Squiffy writers, cui bono?

Work might be the curse of the drinking classes as Oscar Wilde opined, but for writers it is an apparent remedy. Just search for writing drunk and see what comes up in support of it. It helps expand the mind is a popular position. It limits inhibitions is another. Was Shakespeare an alcoholic is a question asked by one study.

The writer and notorious member of the drinking classes, Christopher Hitchens, wrote enthusiastically about a report that portended to show drinking alcohol as an advantage to ones health, significantly reducing the risk of heart attack, just as a clove of garlic a day was once seen as helpful to a tight prostrate or as smoking good for developing short term memory.

In the same article Hitchens takes on the view of Tom Dardis who’s work “The Thirsty Muse:  Alcohol and the American Writer,” blames drink on the undoing of such writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Eugene O’Neill. In their defence Hitchens notes that what Dardis cannot account for is the fact that “they did some of their finest work when blotto, smashed, polluted, shitfaced, squiffy, whiffled, and three sheets to the wine.”

Hitchens clearly has a high regard for drinking etiquette as well. Writing in Slate, with extreme arrogance unlike any other I’ve ever seen or heard of, he castigates waiters who share out a bottle of wine between a gathering of dinner guests in the restaurants they are waiting in. “The nerve of it,” he yammers. He styles out the rest of the article saying perhaps female drinkers don’t want to drink the same amount of wine as him, but given his anecdote at the start, what this really means is that he doesn’t want to share his wine. What a big sod.

His brother, the columnist Peter Hitchens probably doesn’t take the same view – as with pretty much everything else. But the proof of this is a little nebulous. This Hitchens took issue with fellow writer and columnist Nick Cohen, when Cohen attended the George Orwell Awards shortlist debate. Cohen was, its fair to say, a little squiffy and poured scorn on Hitchens, prompting Hitchens to poke fun at Cohen’s drunken state. But here we must throw up the notion of cui bono, or for whom did Cohen’s drunken stupor benefit? Who came off vindicated by his performance, Cohen or Hitchens? Judge for yourself, the video of this became rather popular overnight, but what seemed interesting was that Cohen’s lacking in reserve not only made his argument in good humour, but also arduous, simultaneously.

Amusing that three years previous Cohen had written on the subject of drink in a style that suggested his seriousness as a journalist and intellectual obligated him to abstain from such Dionysian lark. Cohen writes;

I’m a mere journalist and don’t drink in as many pubs as Oxford dons. I visit them occasionally, however, when my editors insist I must, and see that a lot of the old culture survives.

That ‘old culture’ refers to the certain etiquette that is unwritten, yet utterly expected in English pubs that distinguish them from wine lodges or continental styled bars. Cohen notes that this ‘old culture’ sums up “the British way with alcohol that Charles Dickens or George Orwell would have recognised.” So perhaps there were more clues when Cohen shouted down the choice to include Peter Hitchens in the shortlist for the George Orwell prize; he took no risks in his journalism, and he knew nothing of the drink etiquette.

So one possible argument to draw from this is that drink removes those boundaries making debate seem effortless, and the downright clownish persona with which the squiffy employ makes it very difficult for ones sober opponent to garner those real intellectual punches. Cohen, irrespective of the point makes it virtually impossible for his adversaries to get a word in edgeways, and Hitchens by hogging all the wine at dinner parties means that the only person who might interrupt a good anecdote is the waiter himself. So is it true, can a drink really be an egg in ones beer for writers?


2 Responses to Squiffy writers, cui bono?

  1. A very interesting article you directed me to there Bob, even if it did host league’s of self-depicatory comments below. I didn’t know for example that Stephen King was major player squiff. Interesting that he didn’t know he had written Cujo.

    This article and Donald Goodwin’s book have the feel of Dardis’ The Thirsty Muse, a sobering (!) analysis of the pitfalls and illusions that drink/writing can have. Yet there is an absurd truth in what Philip Amis said about his Dad’s habit, he’s Kingsly Amis, the bottle of whisky-a-day is frighteningly literary.

    I didn’t much like the implication that On the Road is Kerouac’s only masterpiece. Still, can’t have it all.

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