The Survival of the Coolest: An Addiction Memoir, by William Pryor

Review published on October 5, 2016.

As a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin growing up with money and attending Eton and Cambridge, William Pryor should have had a charmed life. How, then, did he end up as a heroin addict in a lunatic asylum? This enjoyable tell-all memoir exposes the myriad routes to addiction, giving at the same time a compelling picture of the countercultural 1960s scene, from performance poetry and jazz to Indian meditation (documented with plenty of black-and-white photographs).

Pryor, a bookseller and entrepreneur, was addicted to heroin and other substances from the age of 18 to 30. He tracks the effect that his behaviour – not just the using itself, but also the concomitant lies and stealing as he forged doctors’ signatures on prescription forms and broke into a pharmacy for a fix – had on his family, especially his wife and daughter. His relationship with his parents had always been fragile but was further complicated by his addiction and then his father’s coma after a car accident.

As addiction memoirs go, this struck me as more successful than Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun but not quite as brilliant as Bill Clegg’s Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. Individual scenes of shooting up, suffering delusions, and viewing the world through a stoned haze are revelatory, but Pryor also captures the vicious cycle of a junkie’s life: “The months ran into each other as a blur of the chase for relief, the wheeling and dealing … One of the most striking aspects of hell is that it goes round and round; the same torments over and over again. This was the worst day of my life. There were so many of them.”

Pryor is the chairman of Book Barn, a wonderful secondhand bookshop in Somerset, and it was in this capacity that he contacted me, asking if I would review his memoir (first published in 2003). I approached the book with modest expectations and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing. The book has the small publication’s usual problems with punctuation and typos, but Pryor writes with verve, psychological perspicacity and wry humour. I especially liked his reflections on how his privileged upbringing not only did not protect him from his addiction but may even have provoked it:

“This family of mine! On the one hand you have the royalty of science and Bloomsbury, on the other the fading world of the English landed gentry. … We had no religion but Darwin … no structure of the heart. In my teens it got to such a state that I could only relate to what love, care and affection my family did show with confused and aggressive ideas that it was arbitrary, entirely arbitrary that I was born to these particular parents with these particular sisters. The only bond was of irritation and awkwardness.”

I can highly recommend this to fans of memoirs that open up a window onto fringe experiences.

Rebecca Foster 4/3

The Survival of the Coolest: An Addiction Memoir, by William Pryor
Clear Press Ltd 9781904555131 pbk November 2003

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