Dolly Alderton: ‘I was reckless, I took too many risks’
The former dating columnist’s memoir is a riot of honesty, with a happy ending that breaks from the norm
Dolly Alderton: “It doesn’t matter if you have a gym membership or you go on yoga retreats, your whole external world doesn’t matter if you’re in a prison of your own internal world.” Photograph: Jo Bongard
It’s Friday lunchtime and writer Dolly Alderton is answering questions in between mouthfuls of pasta. “You know when you have one of those weeks and when you get to Friday and you’re like, its just gonna have to be a big old carb day.”
At 29, Alderton was a dating columnist with the Sunday Times, a story producer for E4 reality show Made in Chelsea, and co-presenter of a podcast, The High Low, which Piers Morgan once described as “braying posh girls talking gibberish”. Coming from Morgan, that can only serve as an endorsement.
She is now the author of Everything I Know About Love, a memoir about her roaring 20s, which comedy show writer Sharon Horgan recently advised people to buy for “your teenage daughter and then put in a drawer for a few years and then hand it over like you might a set of life encyclopaedias”.
Thankfully, this is not one of the new raft of books about “adulting”. If anything, we see Alderton racing towards a grown-up life, eager to have her independence and her own home, eager even to see her name in windowed envelopes coming through the letterbox – just not entirely sure how to get there.
Through a series of vignettes and lists, and some rather brilliant cutting emails about the unique complexities of hen parties and baby showers, Alderton writes about all those things you do when you don’t know who you’re supposed to be, and your life is something you use to make stories for the pub.
“I wanted to get out the other side of life in my 20s and certain difficulties; one of which was I couldn’t bear that all my friends were moving ahead of me so fast, the other one was I couldn’t feel comfortable in my own skin and the other was I had dysfunctional relationships with men.”
One story details a particularly lost time in New York when a nasty date culminates with her sitting in a Starbucks the next morning, lost, phoneless and broke, sipping a little free milk from a paper cup. A concerned passerby tells her she looks like a stray kitten. There are long, late-night journeys and dodgy drinking partners, and all those extreme lengths you might go to to keep the party going with any one at all. There’s the constant questioning of self: am I young and free and living life to the fullest, or am I not okay?
“Without hoping to sound smug or arrogant, I have come out the other side of most of those experiences with a bit of a conclusion . . . it was mainly to just share my experiences that I felt were universal and to make people feel less alone.”
The disparity between the responses was enormous. It made me realise just how present misogyny is when it comes to women sharing their stories
It’s a kind book that ends consolingly with Alderton somewhat triumphant, filling her apartment with plants, holidaying alone, enjoying friends’ weddings without hoping and praying that her own future husband will sidle into the next pew.
These sorts of memoirs can be greeted with cynicism of course, which Alderton is ready for. Women still struggle to tell their own stories without accusations of self-obsession and privilege and navel-gazing. I ask Alderton if confessional writing for women is still a radical act.
“I think something that I learned from years of doing the dating column opposite a man who was 60, Cosmo Landesman, on the other side of the page – the disparity between the responses we got was enormous. It made me realise just how present misogyny is when it comes to women sharing their stories.”
Despite Landesman’s stories being “arguably far riskier”, he received no abusive emails. Alderton’s stories were “mainly very joyful. There was a bit of drinking and misjudged snogging but for some reason it really angered people, men in particular. I received constant streams of emails from people who were just really pissed off that I was sharing these stories.”
Recently on Twitter, Alderton bemoaned the fact she has been repeatedly asked if she is embarrassed or ashamed of the experiences detailed in her new book. She can’t imagine a man being asked a similar question.
“It would be so much easier for me to go back and miss out the moments where I was reckless or I took too many risks, to rearrange who I was like a lovely collage. But I wanted it to feel jubilant at the end, and the only way that I could effectively tell that truth was to reveal these bad, bad decisions.”
That’s the reality of most young people today with drugs and alcohol and sex. It’s a learning curve, and I wanted to be truthful about that
Any negative feedback was as she expected, “about the mention of drugs and drink and promiscuity and I don’t regret writing about that because I don’t like the world that we’re currently in where the measure of a human and how interesting or acceptable or how great they are is basically how f**king sanitised they are. I’m not interested in that. It’s so baffling to me.”
It’s not a cautionary tale, or something wildly glamorous, but somewhere in between, she says. There are people who suffer with addiction, but “the majority of people who experiment with mind-expanding drugs or wild nights of booze with their mates or having sex with a lot of people, or just having sex freely . . . They do a lot of it in their early 20s, and by the time they get to their late 20s, they don’t really have the desire for it. They’re fulfilled in many other ways and when they do do it, it’s not because they’re seeking any wholeness. It’s just a nice jubilant treat. That’s the reality of most young people today with drugs and alcohol and sex. It’s a learning curve, and I wanted to be truthful about that.”
Books such as Everything I Know About Love often tend to end with the heroine meeting the love of her life. Here, refreshingly, the central love story is between Alderton and her best friend Farly, as they navigate the rocky terrain of their 20s when the path of female friendship often tends to meander and diverge.
“I used to be of the opinion that, f**k these memoirs where there’s only one happy ending, and it can only ever be a man. But to be fair to these women, that’s their lives, that’s what happened. I don’t ever want people to think that I fetishise the idea of being alone, but for me it really was necessary and it was the most empowering thing I did.
“But when I first sold the book, my editor was like, half-jokingly, ‘it would be great if you could meet someone before the end of this book’.”
“I know that we’re so used to the happy ending. We place such a premium on romantic love. Even my best friends who are all like amazing feminists, when I moved into my flat on my own, there was no one who was like, oh this is your permanent home now. There was always a sense of, oh and when you move in with someone . . .”
She thinks some people won’t believe her when “on that last page, I’m alone in my bed and I’ve never felt safer and happier. I know there are people who are going to read that and be like, she’s being defensive. If a woman says that’s not the case, we think she’s damaged or it’s a very sad story, but I’m okay with that. This is my happy ending.
“I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to meet someone in the future!”
Someone extremely close to me went to therapy for a couple of years and I just saw her bloom like a flower
Towards the end of the book, Alderton begins a stint in therapy, and runs that therapist’s office gamut from the awkward early days when you’ve nothing to say, to those solid hours of crying and flying through the free Kleenex.
A lifetime of anxiety had piled up on her at that point. “I was putting it to the back of my mind and then it would find me on very lonely or low nights.”
She resisted therapy initially, thinking it was only for the self-indulgent or “a privileged white woman who spends too much time thinking about herself. And then someone extremely close to me went to therapy for a couple of years and I just saw her bloom like a flower.”
She is keen to point out she was the “luckiest person” in terms of her upbringing, but “I still ended up having panic attacks on the tube and not being able to leave the house, crying in the bed of a stranger in New York. I think people feel guilty if they’ve come from a nice-ish life or if their formative life wasn’t filled with trauma, maybe they think they’re crying wolf.”
She wanted to help break the therapy taboo. “It doesn’t matter if you have a gym membership or you go on yoga retreats, your whole external world doesn’t matter if you’re in a prison of your own internal world.”
Scattered throughout the book, in a nod to her hero Nora Ephron, there are recipes for big cheesy pasta dishes to eat in front of rom-coms and fancy dessert cheats to make you look like you went to terrible trouble at a dinner party. But alongside this appreciation for food, Alderton details her struggle with body image, going from a happy Topshop-wearing size 14 who cooks for all around her, to someone who avoided food completely. Is she in a level place now?
“In terms of how it manifests in daily habits, totally. Gotta be honest, no, it will never leave my head. Once you get into a habit of unhealthy eating to feel a sense of control and you see your body changing, if you do that for more than a couple of weeks, you’re in a prison for life. It will always be there. But my rational mind outweighs it far more.”
She tells me about a travel assignment to a surf school in Portugal a few years back. The accompanying photos that ran in the newspaper horrified her. “All these pictures of me in this wetsuit with this weird camel toe. I just remember having a word with myself and being like, you’re not Gisele and no one thinks you are. What they’re expecting you to be is funny and to paint the story with observations.”
She’s not dating, for now. “Come March – who’s counting – I haven’t dated for a year. I’m consciously taking some time out from that. I’ve managed to get so much work done, and travel so much more and read so much more.”
She broke her dating fast just once in the whole year and “just lost my mind. I had this date and I was like, I’m so annoyed with myself. I felt like I’d got to this place of clarity and freedom and now I’m the woman watching Whatsapp at 1am like it’s a film with popcorn.
“Men do not do that. We lose our minds and we humiliate ourselves. Everyone has had that fling where they’re like, I don’t really care about my work anymore. It’s all the stories that we’re fed and the patriarchal structure that we live in. I don’t want to be preoccupied like that again. I want to fall in love but on equal and healthy terms.”
She’ll be turning 30 in August. With the life lessons of her 20s wrapped up in this book, how is she feeling about the next decade? “I am freaked out about it and that’s not a cool thing to say. I don’t enjoy that, that’s the truth.
“There’s something very comforting about being in your 20s because you have no indication of where the story is going to go. And as wonderful as age will be and it’s a privilege to get older, and I’ll enjoy the wisdom that comes, but something I will find hard to relinquish is the feeling of being a time millionaire.
“When you get to 30, there are certain things like, I’ll never be in a pop band.”
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton is published by Fig Tree