My liver must be the size of a football. I’ve been knocking back the liquor lately, I confess. It’s not just me though. Drinking has become something of a national pastime – even more-so than it was before the advent of the Coronavirus. In the daytime we’re fitness-mad with long-distance running, power-walking, doing yoga and lifting weights; then in the evenings we’re sucking up hooch like champions. What with the long days and nights of isolation, ennui, anxiety and fear, a zeitgeist has evolved in which many of us have given ourselves permission to guzzle booze with abandon.
Out on my daily walk this morning I met my friend John. He’s a lovely man and I enjoy his company and our chats. He confided that he has developed a fondness for 12-year-old Scotch whisky. I’m partial to the Irish and I spell my whiskey with an e but to each his own, I daresay. John made his whisky-love sound like a hobby. A Coronavirus project. Before the pubs were closed down, he was strictly a pint-of-Guinness man who tended to look askance at me whenever I ordered a whiskey chaser to go with my beer. Now he’s necking the Scotch like nobody’s business. For a hobby. I suppose you can call it a hobby if the whisky is 12 years old.
I suspect that when this Covid-19 business is sorted, John and I and thousands of others will be undertaking detox programs that will make SAS boot camp seem like a tiptoe through the tulips. Reminds me of three decades ago when I was giving up the cigarettes. There was a challenge, at a time when cigarettes and drink seemed to be made for each other and both were made for me. I must have given tobacco up a dozen times before abstention finally took hold. I remember, at the height of it, when desperation for a smoke was at its keenest, I’d be half-wishing someone unnamed would die, just so that the grief would give me an excuse to light up a fag.
Fortunately, nobody I knew kicked the bucket while I was harbouring such ignoble sentiments and I was spared the guilt that would inevitably ensue such a passing.
Addiction is a tricky thing.
Many writers have experimented with mind-altering substances in order to stimulate and enhance their creativity. The essayist Thomas de Quincey, in writing Confessions of an English Opium Eater, is credited with having ushered in the tradition of addiction literature in the western world. Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have been partial to a hit of cocaine. Aldous Huxley consumed large amounts of mescaline as well as LSD and magic mushrooms. Ken Kesey is rumoured to have been high as a kite on LSD when he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And William S Burroughs must have been completely out of his tree when he composed The Naked Lunch.
In my formative years in the 1970s, the magazine de rigueur for cool folks was Rolling Stone and one of its prominent writers was the gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, who was famous for creating superlative work while blurring the line between fact and fiction and consuming a heroic amount of hallucinogenic drugs. He was a man of his time and a legend of American pop culture and when he died his ashes were shot from a cannon in a ceremony attended by the likes of Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Sean Penn and Johnny Depp (who played Thompson in the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). I reckon his appetite for mind-altering substances clued him into the prevailing culture of the time and enhanced his writing.
Perhaps the most fabled drug-induced work of art is the poem Kubla Khan, written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he woke up from an opium-induced dream. There are some artistic moments that never fail to elicit a frisson of electric excitement in me when I chance across them. The first few bars of the theme music for The Magnificent Seven, for example. A visit to Caravaggio’s breathtakingly beautiful depiction of The Taking of Christ in Dublin’s National Gallery. And the opening lines of Kubla Khan:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Thus begins a grand literary adventure that’s awesome in its imagery and eloquence.
Given all this, I can see how hallucinogens might stimulate the imagination and the creative process. But booze? Literary history is strewn with great writers who had a voracious appetite for drink and there is, or used to be, a school of thought that held that alcohol could help to get the creative juices flowing. This is not a perspective with which I’m quick to agree. If I have just one glass of wine with my lunch, I’m intellectually useless for the rest of the day; I can’t imagine knocking back eight pints before I go to work on an email to a friend, never mind a work of art. In fact, sad tales abound of talented writers felled by the demon drink and lost to us at a young age.
The inimitable Dylan Thomas famously wrote:
Do not go gently into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
But he did go into that good night, at the tender age of 39, on November 9, 1953. And the demon drink with which he raged aided in his passage.
A golden era of Irish writing occurred in the 1950s and early 1960s when that legendary trio – Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and Brian O’Nolan (also known as Flann O’Brien or Myles na Gopaleen) – bestrode the literary world. As much as their brilliance as wordsmiths, the threesome was renowned for marathon drinking escapades in the pubs that passed as literary salons in Dublin of the day. It was an era that was recreated masterfully by the poet Anthony Cronin in his memoir, Dead as Doornails.
Alas, all three died young, helped on their way, indubitably, by the need to feed the unfillable hole of their hunger for grog. Behan died when he was 41. Brian O’Nolan was 54. Kavanagh, whose drinking was less extreme, lasted till the ripe old age of 63.
Did their alcoholism in some way give weight to their gift? Was drink the fuel that lubricated the engines of their genius? Or would they have been more productive and prolific if they were tea-total and lived longer? I don’t know. This story has no moral.
But – here we go. It’s six o’clock. Sun’s well over the yard-arm. Time for my pre-prandial drink. I had whiskey yesterday. Irish. What’s it to be now? Brandy or port?
Ah, sure. Plague is on the wind. I’ll have both.