Books Features

Through a glass, darkly

Nick Cohen on the ill-starred but seductive love affair between writers and alcohol

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Alcohol has many side effects: euphoria, conviviality, mindless violence, cancer and mental breakdown. But from the point of view of the alcoholic, its most seductive property is its ability to justify itself.

“You find the best stories in the pub,” my colleagues and I on the old Fleet Street would hear alcohol tell us as we knocked off for a long lunch, which could last into a long evening. And indeed, as the drink flowed, glistening and glorious ideas for stories appeared that had us falling off our bar stools in helpless laughter. As it flowed some more, they were forgotten and replaced by new ideas more glistening and more glorious. Cut off the flow, the alcohol whispers, and you will become a deadbeat bore, churning out pap and living the unremarked life. 

Christopher Hitchens, who contrary to the portrayals of his enemies was the most generous of intellectuals, once gave me an uncharacteristically schoolmasterish lecture on how I must never, never think of stopping boozing. If I did, my creativity would vanish. He had literary authority behind him. “Smoke like a fish and drink like a chimney,” cried V.S. Pritchett. Don’t worry about becoming an alcoholic, said Dylan Thomas: an alcoholic is just “someone you dislike who drinks as much as you do”.

Stay with it and alcohol takes you to a new normal. A bottle of wine at lunchtime? Pah! A mere aperitif. “A few pints” after work — a pleasingly vague definition that could be stretched to four or five — and then more at home. This is your right, and alcohol says that you have every reason to feel outraged if you cannot exercise it.

Doubting journalists could look to the example of proper writers, great writers, who were heroic drinkers — “heroic” because alcohol also tells you that the more of its company you can take, the tougher you are.

Cut off the flow, the alcohol whispers, and you’ll become a deadbeat bore churning out pap

The novelist and poet William Palmer has turned himself into a modern Vasari in their honour and produced a Lives of the Drunk Artists. His new book In Love with Hell (Robinson, £20) offers sympathetic and wonderfully perceptive biographies of 11 novelists and poets from Patrick Hamilton to Richard Yates via Jean Rhys and Dylan Thomas, alongside an overarching explanation of why they risked allowing drink to destroy them. 

The question may seem banal. Writers turn to drink for the same reasons plumbers, beauticians and estate agents turn to drink. They reach for the bottle because they are insecure or broken or because alcohol is the only hard drug our society celebrates. No respectable person would say, “Go on have a shot of heroin, it can’t hurt you.” Hosts never tell guests, “I’m sorry, but if you want to drink that wine you’ll have to join the smokers in the garden.”

In his last budget, the Chancellor froze the beer, wine and spirit duties while effectively cutting the pay of nurses. I did not hear one politician or commentator say that he might have funded a pay rise and reduced the pressure on nurses to care for domestic abuse victims and sufferers from cirrhosis if he had raised taxes on booze.

Palmer is too wise a writer to pretend that novelists are a race apart. He rejects the debatable American notion that alcoholism is a disease, for what kind of disease goes away when we decide we do not want it any more? Instead, as his title says, he explains that writers fall in love with alcohol, as did I and as do countless millions of others. Unlike a human object of desire, alcohol never stands you up, or runs off with someone else. 

The most perceptive doctors I have interviewed agree that alcoholics give up when they decide they love their partner, or children, or themselves more than they love to drink. This is why the families of addicts who will not stop find it hard to forgive them.

The failure to love themselves makes the case of writers so fascinating. Drink destroys their talent in the end. Palmer argues that novelists are more likely to understand their own psychology better than the therapists trying to help them. Writers do not care because alcohol offers a diabolical bargain. In the early years, it can expand their talent. If you feel worthless or a fraud or humiliated by criticism — and of course you do not need to be a novelist to feel any of the above — alcohol can drown your demons. Academic critics of the 1950s hated Dylan Thomas with a loathing that bordered on mental illness.There’s no doubt that the drink helped him to cope for a few years and produce an explosion of poetry that has lasted.

Then there is the loneliness of the writer, which the rest of us can perhaps understand better after lockdown. The hard-drinking press of my youth was convivial. Newspapers then were overstaffed by modern standards and were happy to see reporters disappear into the nearest pub when the first edition went to press. We might be pissing it up but at least we were next door if a story broke. Now the web has slashed the budget for reporters and abolished deadlines. How can you “pop off for a quick one” after the first edition when the paper’s website can be altered 24/7? As good a definition of modernity as any is that, in newspapers as everywhere else, there is never time for a quick one. 

The solitary writer found company we took for granted in pubs and clubs, and a subject as well. Alcoholism gave Malcolm Lowry and Charles R. Jackson one great novel each: Under the Volcano and The Lost Weekend. Brian O’Nolan’s surreal columns for the Irish Times, written under the pseudonym of Myles na Gopaleen, can be read as transcripts of the most brilliant pub chat you could ever hope to hear. 

Patrick Hamilton’s 20,000 Streets under the Sky trilogy survives in part because they are among the few works in literature to deal with the pub. As Palmer says, writers may have enjoyed this central institution of British life to excess but few showed its strange rituals and taboos in fiction or recognised the dramatic potential of a world where characters may have a home to go to eat and sleep, but the pub is where they live.

Palmer does not talk about what happens to the creativity of alcoholic writers who manage to give up

The deal is diabolical because if you do not produce when you are young, alcohol will slowly destroy you. Like an athlete prepared to be crippled in old age by his or her training, writers take the risk. They can only hope that, like most athletes, they will not end up without fame or money, and be reduced to living in a shrinking world where alcohol is all they have left.

This book can be a heartbreaking read if you have learned to love the writers Palmer covers. O’Nolan is best remembered for producing The Third Policeman under the pseudonym of Flann O’Brien. To my mind, his columns from the 1940s and 1950s are better. They bear comparison with the journalism of Dickens and Orwell on the most basic level that, as with Dickens and Orwell, they are still read today. 

I wanted to shout, “Come on O’Brien, you can give it up or cut it back.” He couldn’t. The falls, hangovers, diarrhoea and kidney infections took over his life and crippled his talent. Dying of cancer in 1965, aged 54, he was still drinking in hospital. There’s no point in giving up now, he said. In any case, we all face a choice “between drinking and being bored to death” and he had made his. To say this is a false choice is to understate the case for the prosecution. No one is more boring than an addict.

It’s the same story with Jean Rhys, who appeared to her neighbours as a mad, drunk old woman living in suburban obscurity, until her work was rediscovered. It’s the same with nearly every other writer in Palmer’s book. They produce their best work before they are 40 and then turn from drinkers into drunks. Not everyone: Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess put away distilleries but carried on creating until the end, but their escapes from a miserable descent are exceptions to a grim rule.

Palmer does not talk about what happens to the creativity of alcoholic writers who manage to give up. Perhaps none ever has. From my own meagre experience of journalism, I first thought that Hitchens was right and my writing would turn bland. Nothing of the sort happened when I went on the wagon four years ago. Perhaps my journalism became less angry and more detached. If it did, readers have not pointed it out. Going dry has not transformed me into a different person. How could it? It has just stopped me being drunk.

 The greatest lie alcohol whispers is that without me there would be no you; turn your back on me, and you turn your back on yourself. By the end of this humane book, you are not falling into the sentimentality of the maudlin drunk if you wish the writers whom Palmer so tenderly examines had seen through alcohol’s false promises before it was too late.

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