July 3, 2008 | Comments ()

By Ted Boynton | Books | July 3, 2008 |


It is passing rare to find a cultural icon who owns up to a habit of which some might disapprove; even more difficult to find one who embraces potential approbation such that he becomes its standard-bearer through his professional endeavors. Kingsley Amis was an English novelist known primarily for fictional works such as Lucky Jim, as well as his identification with the 1960s British literary movement the Angry Young Men. Less well known is that Amis, over the course of his career, wrote numerous essays and short commentaries about the joys, rituals, and responsibilities of the boozing life. Amis’s works in this area have been collected in the anthology Everyday Drinking, named after one of his monographs on the topic, and the first time these works have been collected in one place.

Over the years I had read snippets of Amis’s musings on booze here and there, but absorbing them together provided a couple of insights. First, Everyday Drinking is simply an essential component of the dedicated drinker’s library. While glossy hipster cocktail manuals and ersatz authoritative guides on “mixology” — ugh, how I detest that word — are almost literally a dime a dozen in bookstore bargain bins, Amis accomplished something much more profound in intent and execution. The life’s work represented in Everyday Drinking signifies an old soul’s embrace of and dedication to a certain lifestyle and philosophy.

Please don’t misunderstand: Amis provides plenty of practical advice and wry commentary about the boozing lifestyle. Yet Everyday Drinking really should be approached more as a Book of Common Prayer for the sobriety-challenged, consisting of three works written by Amis between 1971 and 1984, the most prolific period of his career. Amis’s lynchpin monograph on the subject, titled simply On Drink, leads off, setting forth Amis’s well-considered thoughts on all areas of concern for the dedicated boozehound: correct preparation and storage, proper stocking of one’s home bar, equipment required for a successful boozer, how to deal with hangovers, and recommendations of other essential literature on the subject. Right off the bat, Amis establishes that he’s not fooling around when it comes to evaluating such an important aspect of human existence, positing that one’s philosophy on alcohol must be informed by the fact that conversation, laughter and alcohol are all three found in every human society, with alcohol playing a role in social interactions throughout recorded history. Well played, sir; all this time, I’ve just been telling the neighbors to fuck off.

The middle piece in the book is also the title piece. Everyday Drinking, which is itself a collection of Amis’s columns and short essays written for newspapers and magazines over the years, covers some of the same ground as On Drink, but set forth episodically. While On Drink works well as an extended read, Everyday Drinking is better suited to frequent picking-up and putting-down, not to be wolfed down in linear fashion, since its contents were originally produced as disparate columns for relatively quick consumption, not intended to cohere as an organized whole. The structure of this section of the book is interesting in itself, as one tracks the evolution of Amis’s ideas through writings that were originally spaced significantly apart, and prepared for readers who foot-tappingly awaited the arrival of the regular paper along with the post.

The third segment of Everyday Drinking is likely the least accessible for the modern reader, especially those outside Britain, but offers no obstacle to enjoying the overall enterprise. Amis wrote a series of quizzes for his readers, focusing in great detail on various aspects of brewing, distilling, and vinting during a time when quizzes and trivia challenges unified Britain against a post-Nazi threat: ignorance about anything that might someday show up on “Jeopardy.” The structure of this part of the book requires some patience, as quiz after quiz stacks up, followed by all the answers in another section. The information is intriguing, and if you have a high knowledge of alcohol trivia and a strong sense of self-esteem, knock yourself out. Even a devoted boozehound — ahem — will soon find himself humbled, however, so best to treat this third section as a sort of encyclopedic coda to the wealth of advice and opinion delivered before.

Throughout, Amis approaches his subject matter with a straight face but a keen wit, treating boozing with an appropriate level of gravity while at the same time keeping front and center a good humor about the whole endeavor. Hundreds of millions of people take a drink every day, or damn near, expending large quantities of resources on an activity that relaxes and de-stresses them, rendering them more suitable for interaction with others. Some of the less responsible among us (!) even use the stuff both to enhance entertainment experiences and to assist with artistic appreciation. All of which is to say that Amis properly views his subject as important, but not so important as to over-justify pretension or snootiness about the practice of imbibing in itself. Note, however, that there’s plenty of snootiness to be had here about the overall decline of society’s support mechanisms for the habit, from the introduction of loud music and bad food in pubs to the growing tolerance for outrages such as pina coladas. If you enjoy a good scolding about the decline of Western civilization as symbolized by the desecration of our Holy Church of Hooch, then Amis is your man.

As noted above, Amis comes across as somewhat prim and stuffy at times, a tone that must have been put-on to some degree, given his leftist background. With proper warning, the resulting effect is generally quite pleasing, as if a gruff, learned authority figure on a shared hobby is holding forth with rather more arched-eyebrow seriousness than either of you intends. Amis, the son of a working class clerk, became an Oxford scholar and distinguished himself as a professor, novelist, and poet. More to the point, Amis was a political radical in the 1950s, joining both the Communist Party and the post-War re-definition of British society. Staunchly opposed to the stiff pretention and rigorous classism of traditional English society, Amis’s work often applied a knife-edge of humor to the raw nerve of decomposing British social structure.

Without proper warning, on the other hand, Amis likely would present as the type of stuffed shirt he spent much of his career lampooning. I almost choked on my GiGi while reading Amis’s discussion of the theory that Scots learned to distill whisky from the twelfth-century Irish: “The idea of medieval Irishmen inventing a rather complicated technique like that of distilling, or anything at all for that matter, is hard to credit.” Ah, yes; what could be more progressive than questioning the basic empirical skills of people born a couple of hundred yards northwest? Indeed, one might well be put off by Amis’s routine sniffiness if one were not acquainted with Amis’s penchant for tweaking the knobs of stuffy twits who really, really care whether one’s father was a company clerk as opposed to some obscure, hemophiliac earl from Crotchgrabashire-on-Trousertrout.

It’s only fair to note, however, that the conservative tone of Everyday Drinking is clearly not always a put-on. Amis grew quite conservative during his life, ultimately becoming an informal advisor to Margaret Thatcher. It is difficult to sort out what proportion of his gruff dismissals of lowbrow culture spring from sincere curmudgeony. (I have it on good authority from highly placed sources inside the entirely fictional Ministry of Irish Distillation Initiatives (thanks, Paddy!) that Kingsley Amis was, in all likelihood, a total Thatcherite orc-tool. Ah, well.)

All of that said, viewing Amis’s personality through his ostensibly more frivolous writings provides a remarkable insight into the character of an already remarkable man. Amis was the subject of a well-justified memoir by Zachary Leader, The Life of Kingsley Amis (sneaky title!), including the personal and professional travails that led Amis deeper and deeper into the relief provided by his relaxing muse. Even a rudimentary knowledge of Amis’s life makes Everyday Drinking all the more enjoyable.

Everyday Drinking opens with a luxuriously familiar foreword by Christopher Hitchens which provides the pitch-perfect context to begin reading Amis’s work. As noted by Hitchens, “The plain fact is that [booze] makes other people, and indeed life itself, a good deal less boring.” With that philosophical underpinning, Everyday Drinking is a must-read for any serious drinker who fancies a scholarly approach to the habit and enjoys the holding forth of learned opinion about it.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at thecarygrantrules@hotmail.com.

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When I Read About the Evils of Drinking, I Gave Up Reading

Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis / Ted Boynton

Books | July 3, 2008 | Comments ()



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