Monday, 22 March 2010

What Did I Do Last Night by Tom Sykes

What Did I Do Last Night is Tom Sykes’ history of his drinking problem, starting 5,214 days before he gets sober aged thirty, the title a reference to his propensity for blackouts, or as he once puts it in the book: I’m told it was a night to remember.

A successful columnist first in London, then in New York, Sykes started on the sauce at Eton, drinking in the college bar, a cross between a tuck shop and a gin mill, and nicking wine from the housemaster’s cellar using a Heath Robinson combination of a pole, a piece of string and an umbrella. After being booted out of Eton, he goes on to a sixth form college, smoking weed and drinking even more, until eventually he ends up at Edinburgh University, chosen because the pubs opened for longer.

Edinburgh was just like me – it was either getting drunk or in the throes of a ruinous hangover.

In retrospect, it’s here that things start to go dangerously awry:

When I went to Edinburgh I was a social drinker – a heavy one, given to frequent binges, but definitely a social drinker. I could go a few days without alcohol, and when I wanted to stop I would go home to bed. But somehow, by the time I left, I had lost control. I would wake up in the mornings suffering memory loss, wondering what I had done the night before, nervous about finding out the answer, ashamed. Somewhere during those four years of indulgence I stepped off the ledge and into the deep water. I spent a lot of time later in my life trying to work out just where that point was.

Leaving university, he ends up on the Evening Standard, ideal as it was a drinkers’ newspaper, and it was largely staffed by drunks. When he leaves there in a hurry he ends up at GQ, filing highly unpredictably copy and again, drinking, smoking and snorting coke like there was no tomorrow. Inevitably, it all goes down the gurgler and he quits before he is sacked, getting a job in New York:

In most New York stories the hero arrives in Manhattan with a suitcase and a dream. I pitched up with a suitcase and a hangover.

His job on the New York Post gives him access to bars and clubs and oceans of free drink. Then he starts a bar column for the paper:

If I thought I had the greatest job in the world before, now I really did. I was the bar columnist for the New York Post. My drinking problem was no longer a liability. It was a qualification, a vocation, a career.

Two or so years of drinking continuously and ingesting prodigious amounts of toot, not to mention all the marijuana he’s smoking, finally take their toll. Sykes is convinced that the moment he realised things had finally got out of control was when he smashed up a games console in his favourite bar, pretending to be Ozzy Osbourne. My theory is that the balloon went up a few weeks before. At forty days to go until sobriety, Sykes pays a visit to the cash machine, only to be told that there are insufficient funds:

I felt sick, which was all I seemed to be feeling these days. £40,000, vapourised in two years. Where had it gone? I had drunk it, I had smoked it, I had sniffed it. I had spent my inheritance on drugs, taxis and tips. I felt blanketed in shame and stupidity.

Having laid waste to his inheritance, his days were probably numbered anyway as he couldn’t even afford the rent on the flat he shared with his wife Sasha, let alone keep up the drinking and drug taking. The incident with Pac Man in the pub leads him to the inevitable conclusion and he finds himself at an AA meeting. Apart from one relapse four days in when he finished off a half-smoked joint he found in his ashtray, Sykes has been sober since.

He expends far fewer pages on his recovery than on his revelry and I wondered a couple of times if he was ever going to give an indication if he felt he’d learnt anything from his experiences. He does however give an interesting insight into what he reckons makes an alcoholic - I'll let him have the last word:

I always remember when I thought that was what an alcoholic was – someone who had to have a drink in the morning. Over the past year, I’ve heard a better definition; that an alcoholic is someone who, once they have one drink, develops an overpowering craving for another. Now I see that is what always separated me from Sasha. She could stop.

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