Book Reviews

A Head Full of Blue – Nick Johnstone | Book Review

*Note – this book review contains references to addiction and mental illness which are key themes within A Head Full of Blue*

By Nick Wells, Operations Senior OP

My name is Nick and I work in the packing department at Wob. I’d like to introduce a book that I first read twenty years ago. It had such an impact on me that I read it repeatedly over the following decade. This memoir, by Nick Johnstone, touched a chord with me as it deals with themes of mental health and addiction – issues I have dealt with in my personal life.

The author

Nick Johnstone is a writer and journalist. He is the author of 13 books of non-fiction, including A Head Full of Blue, A Brief History of Rock and Roll, Johnny Depp and Amy Amy Amy The Amy Winehouse Story. As a journalist, he writes about pop culture and lifestyle for many newspapers, and has interviewed the likes of Roman Polanski, Solange Azagury-Partridge, Lou Reed, Jim Jamusch, Keith Richards, Darren Aronofsky, Catpower, Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood.

Exploring themes of addiction

In this memoir, the author reflects on his lifelong battles with addiction and shines a light on some of the experiences that shaped him.

“When I was fourteen, I got drunk for the first time. Champagne drunk. My mouth was stretched in a smile so wide, that my jaw hurt. The sky had the colours of a bruise.”

And so begins Nick’s descent into addiction. Seemingly a cure for the depression and anxiety he had suffered since early childhood, it proves anything but. What follows is a ten year battle, drinking heavily to get through the long days and nights, to overcome shyness, to cope with the world. Then the drugs and lies to deal with the pain and avoid scrutiny. An ongoing struggle, where Nick’s loving family and countless doctors, counsellors, therapists, psychiatrists and even Nick himself, fail to understand where his disorders came from.

A moment that stuck with me

Nick never seemed to feel ‘normal’ without drinking. There was the constant humming in his head, the shyness, the dark thoughts and moods. When he was drunk, he was confident, funny and popular with his friends.

Nick didn’t see himself as an alcoholic, but one time when answering a quiz at the back of a book about alcoholism, he answered ‘yes’ to 9 out of 20 questions. Feeling relieved, he then read the foot-note which explained that answering yes to any one question was a warning you may be an alcoholic. If you answer yes to two questions then chances are you are an alcoholic, and answering yes to three or more meant you’re definitely an alcoholic.

The impact of A Head Full of Blue

It’s very interesting to me that even though I read this book 10 years ago, I found it a difficult read this time around. It might be that it reminded me of my life when I first read this book, and the anger, frustration and fear that I felt at the time. The book is raw and stark at times, leaving nothing to the imagination. However, reading the book now, some of the metaphors seem self-indulgent and unnecessary.

“The champagne picked through my brain like an electrician. Faulty circuits were re-wired. Loose cables were soldered. When the repairs were complete, my eyes sang as beautifully as Billie Holiday.

“The Chianti picked through my brain like a mortician. Faulty circuits lay lifeless. Loose cables were limp and colourless. When the mortician was finished, my eyes were black as death.”

This book is a worthy entrant to the genre of memoir, and even self-help books, as it gives a real first-hand experience of mental illness and addiction, and it does show that although there is no ‘cure’ to addiction, it can be managed, and a worthwhile life led.

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