Peter Morgan column: The Book of Booze
Some of the more cultured readers of just-drinks.com may recall a drinking game which was very popular in the late 1980s.
The idea - you'll excuse my rather vague memories on this point - was to match the alcohol intake of the characters in Withnail and I as they searched for "the finest wines known to humanity". As a consequence, my verdict on the last half hour of the film has always had a provisional air about it. These highbrow drinking games came to mind recently while I was laughing and loafing through the newly published Letters of Kingsley Amis, the English novelist and raconteur.
Sir Kingsley was an heroic drinker: the Poet Laureate of the saloon bar. But before any reader tries to match the booze intake casually related in his Letters, they might do well to tuck a spare liver under their armchair. "My mouth feels like the interior of a railway station," he tells Philip Larkin after a particularly heavy night of elbow bending in 1947.
Things continued in a similar vein throughout Amis's stint as an English lecturer in the Welsh town of "Swonzy" and beyond. Now and then he tried to climb on the wagon. "Yesterday's score: 1 sherry, 2 beers, 3 gins, 1/2 bottle Beaujolais" he reports proudly to his abstemious second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard in 1962. "Present state of health - moderate."
By the 1980s, a skinful of double Macallans and triple "kwangtrohs" had made Amis more rueful. "I am on my NAP (New Alcoholic Policy) again", he relates to a dying Larkin in 1985. "4-5 drinks a day, which means I can eat, sign my name at any time and follow films on TV at night. Just a few nightmares thrown in".
At first glance this sounds like a familiar literary odyssey: a talented writer destroyed by the demon drink. After all, the list of writers whose brains turned 100% proof is long and distinguished. Neither Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald could kick off without a morning sharpener; Charles Bukowski and Brendan Behan turned their drunken lives into shrunken art.
The striking - and salutary - fact about Kingsley Amis on the other hand, is how the mammoth input of booze never appeared to make much of a dent on the equally mammoth output of work. During his forty year career, Amis wrote twenty odd novels, a dozen or so non-fiction works (including the wonderfully titled Every Day Drinking) and a widely respected book of Collected Poems.
How did he do it, one wonders? "(Amis) was endowed with remarkable powers of recovery", writes his biographer Eric Jacobs, "which saw him at his typewriter promptly every morning no matter how much he had consumed the night before." Writers like Dylan Thomas - aka "Mr Toss" in the letters - drew Amis's scorn for their inability to hold their sauce. "I don't grieve him as a voice forever silenced", he wrote crisply after Thomas's sudden death, "in fact that part of it is very much all right with me".
In Amis's case, boozing seemed to help the words to flow. It also provided some light relief from Life, which he regarded as a tedious and terrifying affair full of "bores" and "craps".
A notorious stay-at-home in later years, Amis crafted a daily routine to fit his liquid habits. An average day, according to Eric Jacobs went as follows: pre-lunch double Macallan (or two, or three) with "a splash of water"; for the main course a shared bottle of Gewurtztraminer, an Alsatian white wine, followed by a glass of Grand Marnier or a couple of clarets. Early evening, Kingers would put his feet up with Coronation Street, nursing a fresh bottle of Macallan with mineral water. "Now and then", Amis writes wearily in his Memoirs, "I become conscious of being one of the great drinkers, if not one of the great drunks of our time..."
Justified or not, this woozy reputation also produced some of the funniest drinking scenes in modern fiction. Take Amis's description of the hangover which greets his anti-hero Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim (1954): "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 expertly beaten up by secret police..." The Old Devils (for which Amis won the 1986 Booker Prize) swims along in a sea of cheap white wine and beer.
One of Amis's more experimental novels, The Green Man, takes a more jaundiced view. The main character, an alcoholic publican called Allington, suffers from leg spasms and hallucinations. The symptoms are described in enough detail for the reader to conclude they are drawn from first hand knowledge. Most people, Allington claims, have some experience of jactitation: "That convulsive straightening of the leg which is often accompanied by a short explanatory dream about stumbling, or missing the bottom stair".
In Amis's case, life eventually imitated art. After an agreeable (and clearly well lubricated) lunch at the Society of Snuff Grinders in March 1982, Amis tottered home and broke his leg, while trying to navigate his way from bedroom to bathroom. He gave up booze for six months after this experience.
A week or so reading Sir Kingsley's letters leaves you with a more benign impression. A man of cruel wit, Amis saw drink as an essential social lubricant. There was an art of writing and an art of drinking: a chap should stand his round and then pass out quietly in the corner. And when it really mattered - on the clean white page - Amis knew that boozing had to take second place. "The bottle on the desk is all very well," he writes in his Memoirs, "but not for anything anybody may hope to read more than a couple of days later".
Before following in Sir Kingsley's boozy footsteps, readers may like to know one last, salient fact. The sage of Primrose Hill never learnt to drive. A quick spin through the Letters suggests this probably drew a sigh of relief in hospital A & E departments across the country.
The Letters of Kingsley Amis (Ed, Zachary Leader), Harper Collins, £24.99
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