How’s this for a start in life?
Under whirring helicopter blades, a young woman holds her newborn baby as she is pushed in a wheelchair along the runway of the island airport to meet a man in a strait-jacket being pushed in a wheelchair from the other direction.
That was the first day of Amy Liptrot’s life. Her mother had just given birth in a small hospital, her father, having had another severe episode of mania, has been sectioned under the Mental Health Act and is being taken to a secure unit in Aberdeen. Orkney is the island where they live. Liptrot continues,
My Mum introduces the man – my Dad – to his tiny daughter and briefly places me in his lap before he is taken into the aircraft and flown away. What she says to him is covered by the sound of the engine or carried off by the wind.
But Amy Liptrot’s story is not one of a childhood lived under the shadow of mental illness or abuse. ‘Mum’ sticks around until the children are grown up and then becomes a born- again Christian and leaves the farm. ‘Dad’ has his ups and downs, sometimes going on wild spending sprees, at others lying motionless in bed for days, but Amy and her brother Tom seem to live remarkably free and unfettered lives. They deliver lambs, dispose of dead sheep, climb over rocky cliffs, go to school and party.
By the time she is eighteen she really likes to party and she can’t wait to get off Orkney. She heads to Edinburgh for University but she wants to be in London, at the centre of things. She has tried booze and some of the milder forms of dope at school on Orkney but she wants the big time. To be in London, to be cool, to be edgy. She often uses the word ‘edge’. That’s how she wants to see herself, a risk-taker who lives on the edge. But perhaps she forgets that on Orkney and the remote islands that surround it, unwanted objects like dead sheep and broken cars get thrown over the edge into the sea far below. The edge is also the limit and if one falls everything is lost.
At first she is working for magazines, and hanging out with the cool crowd, partying all night, drinking, taking handfuls of pills. Her drinking increases but she has not quite lost control when she meets her American boyfriend. But she knew she would one day:
…there were gaps when I wasn’t there. I’d drink until my eyes went dead.
And soon it gets so she sneaks out at night on her bike while he is sleeping, looking for the all-night suppliers of booze. She is drunk every day, always crying, a disaster. One night when she is out riding on the towpath at dawn her bike crashes into the canal.
Pushing my bike out with one shoe on, I came home to him bleeding and crying. It wouldn’t be long until he couldn’t take it any more.
By the time she has spent ten years in London her life is right out of control. She has lost friends, has no job, no money, nowhere to live. And she has started having seizures, which indicate the beginning of alcohol-related brain damage. Eventually she submits herself to a government-funded four month live-out rehab program. She wants to be free of her destructive addiction, but finds it hard to accept the faith-based nature of AA. She survives the course, one of only two successful graduates from her group. Now she has nowhere to go but back to Orkney.
This book, which has just won the 2016 Wainright prize for nature writing is largely about her time in Orkney on her father’s farm, the largest field of which, The Outrun, gives its name to this book. It is also about Liptrot’s struggle to lose the desire, always gnawing at her, to have a drink, just one drink, and to find other things in life with which to replace it. The account of her growing interest in winds, tides, clouds, birds and galaxies is fascinating. She spends a winter on a small island off Orkney called Papay and sees extraordinary sights. In her first few weeks there she sees the aurora called the Merry Dancers:
Tonight the whole sky is alive with shapes: white ‘searchlights’ beaming from behind the horizon, dancing waves directly above and slowly, thrillingly, blood red blooms. It’s brighter than a full moon and the birds, curlews and geese, are noisier than they usually are at this time of night, awakened by a false dawn.
By the end of her story Liptrot has been sober for two years. She has found swimming in the ice cold sea gives her a thrill like nothing else, and is gradually working on some of the remaining goals of AA in her own way. But it is the natural world that has saved her.
Liptrot now lives between Berlin and London. I look forward to reading more from her soon. You can find out more about her work on her tumblr site amyliptrot.tumblr.com