One woman's love letter to fiancé she lost to ravages of alcoholism
Novelist Louisa Young's new book follows the sad loss of her musician partner and the toll his drinking took on her life
One day, towards the end of January 2012, Robert Lockhart walked into a gastropub in Shepherd's Bush, ordered the Sunday roast lunch and choked to death. No one in the pub had any idea that Lockhart, an accomplished pianist and composer - and for most of his adult life an alcoholic and heavy smoker, had undergone radical surgery for throat cancer 14 months earlier and was not physically capable of swallowing food.
He had a heart attack, was resuscitated by the ambulance crew, but later pronounced brain dead at Charing Cross Hospital and 'unplugged' the following day. But not before his fiancee, the writer Louisa Young, had stared into his "absolutely blue and absolutely empty eyes", put a wedding ring on her finger, said, "I do, darling, I do" and then one on his own finger.
Young (59), best known for her Costa Prize-shortlisted First World War novel, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, has now written an extraordinarily candid bereavement memoir, You Left Early. It begins when she first met Lockhart when they were both 17 and chronicles her turbulent life with, and for long stretches without, him until his death at the age of 52.
"I spent the first year after he died crying all the time and being mad," she says. "What are you meant to do with all that grief and shock and massive pain? In the end, you have to do something with it and I'm a writer, so I wrote."
Famous in London's literary and musical circles for being, as Will Self put it in Lockhart's obituary, "a bon and latterly a mal vivant", Lockhart was charismatic, gifted, a great seducer of women and, as Young's memoir makes painfully clear, serially unfaithful.
A working-class musical prodigy from Wigan, he got a double first from Oxford at 19 and went on to be a successful musician for film, theatre and television, and concert pianist.
As much as it's an overwhelming love letter, Young's book is also a sobering reminder of the devastating effects of alcoholism, not just on an individual's life, but on everyone else around them. Worse than the awful physical toll, was the sheer relentlessness of the "bonkers merry-go-round", the cycles of drinking, remorse, rehab and relapse, which will strike a chord with anyone who has come close to it, and , as Young points out, that's a lot of us. "I want to make it clear that the addiction of alcoholism is not a racy lifestyle choice, it's an insidious and baffling condition that kills people."
She deplores what she calls the "it's prosecco o'clock" attitude that prevails in our culture: "Sometimes I think the whole country is in denial." The irony is that when he died, Lockhart had been sober for five years and was completely free of cancer. She was bound to wonder whether his death was a form of suicide, although concludes in the end that it wasn't.
She has dedicated the book to "everyone who has found themselves here", and hopes to encourage anyone living with an alcoholic to seek help sooner than she did. "It's my way of offering my experience and wisdom without tearing my own heart out every time I talk to somebody. I'd like to encourage other people to go to Al-Anon [a network for families and friends of alcoholics] even if they think it's a bit of a pain, if only to not be stuck in the darkness, thinking, 'Am I going mad?'"
Young will simultaneously release her debut album of the same title, a collection of melancholic, folksy songs, as "a lovely act of honouring Robert", which she produced with her daughter's boyfriend, Alex Mackenzie. "I think Robert would have howled with laughter and been very touched, but also think it was faintly ridiculous as his standards were so high."
Two-and-a-half years ago Young met the novelist Michel Faber at a literary festival and while listening to him read aloud poems he'd written in memory of his late wife, Eva, thought: "Oh my God, this man is deep in something with which I'm extremely familiar. They bonded, penning "his and hers grief memoirs", and have been a couple ever since.
After she finished the book, HarperCollins commissioned Young to write the non-fiction story She Deserves It. "I was more or less born on the line and everything important in my life has happened on one of the (London Underground) stops between Hammersmith and King's Cross," she says.
Given her upbringing, it would be easy to think Young has led a charmed life, and in a sense she has. Her father was the politician Lord Kennet; one of her sisters is the sculptor Emily Young. She grew up in the house where JM Barrie wrote Peter Pan and was educated at St Paul's, Westminster and Trinity College, Cambridge. She moved to Shepherd's Bush, rode a Harley and found critical success early with her biography of her grandmother Kathleen Scott, widow of the Antarctic explorer Captain Scott.
She went on to write several novels and the Lionboy trilogy for children with her daughter, Isabel Adomakoh Young, under the pseudonym Zizou Corder. Still, as this book makes it clear, there is nothing remotely charmed about falling in love with an addict. Speaking at Lockhart's memorial, she said: "I never expect - nor indeed want - to meet anyone like him again."
You Left Early: A True Story of Love and Alcohol is published by Borough Press. You Left Early is released on vinyl, CD and iTunes; both on June 28