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February 16, 2009

David Womersley asks, what can we learn from Kingsley Amis about drink and drinking? Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis - Kingsley Amis

Posted by David Womersley

Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis
by Kingsley Amis
Pp. xvi + 304. London, Berlin, New York: Bloomsbury, 2008.
Hardback, £9.99

First of all, that title. Should it be Everyday Drinking, or (more sinisterly, less affably, stoked by a grimmer determination) Every Day Drinking? The title of this reprinting of Amis's three columns on drink (On Drink, Every Day Drinking, and How's Your Glass) is definitely just two words: Everyday Drinking. But the original column had, just as definitely, three words in its title: Every Day Drinking.

Does it matter? It would have mattered to Amis, who begins one of the articles reprinted here with a grumble about the illiteracy of copy editors (p. 101):

all over the place some people will continue to think that I think that "anymore" and "forever" are single words and (thanks in the first place to the copytaker on the telephone) that "alright in it's way" is all right in some way or other.
So there would have been something at stake for Amis in the choice between "everyday" or "every day".

Both versions have their claims. One of the engaging aspects of these columns comes from the fact that, although Amis knew an awful lot about drink (some acquired from books, rather more acquired at first hand) he has no time for connoisseurship. Wine both attracted him and made him wary. He is frank enough to acknowledge (though with evident unwillingness) the self-evident truth that (p. 51):

really good and properly served clarets and red burgundies are the best drinks yet devised by man.
But wine was also so full of social traps, so rich in opportunities to be cheated and exposed as either a fool or a fraud. One suspects that the incidental swipe at Paris (p. 70),
where you can drink as safely as anywhere in the world, and as enjoyably too if you have £25 per day to spend on drink alone and are slow to react to insolence and cheating
is a leaf taken from the book of bitter experience. Sometimes this suspicion of expertise served Amis well, as for instance in the excellent advice he gives about wine vintages, urging the reader to throw away his vintage chart (p. 58)
or keep it in a drawer until you know the subject a bit and can pick up cheap the good wines of a "bad" year
- golden words. It also dictated his alarming advice - not, in my experience, quite so golden - concerning home-made drinks (p. 53):
stand ready to drink other people’s home-made brews like mad: they are often amazingly good.
Some of the suggestions about how to drink wine (for instance, cut Italian reds with Pellegrino – try doing that with a bottle of Aldo Conterno's Barolo in Turin, and see what reaction you get), while no doubt truthful concerning how Amis himself liked to take them, seem also in part to have been dictated by this mischievous, levelling spirit of épater les vignerons.

Amis is also very acute on the pretensions of modern drinking, particularly when it comes to the dryness of white wine. His antennae registered the affectation of the general claim to like dry white wine. Give most people a really dry wine such as Chablis blind and they will not ask for a second glass - until you tell them what it is. On the other hand, they will happily drink gallons of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, as will I, because it is a delicious drink, but one which clearly has considerable sweetness behind the initial cut of the acidity. Against the pretensions of wine, Amis is excellent on the merits of beer, a drink one feels he really preferred to wine in a visceral way, and (of course and notoriously) malt whisky. So, Everyday Drinking, then.

But also, inescapably, Every Day Drinking. A period of abstinence is recorded (p. 130):

Earlier this year I went off the booze for a few weeks, a purely voluntary move, let it be said. . . . It wasn't quite what I'd expected. . . . not only is one's general level of health unaffected by the change, but daily ups and downs persist in the same way.
Such rare episodes of self-experimentation aside, these columns emerge from an unrelenting dedication to drink, in pretty much all its forms. As Martin Amis has said,
he wrote about booze to salvage something from all the hours he devoted to it.
But why did he drink? He drank to get drunk, although not out of a physiological craving for alcohol. During his drink-fast, he didn't miss the alcohol (p. 133),
and if there ever was something to be thankful for, that's it.
Drunkenness was craved on psychological, not physiological grounds: because of the way it eased social encounters.

Some of the early pages of On Drink sketch the outlines of a social history of the use of alcohol, in which the fact that over the centuries

our drinks are getting stronger as well as more numerous
is accounted for by reference to, not the standard explanation of the increasing
strains and stresses of urban living
as a whole, but one such strain and stress in particular, namely
sudden confrontation with complete or comparative strangers in circumstances requiring a show of relaxation and amiability.
One of the things about modern life that made Amis uneasy was the fact that (p.4):
strangers pour over the horizon all the time.
Drink helped him cope with that, on a daily basis. So, also Every Day Drinking.

There are some excellent jokes in these short articles, some of which - inevitably, given the length of time over which they were written - are repeated. Along the way, you will pick up a good deal of useful information, and some terrific - and, occasionally, fearful - recipes for cocktails. Let me know if you ever decide to make Admiral Russell's Punch, of which the ingredients include four hogsheads of brandy, five pounds of grated nutmeg, and the juice of 2,500 lemons. I suppose you could scale it down, but something would be sacrificed. The only mournful moments are supplied by the occasional references to prices. To be told that bottles of Climens or Rieussec can be yours for £1.50 (p. 62) evokes a world we have lost forever - or, at least, until there is a fire-sale of the cellars of the Russian oligarchs.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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