Sunday, January 18, 2009


This appeared in today's The Hindustan Times.


Consider, first, this description of the state of a man on the morning after: “His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.” That’s Kingsley Amis, writing about the hangover of his most well-known character in Lucky Jim.

This is an author who knows what it’s like to imbibe one too many on one too many occasions. As he writes in his memoirs: “Now and then I become conscious of having the reputation of being one of the great drinkers, if not one of the great drunks, of our time”. But his liking for the stuff wasn’t merely brutish: Amis was ferociously well-informed about all aspects of all sorts of liquor, from their tastes to their origins to their combinations to their after-effects.

Which is why dipping into his Everyday Drinking is such a bracing exercise. The book brings together three out-of-print volumes: On Drink (1972), a manifesto of his bibulous views; Every Day Drinking (1983), a collection of journalistic pieces; and. How's Your Glass? (1984), comprising quizzes on the drinking life.

The tone throughout is very dry, and occasionally acidic, much like the wines he advises us to stay away from. Here, one comes across large pegs of information concerning the well-stocked liquor cabinet, getting value for money and, most delightfully, notes on “boozemanship” and the “mean sod’s guide” to serving guests. He pooh-poohs most traditional hangover remedies, from the hair of the dog to Prairie Oysters. Instead, he advocates rest, a warm bath and perhaps a little bread and honey. As for avoiding getting drunk, “the only absolute method is drinking less”.

There are cocktail recipes aplenty, including oddities such as the Falkland Island Warmer, the Hot Rum Cow, Serbian Tea – and the Lucky Jim, which involves vodka, cucumber juice, cucumber slices, vermouth and ice. Some of the recipes and attitudes sound a little dated; had he been here, one would have welcomed Amis’ views on, for example, flavoured breezers, fruit spritzers, microbrews and single malt snobs. Nevertheless, many pieces have aged well and go down smoothly, enlivened by the occasional aperitif such as, “Food is the curse of the drinking classes”.

Though it appears that he’s sampled and appreciated beverages from virtually every corner of the world, Amis points out that he himself is a malt whisky man: “The sign of what I call a serious spirit is that it’s profitably or even preferably drinkable neat, or with a little water.” He takes a refreshingly unpretentious view when it comes to wine. Though he appreciates the beverage, his views are moulded by thrift: “An under-regarded but surely powerful argument against wine is that very few of us can afford to drink quality wine with any regularity, whereas a fair number can actually afford reasonable amounts of the best beer most nights of the week”. He is severe, too, on snobs: “When I find someone I respect writing about an edgy, nervous wine that dithered in the glass, I cringe”, adding elsewhere a sardonic Wine Resenter’s Short Handy Guide.

In his preface, Amis stresses the role of drink as a social lubricant, something Hemingway puts more bluntly: “An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with fools”. Christopher Hitchens echoes this in his introduction: “The plain fact is that it makes other people, and indeed life itself, less boring”. Sadly, he continues, “the booze got to [Amis] in the end and robbed him of his wit and charm as well as his health”. Even so, there’s plenty of effervescence and high spirits to be found in this cocktail, leaving you with the overpowering urge to sample the distiller’s art forthwith.

Singing the Booze

Ten novels in which alcohol plays a starring role.

Devdas, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1917).

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy meets bottle

Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara. (1931)

The decline and fall of a cocktail-tossing Cadillac dealer in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania.

Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton. (1941)

Borderline alcoholic with a split personality fights fascism in 1930s Britain, only to bring about his own defeat.

The Lost Weekend, Charles Jackson (1944)

Failed writer goes on a five-day bender in the bars and streets of 1930s Manhattan. According to Amis, “…the best fictional account of alcoholism I have read”.

Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947)

The last day in the life of an alcoholic ex-consul in Mexico. Should’ve heeded Amis’ words on mescal: “[T]he nastiest drink I’ve ever drunk in my life…”

The Alcoholics, Jim Thompson (1953)

Raw thriller in which a doctor treating alcoholism presides over a rogue’s gallery of twisted nurses and patients.

A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley (1968)

Thinly-disguised memoir of a promising athlete who veers off track, changing from drifter to drunkard.

The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene (1969)

A ‘whisky priest’ stumbles across Mexico hoping for salvation, aided by some unholy spirit.

Post Office, Charles Bukowski (1971)

Misanthropic postman with an eye for women and horse-racing stays alive so he can stay drunk

Paradise, A.L. Kennedy (2004)

Alcoholic woman meets alcoholic dentist. Enough to set your teeth on edge.


anisha sarin said...

Rum Diary by Hunter Thompson

Unknown said...

'The Rum Diary', yes, of course. Although Burroughs' 'Dry' is more memoir than novel -- as are others such as those by Susan Cheever and Pete Hamill.