Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

There was a drawer in every room of our house and in every drawer there was a white pamphlet. On the cover it said: ‘Who, Me?’ My mother had placed the pamphlets there in the hope that when my father tried to find a corkscrew or a book of matches he would see the bold question and finally ask it of himself. I don’t know whether any of my brothers remember this, but I do, or the writer in me does, as if the question was quite fundamental, asking – as I looked for a toy car or the same book of matches – if I had what it would take to make sense of my life.

Eventually my father picked up one of the pamphlets and he read it and went to AA. And one day he asked me if he could borrow a briefcase I’d got for Christmas. He took the briefcase away and it was soon filled with ‘literature’ about alcoholism and recovery. He had a copy of something he called the ‘Big Book’ in there too, and so, in my mind, the bond between heavy drinking and writing was forged. When I thought of poetry I thought of drink. There was Robert Burns, after all, and his skirling, birling Tam O’Shanter. There was Hugh MacDiarmid and his drunk man looking at the thistle. And there were all those Scots poets meeting in Milne’s Bar in Edinburgh, pouring whisky down their necks and poison in one another’s ears, yet homeward-bound at the end of it all to beat their respective grouses into the air and write their lyrics.

‘Writers, even the most socially gifted and established,’ Olivia Laing writes in The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink (Canongate, £20), ‘must be outsiders of some sort, if only because their job is that of scrutiniser and witness.’ Her book is an elegant rumination on what it is that leads writers to take up the bottle. Being an outsider is isolating but so is being an insider – a spy on oneself – and the delusion of drinking is that it can take the edge off reality, make it more bearable. Instead, as her study shows, it becomes a reality of its own. ‘Inspiration contained a death threat,’ Saul Bellow said in his introduction to John Berryman’s novel Recovery. ‘He would, as he wrote the things he had waited and prayed for, fall apart. Drink was a stabiliser. It somewhat reduced the fatal intensity.’ But Bellow was a wizard of urban reality who never understood the reality of drink and Laing rightly calls him on it. ‘The poems weren’t killing Berryman,’ she writes. ‘They didn’t cause delirium tremens, or give him gynaecomastia, or make him fall down flights of stairs, vomit or defecate in public places. Alcohol might have quietened his near omnipresent sense of panic on a drink by drink basis, but on a drink by drink basis it had also created a life of physical and moral disintegration and despair.’

George Best once said that the greatest disaster of his life was that everybody he met wanted to buy him a drink. You might say, in defence of a well-meaning public, that the disaster was compounded by Best’s inability to refuse. But drinking is in many ways a selfish art, and I say that as someone who likes drinking and who used to love it. There’s a world of difference between the drinker who always wants a companion and the drinker who yearns to drink alone. I’ve always been in the first category and that to me felt like an achievement: my family was riddled with people who died of drink or whose lives were totally unmanageable because of their addiction. They used to say it was an Irish thing or a Glasgow thing, but in fact it was a sad life thing, as if being numb was simply the best option.

Things that rely on disinhibition (dancing, charades, karaoke and fucking) can be improved with drink. But anything that relies on precision (fighting, writing) must be done cold, as Hemingway put it. There are writers who feel quite strongly that disinhibition is the essence of writing, that writing is a form of running naked through the streets. (Put it away, Allen Ginsberg.) My view would be that writing fiction is a form of inhibition made dense and technical. Other people might be freed by it, for a while, but the author is unlikely to be, and God help him if he isn’t sober for the time it takes to get the thing down.

Where you once had Kingsley Amis and Ian Hamilton, imbibing and describing for all they were worth, you now have young men who constantly pat their pockets, plead poverty, dodge their round and worry about their deadlines, in ways that would have made Dylan Thomas reach for some ancient bardic curse. This all started many years ago when a young newspaperman entered the Pillars of Hercules on Greek Street to interview Hamilton and some of his star writers on the New Review. ‘What’ll you have?’ Ian said to the whey-faced visitor.

‘I don’t drink,’ he said. ‘I don’t like the taste.’ Hamilton screwed up his decreasingly handsome face.

‘None of us likes it,’ he said.

Of course, a neat reversal had occurred. It was pointed out to me several years ago by the late American editor Robert Giroux. He was recounting, over gins, the days when authors would routinely fall into his office smelling of the pigsty and dying of cirrhosis, keen to deposit their latest manuscript on his desk before repairing to the last chance saloon. ‘The editors all wore spectacles in those days,’ he said, ‘whether they needed them or not. And several of us had watch chains. A number of us caught the 5.06 train to White Plains and suchlike. There was a certain contrast between the editors and the writers. Nowadays, of course, the writer appears in a three-piece suit, accompanied by their agent and a private researcher. And the editor? Well, he’s probably in rehab or having a gin.’