Review: Truant: Notes from the Slippery Slope
In this previous memoir, Running for the Hills, Horatio Clare told of his childhood spent on a Welsh hill farm, and Truant – first published in 2008 – continues his life story, moving on through his latter schooldays, university time and peripatetic life thereafter, with alternating periods of employment and bumming around. What marks out Truant for special interest here is that it is styled as a drug memoir, a tale of the Blakeian ‘road to excess’, involving wide-ranging substance abuse and attendant behavioural and mental problems, and ending in the redemptive ‘palace of wisdom’, with Clare having learnt from the errors of such profligacy.
Truant is indeed well written, capturing the mood of grunge-era, live-for-the-moment fecklessness that echoes the romantic, beat and hippy lifestyles. It contains effective thumbnail sketches of the effects of drugs, depression, mania and that uniquely liberated tramp’s eye perspective of the world, when there’s nothing left to lose. As the story progresses, it becomes more an account of Clare’s failure to turn things around as he continues the pattern of linked drug use and getting into trouble, involving brushes with the law and the burning of bridges in jobs and relationships, perpetuating even as he gets older and past the usual window for this kind of ‘truant’ behaviour.
The way the story is presented invites the reader to ‘psychoanalyse’ Clare and decode the nature of his complex problems. Clearly the classic ‘dysfunctional family’ factor plays its part, with Clare’s aberrant behaviour seeming to a degree a rebellion against his father, who left the family and pursued another relationship, and who appears sporadically as a kind of cipher of a father, saying and doing the right things but lacking any real empathy and emotional depth in his relations with his son.
Then there is Clare’s inherent oddity as a character, his seeming compulsion to go against the grain of all that is sanguine and his sometimes crazy high-jinks counterpointed by debilitating lows. Of course these are the symptoms of manic-depression or bipolar disorder, and though Clare has periods of relative normality, either mania or depression crop up periodically to destroy whatever he’s built up in the interim.
And then there’s the drugs, of which he samples pretty much the entire range available to the ’90s user, with the exception of crack. He recounts some vivid and disturbing imagery from LSD trips, mentions heroin in passing and dabbles in ecstasy, though he has little to say about this, the big drug of that particular decade. Instead it is cannabis that dominates his narcotic life – the ubiquitous ‘soft drug’, proponents of which have striven for so long to present as innocuous, only to have their efforts thwarted by the more recent spectre of ‘cannabis psychosis’, with evidence of psychological harm resulting from its use and attendant media demonisation reminiscent of the ’40s ‘reefer madness’ campaign.
It is to this issue that Truant addresses itself, and it becomes progressively clearer that the book is fashioned as an anti-cannabis tract. Clare talks of his ‘cannabis addiction’ and his fatal attraction to the drug, and whilst it hardly seems the root cause of his troubles, it certainly is an exacerbating factor. His earlier accounts of dabblings are light-hearted and typical of those of the average user, but as his bipolar disorder consolidates and he graduates onto the more potent skunk variety, all becomes darker. In an ironic twist, his skunk use fosters a ’50s-style paranoia of the psychiatric profession and also of pharmaceutical drugs, both of which might have helped him. But he eschews all forms of help, even basic counselling, and soldiers on until existential and spiritual panic bring him to his senses.
As a memoir Truant is honest, unsparing and sometimes harrowing in its revelations, but then the writing itself, in the confessional tradition, has had an evident cathartic function for Clare, and one ends up wishing him well and hoping he can continue to resist temptation and stay away from all that reefer madness.