherhood or the value of Alcoholics Anonymous, while always circling around the question of addiction. The book as a whole tells the story of Doran’s life (though he insists it’s a memoir not an autobiography, as “memoir is an autobiography by someone who isn’t famous”) through shifts of time and perspective: we’re always well in the now, Doran as reformed father, but viscerally present as he describes his misadventures. He smoothly moves between a mix of registers, going from socio-comical to philosophical to surreally grim and back again, all within a few pages, his writing always fluent with a knack for an arresting image (on a certain UK pub chain’s merlot: “It speaks of that old school, can-do British grit and determination: ‘Well, I’ve got some grapes, a spare dust bin and two feet – just how bally hard can this wine making caper be?’”) which should be unsurprising for someone who has worked as a journalist for twenty years, and also bears credit to the book’s editor Natasha Soobramanien.

Jolly Lad (I’d thought the title a play on the French jolie laide – the ‘ugly-pretty girl,’ the person whose physical quirk, a lazy eye, wonky nose or gap-tooth, becomes what makes them attractive, but this is nowhere referred to in the book – ‘Jolly Lad’ instead being a nickname given to him by Soobramanien) is a handsome thing (losing points only due to its lack of index and contents page), bearing a great cover by Simon Fowler (even managing to rehabilitate the over-used ‘shatter’ font), the hardcover coming with a CD featuring Doran reading passages from the book accompanied by several of his musical fellow travellers. It’s not an easy listen, but perfectly matches some of the book’s queasier, hallucinatory passages.

The book ends with a modest afterword, casually denying the possibility of closure but realising there are whole weeks free from “depression, anxiety or rage,” and looking forward to eating ice cream in the park. It is the most moving thing in the whole fucked-up, horrible, brilliant, hilarious tale. Jolly Lad leaves us, tagging onto life as best we can.


C.D. Rose

C.D. Rose is the editor of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (Melville House), a book described as being comparable to Borges by The Washington Post, and as comparable to Grumpy Cat’s Grumpy Guide to Life by The Guardian.  He is also the author of a trail of short stories (including ‘Arkady Who Couldn’t See And Artem Who Couldn’t Hear,’ forthcoming from Galley Beggar Press).  He is at home anywhere there are good second-hand bookshops, dusty libraries and dark bars.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 6th, 2015.