Excellent essay by Christopher Buckley on the eternal question about writers and writing, on drinking and booze and writing and inspiration. From the NY Times Sunday June 30, 2013 edition.
From the essay:
In his memoir, “Hitch-22,” Buckley's friend Christopher Hitchens made a solid case for liquidity.
“Alcohol makes other people less tedious and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.”
Booze as Muse
By CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY
MY first real job in journalism was as a junior editor at Esquire, a magazine with a venerable literary pedigree. I imagined myself having three-martini lunches with Tom Wolfe, and explaining to “Tom” (surely we would be on a first-name basis by the third martini) that his latest 25,000-word article was not bad, exactly, but needed another run through the typewriter before we could even think of publishing it.
This absurd, callow reverie was summarily dashed by my first assignment. I was told to call up someone famous — “anyone famous” — and get his or her favorite Bloody Mary recipe for the summer issue. I called an old girlfriend who had married a certifiably famous movie director.
“He only drinks Scotch neat,” she said. “But we’ll just make something up.” The ghost of Esquire’s founder, Arnold Gingrich, winced over my shoulder as she and I went to work devising her famous husband’s fictional Bloody Mary. It ended up consisting of 20 or so ingredients, 15 of which contained toxic levels of capsaicin. For months after it was published, I lived in fear that we’d be sued for immolating some poor reader’s esophagus.
I think back on my first shameful venture in “legitimate journalism” every time I come across the latest improbable recipe for some new cocktail. I don’t mean to imply that their creators are as spurious as I was; they’re fun to read, and the more improbable the better.
Kingsley Amis, author of the indispensable “Everyday Drinking,” referred to the genre as “dipsography, the alcoholic equivalent of pornography.” Dipsography is continuing ed of the highest order. How satisfying and knowing it is to drop savvy remarks like “Did you winterize your margarita this year?”
At the same time, it’s best not to overdo the dipsography, at the risk of getting yourself a rep as a “cocktail bore,” “beer bore,” “aquavit bore,” etc.
Who among us has not been held captive by a wine, single malt or vodka bore? Thanks to the recent proliferation of boutique vodkas, it is now possible, indeed likely, to have your eyes as frosted as a Grey Goose bottle while someone holds forth at Homeric length on potato versus grain versus molasses versus organic wheat versus Australian sugar cane. My eyes glazed over just typing that sentence.
Booze — for present purposes, let us include in this category wine, beer, eau de vie, moonshine, the blushful Hippocrene and all varieties of intoxicating liquid refreshment — is a compelling subject. And dipsography has evolved pari passu with the progress of the Internet.
Surfing a large wave of ethyl alcohol recently, I came ashore on the Web site of the Museum of the American Cocktail. The home page noted that it was World Cocktail Week. Beneath that was a notice: “There are no seminars or events scheduled at the current time. Please check back later.” Had I possessed hacking skills, I’d have been tempted to insert a “ — hic — ” somewhere in the last sentence.
For classic literary dipsography — and counter-dipsography — log off from the Internet and turn to the bookshelf. Roald Dahl’s short story “Taste” is the ultimate takedown of the wine bore. A rather sinister dinner guest proposes to his host a contest: if he identifies the wine the host is pouring, he wins the hand of the host’s daughter. If he fails, then the host gets both his houses.
I won’t ruin it for you; it’s white-knuckle reading all the way to the finish. When Alfred A. Knopf read the story in The New Yorker in 1951, he signed Dahl to write a collection, and a brilliant career was born. Come to think of it, surely the magazine’s most celebrated cartoon remains James Thurber’s: “It’s a naïve domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”
Benjamin Disraeli is not principally known as a maker of bons mots, but in his 1845 novel “Sybil,” he gives us Mr. Mountchesney’s unimprovable remark: “I rather like bad wine. One gets so bored with good wine.”
Continuing on the prime ministerial theme, Amis’s “Everyday Drinking” provides the recipe for Queen Victoria’s Tipple: 1/2 tumbler red wine and — brace yourself — Scotch.
“I have it on the authority of Colm Brogan,” he writes, “that the Great Queen was ‘violently opposed to teetotalism, consenting to have one cleric promoted to a deanery only if he promised to stop advocating the pernicious heresy.’ ”
Elsewhere, the “Muse of Booze,” as Christopher Hitchens calls Mr. Amis in his introduction to the reissue of “Everyday Drinking,” gives us recipes for Paul Fussell’s Milk Punch (“to be drunk immediately on rising, in lieu of eating breakfast”) and Evelyn Waugh’s Noonday Reviver (“1 hefty shot gin, 1 bottle Guinness, ginger beer ... I should think two doses is the limit”).
Amis was author of probably the most immortal hangover scene in all literature. (The one suffered by Tom Wolfe’s louche British journalist Peter Fallow in “Bonfire of the Vanities” is up there.) Amis demurely refrains from mention of his own masterpiece moment in “Lucky Jim,” though one of his cocktail recipes is named after the title. He does however give us three “infallible” hangover cures, adding “though I have not tried any of the three.” The first two are: “Go down the mine on the early-morning shift at the coal-face” and “Go up for half an hour in an open aeroplane, needless to say with a non-hungover person at the controls.”
I mentioned Christopher Hitchens a moment ago. It seems fitting that he should provide our nightcap. He and I once had a weekday lunch that began at 1 p.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m. I spent the next three weeks begging to be euthanized; he went home and wrote a dissertation on Orwell. Christopher himself was a muse of booze, though dipsography and fancy cocktails were not his thing. Christopher was a straightforward whiskey and martini man. In his memoir, “Hitch-22,” he made a solid case for liquidity.
“Alcohol makes other people less tedious,” he writes, “and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.”
Tempted as I am, I won’t close by saying, “I’ll drink to that,” because I just found this recipe for a kumquat and clove gin and tonic, and I’m thinking it might be more fun to drink to that.