Bar Room Psychoanalysis? I'll Drink to That

By Walsh, John | The Independent (London, England), June 27, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Bar Room Psychoanalysis? I'll Drink to That


Walsh, John, The Independent (London, England)


Look in the Index of John Clay's fine new biography of RD Laing, the Sixties' favourite psychoanalyst, and you'll discover something oddly appropriate: under the subject headings about his life and interests, the entries on "analytic technique" are outnumbered by those for "drinking".

For those of us around at the time, his wilder texts were mind-stretching little literary trips, from the weird and frightening The Bird of Paradise to the coiled syllogisms of Knots. But when one thinks of him today, it's of a man drenched in alcohol.

My God, Laing could put the stuff away. He used to hang out at the Colony Room in Soho, where Francis Bacon and his mulberried cronies could be found calling for brandies at four in the afternoon. He could floor a bottle of vodka and a tab of acid in five minutes flat. Once he took his 19-year-old son Adrian to the theatre to see Jesus Christ Superstar and took the precaution of ordering drinks for the interval: Pernod, Scotch, Bloody Marys, in bewildering array . . . .

The only time I met him, at a party in Islington, he was just back from Dublin, where he'd made a scandalous appearance on the Republic's popular Friday-night TV chat-in, The Late Late Show. As the talk progressed, Laing's posture became more slumped, his speech more thickened and his eyes more alarmingly strabismoid until Gay Byrne, the slightly prissy host, enquired, "Professor Laing, why did you think it necessary to become intoxicated before appearing on my show?" The audience began loudly to take sides: some demanded to know whether the prof would lecture to his students in such a state; others countered by enquiring why, for Jaysus' sake, a feller shouldn't have a few drinks on a Friday night . . . .

Back in London N1, he seemed unabashed. "I may have had a coupla small ones," he told me. "But I thought it was going to be, like, a little chat by the living-room fire, rather than some . . . interrogation." So he hadn't been sloshed? "Christ, nooo. . . ." At which point Laing seized a bottle of Burgundy and directed it at his half-filled wine glass. Don't, I said - that's red wine going into white wine." "'Sno' white wine," he said, "'Swhisky." Perhaps I looked startled at this revolting cocktail, for he explained. "All goes down the same way, doesnay?" Five minutes later, rather than being comatose on the floor, he was playing Meade Lux Lewis's Honky Tonk Train Blues, note-perfect, on Jay Landesman's upright piano. A role model for us all, I feel.

As anyone on the international academic circuit will tell you, the last word in intellectual rigour and literary-critical reclame is the New York Review of Books. In its pages every week, the world's most punishingly knowledgeable transatlantic thinkers and cultural assessors slug it out: Denis Donoghue, AS Byatt, James Fenton, Cynthia Ozick, George Steiner, Christopher Hitchens, Little Boy, JM Coetzee, Simon Sch. . . What? You're wondering who Little Boy is? Well actually I think we're all wondering after this week's issue, in which the following appeared in the Personal section of the small-ads: "Cute, slim, affectionate "little boy" (over 45) seeks adorable, bright, chubby "little girl" (any age) to share the magic of conversation across a restaurant table, love of good books and music, and lots of cuddling.

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