A Liar’s Autobiography: Volume VI

2012-01-14

in Books and literature, Geek stuff, Psychology, Writing

Graham Chapman, one of the Monty Python gang, drank himself to death at 48, having already been an alcoholic for 23 years when he was 37. He died exactly 20 years after the first recording of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. A Liar’s Autobiography: Volume VI was published nine years earlier, written by Chapman, his long-time romantic partner David Sherlock, Alex Martin, David Yallop, and Douglas Adams. As you might expect from the autobiography of a man who quite knowingly drank himself to death (he was a doctor, after all), the book is pretty depressing in places. Despite that, I thought it conveyed an honest and intimate perspective of a man who was generous and humanitarian but who often struggled with life.

I am not sure what to make of a self-confessed “liar’s autobiography”. The whole concept of autobiography is that a person uses a reasonably honest re-telling of their life events to share their experiences and personality with you. When you don’t know which (if any) experiences are genuine, it makes it difficult to know what Chapman and his cabal of co-authors were really trying to convey. If the general thrust of the anecdotes is reasonably accurate, it seems fair to conclude that it was easy to be drunk nearly all the time and have a great deal of casual gay sex in England at the time when Monty Python was performing and making films. The book includes quite a few rather terrifying and tragic stories, including hangings, physical assaults, aggressive police questioning, and perilous mountain climbing accidents.

A Liar’s Autobiography is also a reminder of how all fame is fleeting, and perhaps provincial as well. Chapman is constantly name-dropping, but the names he uses to try to impress readers are virtually all totally unknown to me. The book is aggressively non-linear, and features relatively little discussion of how Monty Python worked. There is more, all told, on the many sufferings associated with alcoholism, from the chronic liver damage that accompanies ongoing drinking to the agonies of withdrawal after a high level of dependence has been reached.

In an epilogue, fellow Python Eric Idle calls Chapman “the only true anarchist in Monty Python”. Chapman himself explains that he is “against any large organization, communist, capitalist or religious, that pretends to know best”. Chapman expresses a libertarian view of how the state should let people use their own bodies how they like:

I’ve always believed that people should be allowed to do what they want with their bodies. After all, it’s all they’ve got. I agree with that law that it is wrong for everyone to go round poking other people with sharp pointed sticks, but if someone wants to poke himself with a sharp pointed stick, that’s fine by me. They can go and batter themselves to death with huge lumps of poisoned granite for all I care.

This seems somewhat linked to Chapman’s rather mechanistic view of life itself. People, he says, are “tubes – hollow cylinders of flesh”.

Eric Idle’s epilogue summarizes this book better than I can: “What shines through in this book is the staggering honesty – the brilliance of truth that only a self-proclaimed liar could achieve. Facts and stories that we would have murdered our grandmothers to conceal are cheerfully paraded for our edification. This is life viewed as comedy, that only a doctor faced constantly with the physical comedy of our bodies can see”.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

. January 14, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Starbug February 2, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Actually, Chapman died of cancer. He had been sober for some years.

Milan February 3, 2012 at 7:29 am

I don’t mean that he literally died of alcohol poisoning. I mean his early death can be most plausibly attributed to alcoholism.

. February 3, 2012 at 7:30 am

According to a study in the British Medical Journal, alcohol could be responsible for 10% of cancer in men and 3% in women. The scientists performing the study examined data from eight European countries. Reporting on the study, the CBC raised the question of whether there should be warning labels on alcoholic beverages.

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