The Hangover, by Kingsley Amis

December 24, 2016 at 12:34 am (booze, Christmas, literature, music, posted by JD)

British novelist and comic writer Kingsley Amis prepares for another sip of wine

The Hangover by Kingsley Amis (from Everyday Drinking – The Distilled Kingsley Amis, Bloomsbury 2008):

What a subject! And, in very truth, for once, a ‘strangely neglected’ one. Oh, I know you can hardly open a newspaper or magazine without coming across a set of instructions – most of them unoriginal, some of them quite unhelpful and one or two of them actually harmful – on how to cure this virtually pandemic ailment. But such discussions concentrate exclusively on physical manifestations, as if one were treating a mere illness. They omit the psychological, moral, emotional, spiritual aspects: all that vast, vague, awful, shimmering metaphysical superstructure that makes the hangover a (fortunately) unique route to self-knowledge and self-realisation.

Imaginative literature is not much better. There are poems and songs about drinking, of course, but none to speak of about getting drunk, let alone having been drunk. Novelists go into the subject more deeply and extensively, but tend to straddle the target, either polishing off the hero’s hangover in a few sentences or, so to speak, making it the whole of the novel. In the latter case, the hero will almost certainly be a dipsomaniac, who is not as most men are and never less so than on the morning after. This vital difference, together with much else, is firmly brought out in Charles Jackson’s marvellous and horrifying The Lost Weekend, the best fictional account of alcoholism I have read.

A few writers can be taken as metaphorically illuminating the world of the hangover while ostensibly dealing with something else. Perhaps Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis, which starts with the hero waking up to find he has turned into a man-sized cockroach, is the best literary treatment of all. The central image could hardly be better chosen, and there is a telling touch in the nasty way everybody goes on at the chap. (I can find no information about Kafka’s drinking history.)

It is not my job, or anyway, I absolutely decline to attempt a full, direct description of the Metaphysical Hangover: no fun to write or read. But I hope something of this will emerge by implication from my list of counter-measures. Before I get on to that, however, I must deal with the Physical Hangover, which is, in any case, the logical one to tackle first, and the dispersal of which will notably alleviate the other – mind and body as we have already seen, being nowhere more intimately connected than in the sphere of drink. Here, then, is how to cope with:

THE PHYSICAL HANGOVER
1. Immediately on waking, start telling yourself how lucky you are to be feeling so bloody awful. This recognises the truth that if you do not feel bloody awful after a hefty night, then you are still drunk and must sober up in a waking state before hangover dawns.

2. If your wife or other partner is beside you, and (of course) is willing, perform the sexual act as vigorously as you can. The exercise will do you good, and – on the assumption that you enjoy sex – you will feel toned up emotionally, thus delivering a hit-and-run raid on your Metaphysical Hangover (M.H.) before you formally declare war on it.
WARNINGS. (i) If you are in bed with somebody you should not be in bed with, and have in the least degree a bad conscience about this, abstain. Guilt and shame are prominent constituents of the M.H., and will certainly be sharpened by indulgence on such an occasion.
(ii) For the same generic reason, do not take the matter into your own hands if you awake by yourself.

3. Having of course omitted to drink all that water before retiring, drink a lot of it now, more than you need to satisfy your immediate thirst. Alcohol is a notorious dehydrant, and a considerable part of your Physical Hangover (P.H.) comes from the lack of water in your cells.
At this point I must assume that you can devote at least a good part of the day to yourself and your condition. Those who inescapably have to get up and do something can stay in bed only as long as they dare, get up, shave, take a hot bath or shower (more of this later), breakfast off an unsweetened grapefruit (more of this later) and coffee, and clear off, with the intention of getting as drunk at lunchtime as they dare. Let me just observe in passing that the reason why so many professional artists drink a lot is not necessarily very much to do with the artistic temperament, etc. It is simply that they can afford to, because they can normally take a large part of a day off to deal with the ravages. So, then:

4. Stay in bed until you can stand it no longer. Simple fatigue is another great constituent of the P.H.

5. Refrain, at all costs, from taking a cold shower. It may bring temporary relief, but in my own and others’ experience it will give your Metaphysical Hangover a tremendous boost after about half an hour, in extreme cases making you feel like a creature from another planet. Perhaps this is the result of having dealt another shock to your already shocked system. The ideal arrangement, very much worth the trouble and expense if you are anything of a serious drinker, is a shower fixed over the bath. Run a bath as hot as you can bear and lie in it as long as you can bear. When it becomes too much, stand up and have a hot shower, then lie down again and repeat the sequence. This is time well spent.
Warning: Do not do this unless you are quite sure your heart and the rest of you will stand it. I would find it most disagreeable to be accused of precipitating your death, especially in court.

6. Shave. A drag, true, and you may well cut yourself, but it is a calming exercise and will lift your morale (another sideswipe at your M.H.)

7. Whatever the state of your stomach, do not take an alkalising agent such as bicarbonate of soda. Better to take unsweetened fruit juice or a grapefruit without sugar. The reasoning behind this is that your stomach, on receiving a further dose of acid, will say to itself, ‘Oh. I see: we need more alkaline,’ and proceed to neutralise itself. Bicarbonate will make it say: ‘Oh, I see: we need more acid,’ and do you further damage.
If you find this unconvincing, take heed of what happened one morning when, with a kingly hangover, I took bicarbonate with a vodka chaser. My companion said: ‘Let’s see what’s happening in your stomach,’ and poured the remnant of the vodka into the remnant of the bicarbonate solution. The mixture turned black and gave off smoke.

8. Eat nothing, or nothing else. Give your digestion the morning off. You may drink coffee, though do not expect this to do anything for you beyond making you feel more wide awake.

9. Try not to smoke. That nicotine has contributed to your P.H.is a view held by many people, including myself.

10. By now you will have shot a good deal of the morning. Get through the rest of it somehow, avoiding the society of your fellows. Talk is tiring. Go for a walk or sit or lie about in the fresh air. At 11am or so, see if you fancy the idea of a Polish Bison (hot Bovril and vodka). It is still worthwhile without the vodka. You can start working on your M.H. any time you like.

11. About 12:30pm, firmly take a hair (or better, in Cyril Connolly’s phrase, a tuft) of the dog that bit you. The dog, by the way, is of no particular breed; there is no obligation to go for the same drink as the one you were mainly punishing the night before. Many will favour the Bloody Mary. Others swear by the Underburg. For the ignorant, this is a highly alcoholic bitters rather resembling Fernet Branca, but in my experience more usually effective. It comes in miniature bottles holding about a pub double, and should be put down in one. The effect on one’s insides after a few seconds is rather like that of throwing a cricket ball into an empty bath, and the resulting mild convulsions and cries of shock are well worth witnessing. But, thereafter, a comforting glow supervenes, and very often a marked turn for the better. By now, one way or another, you will be readier to face the rest of mankind and a convivial lunchtime can well result. Eat what you like within reason, avoiding anything greasy or rich. If your Physical Hangover is still with you afterwards, go to bed.
Before going on to the M.H., I will, for completeness’s sake, mention three supposed hangover cures, all described as infallible by those who told me about them, though I have not tried any of them. The first two are hard to come by:
• Go down the mine on the early-morning shift at the coal-face.
• Go up for half an hour in an open aeroplane (needless to say, with a non-hungover person at the controls).
• Known as Donald Watt’s Jolt, this consists of a tumbler of some sweet liqueur, Benedictine or Grand Marnier, taken in lieu of breakfast. Its inventor told me that with one of them inside him, he once spent three-quarters of an hour at a freezing bus-stop ‘without turning a hair’. It is true that the sugar in the drink will give you energy and the alcohol alcohol.
At this point, younger readers may relax the unremitting attention with which they have followed the above. They are mostly strangers to the Metaphysical Hangover. But they will grin or jeer at their peril. Let them rest assured that, as they grow older, the Metaphysical Hangover will more and more come to fill the gap left by their progressively less severe Physical Hangover. And of the two, incomparably, the more dreadful is…

THE METAPHYSICAL HANGOVER
1. Deal thoroughly with your P.H.

2. When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is and there is no use crying over spilt milk. If this works, if you can convince yourself, you need do no more, as provided in the remarkably philosophical:

G.P.9: He who truly believes he has a hangover has no hangover.

3. If necessary then, embark on either the M.H. Literature Course or the M.H. Music Course or both in succession (not simultaneously). Going off and gazing at some painting, building or bit of statuary might do you good, too, but most people, I think, will find such things unimmediate for this — perhaps any — purpose. The structure of both Courses, HANGOVER READING and HANGOVER LISTENING, rests on the principle that you must feel worse emotionally before you start to feel better. A good cry is the initial aim.

HANGOVER READING
Begin with verse, if you have any taste for it. Any really gloomy stuff that you admire will do. My own choice would tend to include the final scene of Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines 606 to the end, with what is probably the most poignant moment in all our literature coming at lines 624-6. The trouble here, though, is that today of all days you do not want to be reminded of how inferior you are to the man next door, let alone to a chap like Milton. Safer to pick somebody less horribly great. I would plump for the poems of A.E. Houseman and/or R.S. Thomas, not that they are in the least interchangeable. Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum is good, too, if a little long for the purpose.

Switch to prose with the same principles of selection. I suggest Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. It is not gloomy exactly, but its picture of life in a Russian labour camp will do you the important service of suggesting that there are plenty of people who have a bloody sight more to put up with than you (or I) have or ever will have, and who put up with it, if not cheerfully, at any rate in no mood of self-pity.

Turn now to stuff that suggests there may be some point to living after all. Battle poems come in rather well here: Macaulay’s Horatius, for instance. Or, should you feel that this selection is getting a bit British (for the Roman virtues Macaulay celebrates have very much that sort of flavour), try Chesterton’s Lepanto. The naval victory in 1571 of the forces of the Papal League over the Turks and their allies was accomplished without the assistance of a single Anglo-Saxon (or Protestant). Try not to mind the way Chesterton makes some play with the fact that this was a vicrory of Christians over Moslems.

By this time you could well be finding it conceivable that you might smile again some day. However, defer funny stuff for the moment. Try a good thriller or action story, which will start to wean you from self-observation and the darker emotions. Turn to comedy only after that; but it must be white – i.e. not black – comedy: P.G. Wodehouse, Stephen Leacock, Captain Marryat, Anthony Powell (not Evelyn Waugh), Peter De Vries (not The Blood of the Lamb, which, though very funny, has its real place in the tearful catagory, and a distinguished one). I am not suggesting that these writings are comparable in other ways than that they make unwillingness to laugh seem a little pompous and absurd.

HANGOVER LISTENING
Here, the trap is to set your sights too high. On the argument tentatively advanced against unduly great literature, give a wide berth to anyone like Mozart. Go for someone who is merely a towering genius. Tchaikovsky would be my best buy, and his Sixth Symphony (the Pathetique) my individual selection. After various false consolations have been set aside, its last movement really does what the composer intended and, in an amazingly non-dreary way, evokes total despair: sonic M.H. if ever I heard it.

Alternatively, or next, try Tchaikovsky’s successor, Sibelius. The Swan of Tuonela comes to mind, often recommended though it curiously is (or was in my youth) as a seduction battleground-piece (scope for a little article there). Better still for the purpose, I think, is the same composer’s incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play, Pelléas and Mélisande: not to be confused with Debussy’s opera of that name. The last section of the Sibelius, in particular, carries the ever-so-slightly phoney and overdone pathos that is exactly what you want in your present state.

If you can stand vocal music, I strongly recommend Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody – not an alto sax, you peasant, but a contralto voice, with men’s choir and full orchestra. By what must be pure chance, the words sung, from a – between you and me, rather crappy – poem of Goethe’s, Harzreise im Winter, sound like an only slightly metaphorical account of a hangover. They begin, “Aber abseits we ist’s?”  — all right, I am only copying it off the record sleeve; they begin “But who is that (standing) apart?/His path is lost in the undergrowth”, and end with an appeal to God to “open the clouded vista over the thousand springs beside the thirsty one in the desert”.  That last phrase gets a lot in. You can restore some of your fallen dignity by telling yourself that you too are a Duerstender in der Wueste. This is a piece that would fetch tears from a stone, especially a half-stoned stone, and nobody without a record of it in his possession should dare to say that he likes music. The Kathleen Ferrier version is still unequalled after twenty years.

Turn now to something lively and extrovert, but be careful. Quite a lot of stuff that appears to be so at first inspection has a nasty habit of sneaking in odd blows to the emotional solar plexus; ballet music (except Tchaikovsky) and overtures to light operas and such are much safer – Suppé, if you have no objection to being reminded of school sports days here and there, is fine. Or better, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, which would make a zombie dance.

Jazz is not much good for your M.H., and pop will probably worsen your P.H. But if you really feel that life could not possibly be gloomier, try any slow Miles Davis track. It will suggest to you that, however gloomy life may be, it cannot possibly be as gloomy as Davis makes it out to be. There is also the likely bonus to be gained from hearing some bystander refer to Davis as Miles instead of Davis. The surge of adrenalin at this piece of trendy pseudo-familiarity will buck up your system, and striking the offender to the ground will restore your belief in your own masculinity, rugged force, etc.
Warning: Make quite sure that Davis’s sometime partner, John Coltrane, is not “playing” his saxophone on any track you choose. He will suggest to you, in the strongest terms, that life is exactly what you are at present taking it to be: cheap, futile and meaningless.

* Wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things — ECCLESIASTES

Drinkers

I never tasted [whisky], except once for experiment at the inn at Inverary…It was strong but not pungent…What was the process I had no opportunity of inquiring, nor do I wish to improve the art of making poison pleasant — – SAMUEL JOHNSON

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Kingsley Amis’s seasonable booze recommendations

December 24, 2014 at 7:50 pm (booze, Christmas, posted by JD, whiskey, whisky)

British novelist and comic writer Kingsley Amis prepares for another sip of wine

Some in general,  excellent advice from a man who – like me – seriously objected to the intrusion of religion into the true, alcoholic, spirit of Christmas. His judgement broadly coincides with my own, and is therefore sound, except upon the question of beer: bloody Carlsberg!?! What was the man thinking of? I recommend Guinness’s revived West Indian Porter, anything from the Hobgoblin people , or – if you really must have larger, Veltin’s. Anyway, here’s Amis:

From Every Day Drinking (1981 – to be bourn in mind re: prices quoted ), by Kingsley Amis

Here is a mixed bag of seasonable concoctions.  First and foremost and indispensable, Irish Coffee. It’s a bit of a pest to make, but never was such labour more richly rewarded. To make each drink, stir thoroughly in a large pre-heated wine-glass 1 teaspoon of sugar or a bit more, about a quarter of a pint of your best and freshest black coffee, and 1-2 oz Irish whiskey — no other sort will do. When the mixture is completely still, pout onto its surface over the back of a spoon about 2 oz chilled double cream. The cream must float on the other stuff, not mingle with it. If this goes wrong, take Michael Jackson’s excellent advice: “Don’t serve the drink to your guests — knock it back quickly yourself, and try again.”

Other drinks have sprung up in imitation with the same coffee and cream content but with other spirits as a basis, like Benedictine, which gives Monks’ coffee, and Drambuie, which gives Prince Charles’s Coffee — yes that’s what the UK Bartenders Guild call it. Of those I’ve tried, none compared with the original.

Except for being warm, the next drink could hardly be more different. This is the Raging Bull, an Amis original, though no great powers of invention were called for. Make Bovril in a mug in the ordinary way and stir with a shot of vodka , a couple of shakes of Worcester sauce and a squeeze of lemon juice (optional). That’s it. Very heartening in cold and/or hung-over conditions.

Now, an unusual evening warmer, the Broken Leg. having had a real broken leg myself earlier this year I puzzle over the significance of the name, but the drink’s straightforward enough. Slowly heat about a quarter of a pint of apple juice in a saucepan with a few raisins, a cinnamon stick and a lemon slice. When it starts to bubble, strain into a preheated glass or mug. Pour a couple of ounces of bourbon whiskey into the pan, warm for a few seconds and pour into the remainder. Formula from John Doxat.

Lastly, American Milk Punch. You drink this cold, but it’ll soon light a fire in you. The previous evening — this is the hard part put milk instead of water into your refrigerator ice trays. On the day, mix thoroughly in a jug one part bourbon whiskey, one part French cooking brandy and four parts fresh milk. Pour into biggish glasses, drop in milk cubes, stir gently, dust with grated nutmeg and serve. This punch is the very thing for halfway through the morning of Boxing Day, when you may be feeling a little jaded and need a spot of encouragement before some marvellous treat like the sons-in-laws coming over for lunch. In fact, it can be treated as Snowy Mary, sustaining as well as uplifting, and much kinder to the digestion than the old Bloody Mary, a delicious drink, I agree, but full of acid fruit juices.

Remember the Milk Punch for the New Year as a heartener before air trips, interviews, etc.

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Christmas is traditionally a time when we behave kindly to our fellow human beings and push goodwill about all over the place. Well, to get myself into any kind of shape for being nice to others, I’ll have to take a lot of care of myself — and no more devotedly than in the sphere of drink. I intend to see that I have ample supplies of the few key items without which my Christmas would be a mockery, leaving me with no good will to spare for anyone.

My list leads with the Macallan Highland malt whiskey, my Drink of the Year (also of last year) and widely regarded in the trade as the king of malts. The flavour’s rich, even powerful, but completely smooth, as smooth as that of a fine cognac, and immediately enjoyable. Over Christmas I’ll be staying off it until comparatively late in the day, because the only drink you want after it is more of it. Macallen comes in various strengths and ages. I’ll be going for the standard 40 per cent alcohol at ten years old rather than the Macallen Royal Marriage, a unique blend of whiskies from 1948 and 1961, the couple’s respective birth years — wonderful stuff but a bit steep at £26.

I’ll also need a malt of a different type for when I’m not drinking the Macallen, selected from Highland Park, Isle of Jura, Tormore, Bowmore. And a good blend, preferably Famous Grouse, both for itself and for the interesting results if you move to a malt after it.

Must check that the Dry Martini makings arte in place — Gordon’s gin, Martini Rossi dry vermouth, and a jar of the largest possible hard, white, acid cocktail onions, much more of a sweat to find than the gin and vermouth. Check too on basic Bloody Mary makings — vodka, Worcester sauce and expensive tomato juice.

Table wines are not my forte, but on special occasions like the appearance of the Christmas turkey and trimmings I enjoy throwing down a good strong red. The one I’d go for is a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, not too recent, say ’76 or ’77. Any left over will go well with the Stilton. (perhaps a spot of port too with that, nothing fancy — somebody’s Special Reserve at about £5.)

I won’t be able to resist spoiling myself with some Musca de Beaumes de Venise, a sweet white wine from the Rhône that’s been tremendously successful here in the last couple of years. Made with the muscatel grape, fruity, flowery, and all that, an ideal desert wine, good with melon too.

We’re now beginning to deal with luxuries and treats, rather than the sheer necessity of Scotch or gin. Among liqueurs I’d certainly favour Kümmel, which with its caraway flavour does seem to take the fullness off after the plum pudding. Or a gross concession to guzzling like Bols apricot brandy or cherry brandy. But I’ll probably end up with Drambuie, drinking some of it cut 50-50 with my malt whisky, if I can spare any.

Back to the realm of stark need with the question of beer. I’ll be filling the refrigerator as full as I’m allowed to with large can of Carlsberg Special Brew and about half as many of the ordinary Carlsberg Pilsner Lager. Special Brew is a wonderful drink, but after a certain amount of it you do tend to fall over. Diluted with a weaker version of itself it gives you a longer run. To quaff the two of them half and half, really cold, out of a silver tankard produces as much goodwill as anything I know.

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“Thomas was an outstandingly unpleasant man, one who cheated and stole from his friends and peed on their carpets”

October 27, 2014 at 8:29 am (booze, literature, poetry, posted by JD, wild man)

Portrait of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas with wife Caitlin Thomas. Picture: Lebrecht  Thomas with wife Caitlin 

Dylan Thomas was born 100 years ago today, and the centennial is causing much excitement in Wales and, indeed, across the world. A lot of the coverage suggests that Thomas was not just the author of (occasionally) beguiling and attractive poetry, but was also a beguiling and attractive human being.

This gives me another opportunity to republish Kingsley Amis’s account of a meeting with Thomas in 1951.  Amis had little time for Thomas either as a man or as a poet, as the following account makes clear. Surprisingly, and under circumstances that have never been made clear, Amis was appointed executor of Thomas’s estate.

This account was first published in the Spectator in 1957, republished in 1970 as part of the Amis anthology What Became of Jane Austin? and finally appeared again in modified form in Amis’s 1991 Memoirs. What appears below is from the latter, with the 1957 conclusion appended:

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I met Dylan Thomas on a single evening in the spring of 1951, when he had accepted an invitation to give a talk to the English Society of the [University] College [of Swansea]. The secretary of the society, a pupil of mine, asked me if I would like to come along to the pub and meet Thomas before the official proceedings opened.  I said I would like to very much, for although I had lost all my earlier enthusiasm for his writing, I had heard a great deal, not only in Swansea, of his abilities as a talker and entertainer of his friends. I arranged with my wife and some of our own friends that we would try to get Thomas back into the pub after his talk and thereafter to our house just up the street from there. I got down the pub about six, feeling expectant.

The foregoing paragraph is based on a brief account I wrote of this meeting in the Spectator in 1957. If I had known about him then what I have since learnt, I would still have turned up, but with different expectations. For one things, I would certainly not have entertained the idea of getting him along to my house then or at any other time, indeed, would have done my best to conceal its location from him. I will now go on with a version of what I went on to write then, cut and amended where necessary.

Thomas was already in the pub, a glass of light ale before him and a half-circle of students round him. The impression he made was of apathy as much as anything. Also in attendance was, I said in 1957, a Welsh painter of small eminence whom I called Griffiths. In fact this person was a Welsh poet of small eminence by the name of John Ormond Thomas and later known professionally, I understand, as John Ormond. In the course of the session he told us several times that he had that day driven down from his house in Merionethshire (north Wales, now part of Gwynedd) on purpose to see Thomas, whom he had known, he said more than once, for several years. Thomas seemed very sedate, nothing like the great pub performer of legend. He was putting the light ales down regularly but without hurry. After some uninspired talk about his recent trip to America, he announced, in his clear, slow, slightly haughty, cut-glass Welsh voice, ‘I’ve just come back from Persia, where I’ve been pouring water on troubled oil.’

Making what was in those days my stock retort to the prepared epigram, I said boyishly, ‘I say, I must go and write that down.’ What I should have said, I now realise, was something much more like: ‘What? What are you talking about? That means nothing, and it isn’t funny or clever, it’s infantile playing with words, like that silly line of yours about the man in the wind and the man in the west moon. Or the phrase in that story about Highlanders being piping hot. They weren’t hot or piping hot, but saying so is a bit naughty, I agree. Taff.’

Instead of this we had an exchange of limericks. For this sort of thing to be fun, the limericks have to be good, ingenious, original and especially in mixed company, which this was, not scatological or distasteful (containing references to vomiting, for instance). These conditions were met only fitfully on this occasion. The time to be getting along to the meeting came none too soon. Thomas jumped up and bought a number of bottles of beer, two of which he stuffed into his coat pockets. He gave the others to J.O. Thomas to carry. ‘No need to worry, boy,’ the latter kept saying. ‘Plenty of time afterwards.’

‘I’ve been caught like that before.’

I realise now that this tenacious sticking to beer when spirits would obviously have been more portable confirms in a small way the view that Thomas was a natural beer-drinker, like many. But with a smaller capacity than many, perhaps the only defect in himself he seems to have noticed: there is a note of mortification in his remark to ‘Dai’ below. Anyway, he was finished off by all the bourbon they gave him in America, culminating in the famous eighteen straight whiskeys just before his death; but that was a good two and a half years later.

The bottles were still in Thomas’s pockets — he checked this several times — when in due course he sat rather balefully facing his audience in a room in the Students’ Union up the hill. About fifty or sixty people had turned up; students and lecturers from the College mainly, but with a good sprinkling of persons who looked as though they were implicated in some way with the local Bookmen’s Society. With a puzzled expression, as if wondering who its author could be, Thomas took from his breast pocket and sorted through an ample typescript, which had evidently been used many times before. (And why not? But I thought differently then.)

His first words were, ‘I can’t manage a proper talk. I might just manage an improper one.’ Some of the female Bookmen glanced at one another apprehensively. What followed was partly run-of-the mill stuff about his 1950 reading-lecturing tour of the US, featuring crew-cut sophomores and women’s literary clubs in pedestrian vein, and partly the impressionistic maundering, full of strings of compound adjectives and puns, he over-indulged in his broadcasts. Then he read some poems.

Of his own I remember ‘Fern Hill’ the best, a fine performance given the kind of poem it is, but for the most part he read the work of other poets: Auden’s ‘The Unknown Citizen’, Plomer’s ‘The Flying Bum’ (the Bookmen got a little glassy-eyed over that one) and Yeats’s ‘Lapus Lazuli’. His voice was magnificent, and his belief in what he read seemed absolute, yet there was something vaguely disconcerting about it too, not only to me. This feeling was crystallised when he came to the end of the Yeats. He went normally enough, if rather slowly, as far as:

‘Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes …’

and then fell silent for a full ten seconds. This, as can readily be checked, is a very long time, and since that baleful glare at his audience did not flicker, nor his frame move a hair’s breath, it certainly bore its full value on this occasion. Eventually his mouth dropped slowly and widely open, his lips crinkled like a child’s who is going to cry, and he said in a tremulous half-whisper:

‘… are gay.’ 

He held it for another ten seconds or so, still staring and immobile, his mouth still open and crinkled. It was magnificent and the silence in the room was absolute, but … (so 1957. Actually of course it was bloody awful, a piece of naked showing-off and an insult to Yeats and to poetry.)

I will cut the account short at that point. There was a return to the pub but still no pub performance. Perhaps he thought we were not worth it. Who cares? One has to record that many and varied people found him delightful company. That man is not all bad who said of his wife and the state she had been in earlier that day, as he did to Peter Quennell, ‘Methought I saw my late espoused saint passed out on the bathroom floor.’

Thomas was an outstandingly unpleasant man, one who cheated and stole from his friends and peed on their carpets. At the start he boozed a lot because it fitted his image as a poet, rather than out of any real thirst or need: Mary Morgan — I have never seen this anecdote reprinted — found an old local drinking-companion to whom he had confessed as much: ‘I wish I knew where you put it Dai; I can’t keep up with you.’ But for the last eight years or more of his short life he had something to drink about. That famous description of himself as ‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’ is sad and awful more than funny. He knew Rimbaud had stopped writing poetry fro good at the age of nineteen. Nearly all Thomas’s best work was written or drafted by the same age. He had a final burst of energy about 1944 but nothing after. And he was too sharp not to see it.

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Amis’s 1957 conclusion: 

Not very long afterwards we were all back at the pub, Griffiths [ie J.O. Thomas] included. With his performance over, Thomas’s constraint had disappeared and he was clearly beginning to enjoy himself. Griffiths, however, was monopolizing him more and more and exchanging a kind of cryptic badinage with him that soon became hard to listen to, especially on one’s feet. The pub, too, had filled up and was now so crowded that the large group round Thomas soon lost all cohesion and started to melt away. I was not sorry to go and sit down at the other end of the room when the chance came. It was at this point that my friends and I finally abandoned our scheme of trying to get Thomas up to my house when the pub shut. After a time the girl student who had been with us earlier, and who had stayed with Thomas longer than most, came over and said: ‘You know, nobody’s talking to him now, except that Griffiths chap.

‘Why don’t you stay and talk to him?’

‘Too boring. And he wasn’t talking to any of us. Still, poor dab, he does look out of it He was in a real state a little while ago.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘All sorry for himself. Complaining that everybody’d gone and left him.’

We all felt rather uncomfortable, and rightly. Although I can vividly recall how tedious, and how unsharable, his conversation with Griffiths was, I am ashamed now to think how openly we must have seemed to be dropping Thomas, how plain was our duty not to drop him at all. Our general disappointment goes to explain our behaviour, but does not excuse it. We were unlucky, too, in encountering him when he was off form and accompanied by Griffiths. At the time I thought that if he had wanted to detach himself and talk to the students he would have found some means of doing so: I have since realized that he was far too good-natured ever to contemplate giving anyone the cold shoulder, and I wonder whether a talent for doing that might not have been something that he badly needed. One of us, at any rate, should have found a way of assuring him that he was being regarded that evening, not with a coltish mixture of awe and suspicion, but sympathetically. Then, I think, we should have seen that his attitude was a product of nothing more self-aware or self-regarding than shyness.

 

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Frank Parr: Jazzman, cricketer, raver…and legend

May 17, 2012 at 11:13 pm (booze, good people, jazz, Jim D, sport, whisky, wild man)

“I should inform you that he can be a grave social risk” Cyril Washbrook (about Frank Parr).

Frank Parr, hero to several of us associated with this blog, died on 8th May.

The Independent gave him a decent obit:

He would have been a wonderful breath of fresh air in English cricket in the 1950s, an entertainer with a bohemian streak, but it was not to be. Jazz and cricket did not make easy bedfellows, certainly not with a conventional man such as Cyril Washbrook in charge. On one occasion, at Oxford, Parr played his trombone in the dressing room, with a team-mate beating time with a stump: “Much to Washy’s disgust.” Washbrook’s vitriolic words, on the racial origins of jazz music, were never forgotten.

Parr was not bitter, though. He was too intelligent, too independent for that. “I’ve been extraordinarily lucky,” he would say. “I’ve made a living out of the two things I loved.”

Francis David Parr, cricketer and musician: born Wallasey 1 June 1928; died London 8 May 2012.

He learnt to be an athletic wicket-keeper when at Wallasey Grammar School and developed into an outstanding performer behind the stumps, playing for Lancashire from 1951-4.

Achieving 90 dismissals for his County, Frank impressed the England selectors as a mobile, effective ‘keeper and was chosen for the MCC at Lord’s in a Test trial. The Lancashire side was strong in the early 1950’s with a shared title in 1950 followed by top three placings in the Championship.

We’ve previously quoted the late George Melly on Frank (jazz trombonist and Lancashire wicket-keeper), but the following is just great:

“It might…appear extraordinary that, far from playing cricket for England, the following summer (1956 -JD) saw Frank touring with a jazz band. The reason had nothing to do with Frank’s wicket-keeping, but it had a lot to do with Frank. From what I can gather, although the ‘gentlemen’ and ‘players’ labels have disappeared, the attitude of the cricketing establishment remains firmly entrenched. The professional cricketer is not just a man who plays cricket for money. He has a social role. He is expected to behave within certain defined limits. He can be a ‘rough diamond’, even ‘a bit of a character’, but he must know his place. If he smells of sweat, it must be fresh sweat. He must dress neatly and acceptably. His drinking must be under control. He must know when to say ‘sir’.

“Frank, we were soon to discover, had none of these qualifications. He was an extreme social risk, a complicated rebel whose world swarmed with demons and Jack O’Lanterns, and was treacherous with bogs and quicksands. He concealed a formidable and well-read intelligence behind a stylised oafishness. He used every weapon to alienate acceptance. Even within the jazz world, that natural refuge for the anti-social, Frank stood out as an exception. We never knew the reason for his quarrel with the captain of Lancashire, but after a month or two in his company we realised it must have been inevitable…

“Food and drink were the other weapons in Frank’s armoury. He was extremely limited in what he would eat for a start. Fried food, especially bacon and eggs, headed the list; then came cold meat and salad, and that was about the lot. Any other food, soup for instance or cheese, came under the heading of ‘pretentious bollocks’, but even in the case of food he did like, his attitude was decidedly odd. He would crouch over his plate, knife and fork at the ready in his clenched fists, and glare down at the harmless egg and inoffesive bacon, enunciating, as though it were part of some barbarous and sadistic ritual, the words ‘ I’ll murder it.’ What followed, a mixture of jabbing, tearing, stuffing, grinding and gulping, was a distressing spectacle.

“In relation to drink he was more victim than murderer. He drank either gin and tonic or whisky and, once past the point of no return, would throw doubles into himself with astonishing rapidity, banging the empty glass down on the counter and immediately ordering another with a prolonged hiss on the word ‘please’. He passed through the classic stages of drunkenness in record time, wild humour, self pity, and unconsciousness, all well-seasoned with the famous Parr grimaces. His actual fall had a monumental simplicity. One moment he was perpendicular, the next horizontal. The only warning we had of his collapse was that, just before it happened, Frank announced that he was ‘only fit for the human scrap heap’ and this allowed us time to move any glasses, tables, chairs or instruments out of the way.

“Frank’s spectacular raves didn’t stop him looking censorious when anyone else  was ‘going a bit’ – he used the same phrase for socks or drunkenness – but then we were all like that.

“If I think of him I can see certain gestures; his habit of rapidly shifting his cigarette around between his fingers, his slow tiger-like pacing, his manner of playing feet apart, body leaning stiffly backwards to balance the weight of his instrument.

“His music was aimed beyond his technique. Sometimes a very beautiful idea came off, more often you were aware of a beautiful idea which existed in Frank’s head. In an article on Mick (Mick Mulligan: Melly’s and Parr’s bandleader in the 1950′s -JD) in the Sunday Times, Frank was quoted as saying: ‘All jazzmen are kicking against something, and it comes out when they blow.”

“This was a remarkably open statement for Frank who, during a wagon discussion on our personal mental quirks and peculiarities, had once told us that he was the only normal person in the band.

“This gained him his nickname, ‘Mr Norm’, and any exceptionally Parr-like behaviour would provoke the conductor (ie: bandleader Mick Mulligan – JD) into saying: ‘Hello Frank. Feeling normal then?’”

George Melly – “Owning Up

RIP, Frank

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Jocky has left the oche

March 26, 2012 at 9:33 pm (beer, booze, class, Jim D, scotland, sport, wild man)

Jocky Wilson, dartist:  born 22 March 1950; died 24 March 2012

When the sad news came in yesterday, I vowed that Shiraz would pay tribute to Jocky Wilson, working class hero, drinker and sportsman sui generis. I had begun work on a piece when I happened upon a copy of today’s Times in the pub (where else?) and quickly realised that their man Giles Smith’s appreciation couldn’t be bettered. And as it’s shielded by Murdoch’s paywall, I reproduce it here in memory of a true class act:

Fans of the sport will raise a glass in tribute to one of its first superstars, writes Giles Smith:

It’s a little known fact about Jocky Wilson, the former world champion darts player, who has died, aged 62, that he was an accomplished pole-vaulter while at school. In time, a less athletic image of him would come to prevail: dart in the right hand, cigarette in the left, pint of lager on the table, brandy chaser next to it.

During his first years on the professional circuit, Wilson’s weight rose from 12 stone to 16 stone. It could be argued that although he was patently a good thing for darts, darts was not straightforwardly a good thing for him, a notion supported by the deflatingly circular nature of his career — from a council estate in Kirkcaldy, Fife, to two televised World Championships and household name status, and back to the council estate in Kirkcaldy.

Yet, in his pomp in the 1980’s, millions tuned in to catch the sight unimprovably described by Sid Waddell, the darts commentator, as “Jocky on the oche looking cocky”.

He was gruff, short and mop-headed — or in his own description, “fat, boozy and toothless”. Known as “Gumsy” by Bobby George (his more affable and better organised peer, who took him under his wing and led him onto the professional circuit), he was apt to remove his false teeth for comic purposes. Playing snooker, he would occasionaly use his dentures to mark the place of his cue ball while he polished it.

But the skills for which people knew him better included his astonishing consistency of throw, and also his equally rare gifts for intimidation and swearing. He was not above the use of physical threat (today we would call it “mind games”) and several times had occasion to launch himself into an audience to deal with hecklers on a one-to-one basis.

In an era when darts and the consumption of alcohol in heroic quantities were wedded to one another, Wilson celebrated the marriage more earnestly than most.

It is said that he seldom drank at home, but he made up for it professionally. He was once so drunk at the end of a match that he went to shake his opponent’s hand, missed and fell off the stage into a drum kit.

Among his favourite fuels was “Magic Coke” — a litre bottle of Coke with half of the Coke poured away and replaced with vodka. This could be consumed with the appearance of innocence even after alcohol was banished from the oche.

Such purification didn’t much suit Wilson, who seemed to find it harder to be the championship-clinching force he was without drink and nicotine readily to hand. His consequent withdrawal into reclusion in the mid-1990’s only had the effect of burnishing his legend. Darts seemed to have its first tortured genius figure.

There were some prosaic contributing factors, though. Wilson had owed £70,000 following a management dispute and then was hit with a £27,000 tax bill. To pay it off, he undertook a punishing schedule of exhibition matches and tournament appearances around the country — only to be diagnosed in 1992 with diabetes. He appears to have come off the road in order to save himself.

The sport understandably wanted to celebrate him and made efforts on several occasions to lure him out of hiding. All of them, along with most visitors to his one-bedroom council flat, were flatly rebuffed.

When the inaugural Jocky Wilson Cup in his honour was staged in Glasgow, he consented to lend his voice to a brief message of thanks over the phone, but no more. He preferred to live privately with his Argentian-born wife Malvina (who had a tough time of it during the Falklands War), and to leave his legacy intact. And maybe there was some high-mindedness and some courage in that.

Either way, his legacy includes some unrepeatable nights of televised entertainment in the 1980s, a plethora of salty stories, and a handy tip as to the best way to beat Eric “The Crafty Cockney” Bristow: “Hide the bastard’s fags.”

Sid Waddell in the Graun, here.

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On Eric Joyce

February 26, 2012 at 8:03 am (booze, Cross-post, labour party, MPs, wild man)

(Excellent stuff imho. I didn’t ask for permission to cross-post – hope that’s OK, Mr Mambo -JD)

by representingthemambo in Current Affairs, Opinions, Philosophical Meanderings

As a fan of righteous violence I was actually quite amused to hear that Labour MP Eric Joyce had chinned a couple of Tory MPs this week. I’m sure they probably deserved it and the fact that he appears to have actually dropped the nut on one of them is actually hilarious.

However I then reflected that there is a serious side to this. Reading the account in the Telegraph (which may or may not be accurate of course) and learning a bit more about his recent history (he spent the night in a police cell in 2010 for drink driving) he seems like a man with a drink problem. Which isn’t that funny really. The photo I copied above is that of man who looks very different to the fresh faced MP of a few years ago. Something appears to have gone very wrong.

It’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for a man with such outrageous yearly expenses claims but one does get the feeling that his life is spiralling out of control. He has apparently just broken up with his wife and things are looking very messy.

Sadly the boozing culture and the cross-party chumminess that seems to induce is part and parcel of the British Houses of Parliament. Whilst I have no objection to people enjoying a tipple it does seem it has gone too far and Parliament is treated like a club. MPs appear to have easy access to lots of cheap and free booze when discharging their various responsibilities and some people obviously can’t cope with it. Joyce, it would appear, is one of them.

The collegiate ‘club’ atmosphere in the Commons and Lords is one that bothers me very much. There is often a lot of talk of British politics being too ‘adversarial’ but I take the opposite view. The disagreements are invariably shrill but never over matters of serious principle. Considering the stakes they should hate each other. It worries me more when they don’t. It should be a violent clash of ideologies and worldviews. That it isn’t is largely due to Labour’s failings over the years and eagerness to adapt to the status quo. One actually can’t take issue with Joyce’s drunken statement that there are ‘too many Tories’ in the House but such brainless tribalism isn’t enough I’m afraid.

Personally I think they should close the bar. It may sound radical and authoritarian but in how many other workplaces would such a state of affairs be tolerated? The bar that used to be open at the hospital I work at has been shut for years. MPs, when it comes to expenses, pensions and boozing seem to operate by a different set of rules to the rest of us. There is clearly a conceit, that they often fail to veil convincingly, that they are special and deserve to be treated differently and that they could all be earning more money in the private sector.

Maybe some MPs need to remember what they are paid handsomely to do and that it is a privilege for them (not us) to be our elected representatives. And if they do think they can earn more elsewhere, then piss off and do it. They are a bunch of faceless mediocrities for the most part anyway.

And finally I think we would be best not to sneer and laugh at Joyce too much. He sounds like he needs help rather than mockery. Whether this will finish his political career or not we shall have to see, but I have an uneasy premonition of him going the way of that other drink-soaked politician, Charles Kennedy, and fading into embarrassing irrelevance or even worse. Whilst Joyce is no great shakes as a parliamentarian, it would be a tragic fall from grace on a purely human level.

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