Drink and be miserable
Edward Pearce is not amused by a po-faced history of the bottle and its evils; The Secret History of Alcohol By James Graham Element, pounds 8.99
Saturday 07 September 1996
He is right of course. Alcoholism wrecks lives directly and, when booze rules the driving wheel or the national helm, injures the innocent bystanders too. But a more thoughtful case against drink might have been made than these successive capsules of information about the murderers, novelists, dictators and other top people who have been on the Moet-to- meths trail.
Trapped once in a hotel bedroom in Rockford, Illinois and switching from channel to channel, I became the victim of a serial rant from three separate, more or less distinguishable evangelists - too-clean, too-neat men who punctuated their obstinate discourse with "Zachariah: Chapter eight, verse 21" and "Judges: Chapter six, verse 27". James Graham is like that. His obsession with the evils of alcoholism allows him no perspective, no reservations, no nuances, no proper debate on his subject. He keeps up his assault in a monotone, or at any rate within the limits of C Major and E flat. Frankly, I wanted to switch channels.
The publishers speak of the author's "meticulous research" and say that he "spent 20 years writing The Secret History of Alcoholism." Meticulously, Graham describes Henry VIII as "executioner of four wives" before listing the two he did execute.
Graham has an American faith in the power of lists and references: "Donald W. Goodwin MD, in Alcohol and the Writer (Andrews and McMeel, 1988), listed dead American writers who were "considered alcoholic by contemporaries or biographers or who drank enough to get the reputation of being alcoholic" ... And here", Graham goes on, "is his list: Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Theodore Dreiser ..." ending 45 names later with Raymond Chandler. To that roll-call should be added "almost every writer on the New Yorker during the Thirties".
That should make us think. After such a pounding, I warmed to Edwin Arlington Robinson (blacklisted by Goodwin). Robinson's creation, Miniver Cheever, knew all about thinking and "Thought, and thought and thought about it/ And kept on drinking."
Graham's humourless, styleless pulpit drone is the very worst weapon to pit against alcohol - this is a 190-page temperance lecture designed to drive anyone to drink. One's regret at dismissing a man's labours as a comic atrocity is stilled by the way he gleefully catalogues every new discovery, bog-hopping from cracked-up literateur to cracked-up literateur with horrible greed. The more that can be crammed onto the charge sheet the better: "Truman Capote, son of an alcoholic mother who committed suicide, was himself an alcoholic."
Of course Truman Capote was an alcoholic; so was the mass murderer, Theodore Bundy, who is also to be found in this bowl of brandy-laced muesli. Apart from Stalin, who merits a chapter of his own, Graham is too busy with murder and literature to worry much about politicians.
He can find only three alcoholic US presidents (Pierce, Andrew Johnson and Grant) out of the 40-odd so far, and he keeps clean out of British politics, though we boast a candidate far more consequential than George Brown, had we the nerve to say so. Graham has not included Yeltsin or Galtieri either. And since he wishes to link Alcohol with Evil, he has problems when he comes across a monster who is contemptuous of drink.
Stalin gets that chapter, but what about Hitler the teetotaller? Ah, but Hitler's dad drank, so that's all right. What about Winston Churchill, heroic, eloquent and benign on a staple diet of cognac? What about Grant who, on awful American whiskey, had the moral courage to resign his commission because he thought the Mexican war was wrong? Graham applauds him for giving up drink after the Civil War and living soberly thereafter. Alas, Grant as a drunk won the war. As a President, he was sober and incapable.
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