Vita Nova


A scene from one of Vita Nova's theatre works Scratchin' The Surface                         Picture courtesy of Vita Nova

By Jeremy Miles

It’s nearly two years since David Werner’s last drinking binge. He still flinches as he describes the night when, with four bottles of wine inside him, he was kicked to a pulp by strangers. This was the brutal awakening that set him on the road to recovery after 45 years of progressively heavy drinking. “I was completely drunk and I found myself somewhere I shouldn’t have been,” he says, a dull acceptance in his voice. 


David, a 57-year-old, spent most of his teens and adult life tipping terrifying quantities of booze down his throat. He ended up a street drinker, sleeping in doorways or, if he was lucky, enjoying the luxury of  curling up for the night on the floor of a public lavatory that someone had forgotten to lock. He shakes his head at the thought. “I used to be grateful to find a toilet that was open. Yet once I had been a very fastidious person. The notion of sleeping in a lavatory would have been anathema but….” His voice trails off.

Words like “anathema” betray an education and vocabulary that most people find hard to associate with derelicts on the street. For David, now a recovering alcoholic, was once an English teacher. Look carefully and, beneath his ravaged face, you can still see the dapper charmer he used to be. His conversation is ripe with self-deprecating wit and punctuated by quotations from Beckett and Hemingway. 

He laughs ruefully as he remembers the first time he was arrested for being drunk and incapable 39 long, miserable years ago and was told: “You’re not the kind of chap we expect to find in this condition at 11 o’clock in the morning.” He was of course precisely that sort of chap. David had started drinking heavily at school - a quarter of a bottle of Haigh whisky at 8.15 on the dot every morning just to get through the 9.00am lesson.  Gradually his consumption increased, he’d drink anything he says just to achieve a sense of ease and comfort.  “It was nothing for me to  drink a bottle of vodka. I also gravitated towards very cheap stuff. Whereas once I used to drink nice claret and expensive spirits, in the end I was drinking  stuff you wouldn’t even clean your shoes with.”

Like many addicts he had no idea that his behaviour was out of control until it was too late. Finding himself finally alone after systematically destroying six serious relationships, he remembers still hiding bottles of booze around the house, even though there was no one left to hide them from. “That was really strange,” he says. David is now part of Bournemouth’s “recovery community” and an avid member of Vita Nova, a thriving writing group and theatre company made up of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.

A keen writer he  joins people like 38 year old Brian Thomas - a former Brixton crack and heroin addict who found himself in Bournemouth after  being offered rehab in the town as an alternative to prison.  Brian, who had been arrested for burglary, says that although he accepted the opportunity to go into treatment it was really just to avoid jail. “I had no intention of stopping drugs.” he says. After all this was a man who started smoking dope when he was just eight years old. It was the only way of life he knew. 

Amazingly, in this case, rehab worked: “I really didn’t think there was anything they could teach me, but they did. They taught me a few facts about myself and now I’ve been clean for eight months.”Like David, Brian has found a particular focus in the work of Vita Nova. He is now working on self-penned poetry and rap performances and says his sense of confidence and self-esteem are improving all the time.

The afternoon I visited one of their sessions at the Bourne Spring Centre in St Mary’s Road, Bournemouth, a dozen or so recovering addicts were enjoying a workshop with actor Lee Hart. Hart is among members of the local creative community who have been working with Vita Nova. They include award-winning playwright and author Nell Leyshon whose time with those in recovery has resulted in a new piece of writing called Confession. This work together with readings and monologues by Vita Nova members will be previewed at the centre on Friday April 11 and the following  evening will be staged at Lighthouse, in Poole as part of the Growbags season.

The success of the Vita Nova writers’ group has been remarkable not only as an initiative to encourage new writing by members of the recovery community but also in the sheer quality of the work that has emerged. Leyshon says that Vita Nova members possess  some of the richest imaginations she has had the pleasure to encounter.

Vita Nova co-ordinator Ignatius Harling, himself a recovering alcoholic, heroin and crack cocaine addict, told me: “To survive as a drug user you have to develop incredible resources  of strength of character and will-power. It makes you very devious. You learn to play the system.  Those same hidden resources can be utilised for very positive creative purposes.” David Werner put it another way: “It’s about being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I get to meet some lovely people and occasionally to offer some words of encouragement and support to those who are in an earlier stage of recovery than myself.” 

The event will take place at The Bourne Spring Centre (formerly St Mary’s Church), St Mary’s Road, Bournemouth BH1 4QP at 7.30pm, April 11th 2008.  Admission is free and donations to the group will be accepted.

© Jeremy Miles 2022