Lucy Holden: “I think it’s audacious to write a memoir and keep stuff back.”
The Evening Standard columnist and former Gryphon writer talks to Alex Gibbon about her debut book Lucid, a memoir that chronicles the hedonism of her twenties in London and the destructive relationships that came with it.
“Look at what I found,” beams Lucy Holden, stumbling out of a Soho off-licence with a Calippo in each hand. “I haven’t had one of these in years!”
I am several hours, and many more drinks, into one of the most fun-spirited, yet deeply soul-baring interviews I’ve ever done.
The subject: Lucy Holden. After a decade in print journalism, writing for The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian and just about any other major publication you can think of, she has just published her first book. Lucid, described as ‘a memoir of an extreme decade in an extreme generation’, is funny, filthy, and as no-holds-barred as it gets. As I sit slumped and bleary-eyed on my post-interview train home, I realise the author is much the same.
Holden’s charm lies in her penchant for gallows humour and disarming honesty – she brands Tracey Emin as “the worst”, a “c*nt” and “so rude” after she told Holden to “fucking Google” her artwork My Bed instead of answering questions about it during a phone interview. But her self-assuredness comes not at the expense of courtesy. She can’t quite forgive herself for mislabelling me as a vegan (“You do look very East London”); her apologies pop up thick and fast throughout the night in the form of frothy pints.
We first meet in the Coach and Horse in Soho, a pub with a significant place in journalism’s history. “I’m such a romantic for the old Fleet Street,” she says before launching into a vivid narration of the boisterous and beery bravado of staff meetings held by Private Eye in the room above our heads many decades prior. “I love the drunk and disorderly nature of it all, but it isn’t like that anymore,” she claims.
Yet, after reading Lucid, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the journos of today haven’t changed much. One part of the book details a drug-fuelled work trip to Hong Kong with a gang of fellow writers touring the city’s most luxurious rooftop bars to report on a global cocktail competition.
Not that Holden paints a rose-tinted picture of today’s newspaper offices by any means. She tells me that at the end of her work experience at The Guardian, the job offer was a measly £200 for two days a week. The newsrooms she describes seem as though they can only be weathered by thick-skinned writers willing to deal with gruelling office hours, verbal abuse, and intimidation from senior colleagues.
“I will never understand newspapers who run mental health campaigns while creating such toxic workplaces for their staff,” she says. The Daily Mail and its bullish Editor-in-chief Paul Dacre get special mentions in the book for fostering an environment of anxiety and fear. “Hypocrisy is one of the things I cannot stand and that is why I felt the need to expose it in the book.”
So, does the stereotype of London being a hostile city of stressed and depressed workaholics ring completely true? She thinks for a minute, cradling her pint. “You can find friendliness if you look for it. The problem is with where that is. I find I’ve always been so drawn to pubs but the loneliness you find there is astounding. It breaks my heart, but I’m fascinated by it.”
And the darker edge of London’s drinking culture is not without cause, according to Holden. In her book, she recalls an ex who used to spend Sunday evenings guzzling herbal anxiety pills and copious amounts of cider just to stifle the dread of the upcoming working week. Unsurprisingly, Holden’s experience was no exception. She writes: If my job was going to lower me to such dark levels, I decided the other side of the seesaw must be the adrenaline-fuelled high life.
“You crave the disassociation that only something quite extreme provides,” she says frankly. “It was tough. I’ve always felt, even if I’ve not looked it, like a complete underdog, and I’m fascinated by underdogs as a result of that”
It’s the candid treatment of life’s gruesome underbelly that stands Lucid out from the pastel-hued pack of millennial memoirs. I drop the name of one of the genre’s more well-known authors and Holden shoots me a knowing look, followed by an eye-roll.
“For a start, I am told funnier and filthier stories in the pub every night than what I saw was being published which I thought was outrageous,” she exclaims. “There are many surface-level versions of millennial life already written and that’s why I wanted to write it. I think it’s audacious to write a memoir and keep stuff back.”
True to her word, and refraining from hypocrisy, the book isn’t afraid to dive deep and unpack trauma. In one harrowing chapter, at a New Year’s Eve party, a 21-year-old Holden regains consciousness to find that she is being raped. She writes: there’s a man on top of me, moving up and down, his face a monstrous blur. I don’t know who he is. I lose consciousness again. Despite fleeing the house the next morning, escaping the emotional damage would prove impossible. “I can just about read some of the chapters now without crying, but not until quite recently,” she admits.
This made recording the audiobook for Lucid particularly challenging. “The audio was a concentrated version of what my whole life has felt like. You’re reading the tough bits trying to keep your voice straight, to not cry, and then you’re performing the funny bits – it was bizarre!” Smirking, she adds that the absurdity was only heightened by bumping into TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh in the corridor outside and picturing him recording in the studio next door.
Reading the book aloud is the only time she has been able to say ‘rape’ (“I call it the ‘r’ word”) and she has only recently managed to speak the words “domestic violence”. This phrase ricochets through the pages of the final part of Lucid as Holden delves into the horror of her relationship with Jack, an abusive ex-partner. The pair fall in love quickly (“I didn’t give him enough time to show me who he was”) but she is soon under the thumb of coercive control: having her phone constantly checked; not being allowed to see certain friends; being accused of ‘flirting’ during the most mundane of interactions with other men. Not that it was easy for Holden to recognise the abuse from the inside.
“I just didn’t know,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s shocking to me now, but I didn’t know how bad it was. I didn’t know I was in a domestic violence situation. And I’m an intelligent young woman.”
Yet, when police visited the couple for a second time – the first was when Holden reported Jack for assault – the response was shockingly poor. In Lucid she writes: They said we seemed like nice people and were so different from the usual kind they had to see for these sorts of things. “I was not the image of someone who would allow that to happen to them. We were both well-spoken and on the right side of the road; opposite us were some council flats. If we had been there, would they have seen it differently?”
To add insult to injury, Holden’s landlady at the time, a policewoman herself, told her that she could tell Jack was an ‘abuser’ from the first time they had spoken but the couple would not be able to move out as they had signed a contract. I ask Holden if she had any faith in the police to deal with incidents of domestic violence. “Not at all. It was astoundingly awful. They lost half of my statements from the first time I reported Jack. They didn’t interview any of the witnesses, who were offering statements. They didn’t do anything.”
Inevitably, any writer willing to expose themselves in their work, as Holden does, in such a raw and honest way is applauded for their courage. But she rejects this. “I don’t want to be told that I am brave because this should be the norm. It shouldn’t be brave to say that somebody hurt me,” she asserts. “I find it tricky to speak about Lucid without sounding like a martyr. But essentially my thing is I care more about other people than I care about myself, I find it easier to do that. So, if [the book] helps anyone leave quicker or realise that they are in an abusive relationship, that’s all I want.”
Considering its deeply personal nature, Holden admits the press tour for her book has been, at times, brutal. She describes an “intense” radio interview with Jeremy Kyle. On the phone afterwards, a friend asked her if she was ‘coked up’. “No, this is what it’s like to be interviewed by Jeremy kyle!” I ask her if she felt as if she’d done a lie detector test backstage and Kyle was about to bring her ex out. She throws her head back in laughter. “He said my boyfriend had a tiny cock, so he was definitely on my side. I mean, he didn’t. I wish he did as I probably would’ve gone sooner.” The gallows humour strikes again.
The onset of the pandemic was the catalyst Holden needed to leave. Two weeks into lockdown, she fled London and took refuge at her parent’s home in Bath. Revealing the extent of the abuse to her parents was challenging and even in the lead up to the memoir’s release, there are still tensions at home regarding its content.
“To my parents’ generation, what I’m trying to do, in terms of being completely honest… they find it fundamentally difficult to agree with,” Holden sighs. “I know they are proud, but I also feel that they are embarrassed. That’s why many young people don’t tell their parents about the stuff that happens to them.” Holden’s father prohibits the mention of Jack’s name in their home. “That’s because he can’t bear to think about him but as a result, he knows almost nothing about what I’ve been through.”
We agree that Millennials and Gen Z – despite the jibes about cringy TikTok dances from the former and being ‘cheugy’ from the latter – have the most in common of any generation. Both of us entered the working world in the aftermath of a global crisis: the 2008 financial crash and the coronavirus pandemic. Both of us face uphill financial battles when it comes to stable employment and homeownership, unlike our parents. Both of us can speak more openly about mental health, trauma and sexual violence than those who are older.
“All we have to do is make sure we are better generation by generation,” she says. “It’s our job to heal from our trauma and then to spill it. We need to make it easier for everyone coming after us.”
But for Holden, there is a wonderful exception to the generational divide. Everleigh, one of her tutors at Leeds University, became one of her greatest friends and features prominently in Lucid. “He was just a grumpy fuck basically, old school, late sixties when he was teaching me. We went to go and have essay feedback and the slot was supposed to be 15 minutes. But there was no one after me – a fluke – so we just talked for an hour. It wasn’t any of those things people assume male-female relationships with that much age difference are like. There was no flirtation, it wasn’t weird. We just from the beginning found each other mutually fascinating. It was one of those relationships that formed on the basis of being complete opposites. That’s been a bit of a pattern in my life.”
Soon after this first encounter, they started going for lunches at Whitelocks: “he tried to convert me to drink horrible old ale and it was all tepid and I’d drink cold, generic lager. He would tell me it had to be freezing cold because it was a load of shit – and I’d agree.” Over the next few years of her undergraduate degree, the pair continued to meet up and email one another. By Holden’s final year, they had developed a close friendship. “I never met anyone who totally trusted me to do it until I met Everleigh, just backing everything that I did,” she explains. “In my final year, he said you could get a first if you want to, but I think the student paper is doing more for you than that.”
The bond continued well after Holden graduated. Each chapter is separated by an email from Everleigh, his correspondence a reassuring constant in her otherwise tumultuous life. Although tragically, Everleigh was diagnosed with a terminal illness just before the pandemic. “When my book was officially announced he emailed and said that he was so proud but that he probably wouldn’t be around to read it.” By the time the final draft was complete, he was too ill to read the book. Due to lockdown restrictions, Holden was also unable to visit him before he died. “His death reminded me how much life can just zig-zag. The great and the awful. You’ve got to be really fucking tough to survive it. I just cried and chain-smoked, I didn’t know what to do after I found out. I didn’t get to say goodbye.”
Laden with grief, trauma, and anxiety over COVID-19, Holden wrote most of Lucid during the pandemic. “I was not alright when I was writing that,” she admits, gesturing to the copy she gifted me. “But it fell out of me because I’ve been waiting a long time.” Armed with her ‘21st century writing kit’ (a carton of 200 Marlboro gold, a box of wine, a vibrator, and a Wi-Fi extender) she finished the book before restrictions started to lift.
“I can write stuff so much more easily than I can say it. And it’s not until I write it that I really understand how I feel,” she tells me between puffs of her cigarette outside a Soho pub. “I wanted so long to have a cause and ironically I would never have chosen these causes. But the fight is really in me now. The simmering undealt with anger that I had before feels like it’s completely changed.”
We slur our goodbyes and part ways outside a tube station with a name I cannot remember. We agree that there is no fun in being lucid (or sober) all of the time. Holden turns around 100m down the street to give a drunken wave and one final jovial smile. It’s the same one she flashed outside the off-licence; the joy is palpable. She has emerged from a stormy decade of volatility, unclouded, healed, and ready to spill the truth.
Lucid, published by Simon & Schuster, is out now.