The worst hangovers in culture
Rest assured that these types had it considerably worse than you, says Alexander Larman
If you’re conscious enough to read this, and you don’t have to squint, then we offer our congratulations, as well as the best wishes imaginable for a very happy 2020. 2019 was – let’s be honest– something of an eventful year on both the national and global stage, but we all have high hopes that the twelve months ahead of us are going to be an altogether better business.
Nonetheless, as one contemplates the days, weeks and months ahead, there is every chance that you are in possession of what might politely be termed ‘a humdinger of a head on one’. However you chose to spend New Year’s Eve, the likelihood is that it involved a fair bit of alcohol consumption, which in turn might have led to some raucous bellowing of songs in a fashion that their original creators may well not have recognised. You may also have indulged in other indiscretions, many of which have to be forgotten about immediately in the search for a detox cure. But while you rummage around the medicine cabinet for some extra-strong codeine, rest assured that these types had it considerably worse than you.
Jim Dixon, Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis, 1954)
‘Dixon was alive again.’ With those words, Kingsley Amis – himself a toper of no modest proportions – opens the set-piece that describes his lowly lecturer hero Jim Dixon’s mal a tête after a misspent evening at his boss and nemesis Neddy Welch’s house, where he has been invited to sing madrigals. Amis was inspired to write about Dixon’s miserable time at a provincial university after visiting his close friend Philip Larkin at University College Leicester. Larkin alluded to his own terrible hangovers in his university days (alongside Amis) in his poem ‘Dockery and Son’, in which he wrote how ‘Black-gowned, unbreakfasted and still half-tight/We used to stand before that desk, to give/’Our version’ of ‘those incidents last night’.
Amis, however, produced what must be the supreme description of a crapulous head in literature in his first novel. In the space of a few hundred words, we see Dixon ‘sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning.’ He has been rudely awoken – ‘not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection’ – and has the classic morning-after signs of a dry throat and sore head; ‘his mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.’ The guilt and horror of his actions of the evening before soon overwhelm him, and the book’s farcical plotting carries the momentum forward until the unexpected (and arguably undeserved) happy ending.
Lucky Jim has been filmed twice, once with Ian Carmichael and once with Stephen Tompkinson, and Amis wrote dozens of other books, many of which also explored the effects of over-heroic alcoholic consumption, most notably his non-fiction On Drink. None, however, come close to the horror and hilarity of this particular break-of-day terror.
Withnail and Marwood, Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson, 1987)
Cinematic depictions of the true effects of booze are few and few between. They are either played for absurdist comedy (as in the fittingly named Hangover trilogy) or, especially in the Golden Age of Hollywood, as a terrible warning of the effects of the demon drink. One thinks of Ray Milland, suffering from advanced delirium tremens, waking up in the so-called ‘Hangover Plaza’ in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, or Jack Lemmon being reduced to breaking into liquor stores and then forcibly incarcerated in a treatment ward in The Days of Wine and Roses.
Yet one of the most honest films about drunkenness and its inevitable effects is Bruce Robinson’s masterpiece Withnail and I. Strip away its endless quotability, reputation as a student favourite and the legacy of fatal drinking games, and one is left with a perceptive and picaresque study of two friends tempted into oblivion: one succumbs, and the other escapes.
The scenes that linger in the mind, though, are those in which our protagonists are trying, and usually failing, to come to terms with their demons. Whether it is Withnail moaning ‘I feel like a pig shat in my head’, Marwood having a moment of alcohol and narcotic induced paranoia in a gent’s loo – ‘who fucks arses? Maybe he fucks arses! Maybe he’s written this in a moment of drunken sincerity’ – or the scenes of the two trained actors reduced to the status of bums through over-indulgence, there can be little doubt that Robinson’s honest and sympathetic depiction of what it feels like to have ‘a bastard behind the eyes’ must be cinema’s funniest and most honest account of hangovers. You’ll laugh, wince, and then laugh again.
The Day After, Edvard Munch (1894)
Art has often been a peerless means of communicating strong emotions in purely visual terms, and anyone who has ever found themselves in the full grip of alcoholic madness may well recognise the terror and panic of being out of control evoked by Edvard Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream.
Munch, himself a prodigious drinker, painted many pictures which were testament to the effects of strong liquor, but the most striking account of a hangover is his work The Day After. A beautiful woman with long dark hair lies comatose on a bed, clearly feeling the effects of her consumption; the pair of bottles and glasses on the table next to her show what was taken, and also that she was, presumably, drinking with a companion. It has been suggested that she is a prostitute, but Munch, who knew something of the nightlife of the street, refuted the idea.
Instead, the picture was probably intended as a response to Munch’s compatriot Hans Heyerdahl’s 1882 work The Girl with Champagne, a depiction of a louche, red-faced good-time girl who raises a glass of fizz in a toast, apparently neither knowing or caring that her dress is undone, exposing her breasts. Heyerdahl’s subject at least appears to be having a good time. Munch’s woman, meanwhile, has probably been visited by countless privations, although it is for the spectator to surmise whether these have been physical or merely alcoholic in nature.
W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, ‘The Nightmare Song’, Iolanthe (1882)
For some reason, the fin-de-siècle period of the late nineteenth century led artists, writers and composers to outdo themselves in depictions of excess, although the prevailing morality of the day meant that a carefully deployed series of euphemisms and half-allusions, delivered with a nod and wink to the cognoscenti, became the norm. One thinks of Wilde, smuggling his favourite themes of subterfuge and concealment into both The Portrait of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest through a dazzling series of quips and epigrams.
Gilbert and Sullivan, who famously guyed Wilde as the ‘fleshy poet’ Bunthorne in their 1881 operetta Patience, also, somewhat unexpectedly, produced one of the great musical accounts of a feverish hangover, delivered in the guise of a lovesick nightmare. There have been many songs about the dreadful after-effects of booze – The Who’s ‘Who Are You’ and Billy Joel’s ‘Big Shot’ to name but a couple – but few as weird and dramatic as this.
In context, it is about the Lord Chancellor of England, tormented by his infatuation for his ward Phyllis, but Gilbert’s lyrics, over Sullivan’s increasingly dramatic score, offer a phantasmagorical vision of the very worst feelings occasioned by ‘the morning after’. From its beginning – ‘when you’re lying awake with a dismal headache and repose is tabooed by anxiety’ – and how ‘I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in without impropriety’ – Gilbert creates a strange, increasingly bizarre scenario in which, with ‘hot eyeballs and head ever-aching’, steam trains transform into bicycles, tradesmen are turned into vegetables and chaos and disorder are on full display.
No wonder that the Lord Chancellor, like any New Year’s Eve reveller, might feel that ‘you’ve cramp in your toes, and a fly on your nose, and some fluff in your lung, and a feverish tongue, and a thirst that’s intense, and a general sense that you haven’t been sleeping in clover’; at least, thankfully, the nightmare comes to an end for him, as it usually does for the rest of us too. The song is also a great favourite of Neil Gaiman’s, and he included it in his 2019 Radio 3 Christmas concert Playing In The Dark.
After the Dance (Terence Rattigan, 1939)
Depictions of drunkenness on stage are one of the frequent mainstays of theatre, comic and otherwise. One thinks of plays as disparate as Twelfth Night, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Yet there are comparatively few scenes of hangovers in drama, perhaps because writers struggle to convey the external horror of what is primarily an internal torment, or simply because, in the magical world of make-believe, characters can drink as much as they want, remain witty and cogent, and rise shining in time for the next act without a trace of a headache.
Terence Rattigan’s great and, until recently, hugely underrated play After the Dance is the correlative to that. It depicts the fast and self-indulgent world of David and Joan Scott-Fowler, two of the ‘bright young things’ of the Twenties, who have continued the party long after anyone sensible would have given up and called it a night. We are introduced to them the morning after a party, where both have entered, in the words of Withnail, ‘the arena of the unwell’, along with their disreputable friend John Reid, who has been living on their charity and their booze for an unnamed but lengthy period.
Still, as one character says, ‘it’s the bright young things all over again, except they never were very bright, and now they’re not even young.’ The Scott-Fowlers’ marriage is based on exhausting amounts of fun and frivolity, but when David is tempted into what he sees as a ‘worthy’ relationship with a sober young woman, Helen, the effect on the apparently frivolous Joan is a shocking reversal that stands comparison to Ibsen. Nancy Carroll deservedly won an Olivier Award for her performance in the National’s revival in 2010 (opposite Benedict Cumberbatch as David) and reminded us, as if we needed it, that even the most dreadful physical effects of hangovers cannot compare to the moral wretchedness that they can engender.
None of which, we hope, applies to anyone reading this, so once again a happy New Year and all of our best wishes for a productive, enjoyable – and temperate – twelve months ahead.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe