Writers find inspiration at the bottom of a bottle

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The Independent Online
Alcohol has fuelled the imagination of our greatest writers says a new book. David Lister examines the evidence.

Fancy writing the great novel, or crafting a brilliant play? In that case, have a drink. According to a new book, imbibing to excess is essential to the creative spirit.

It is not just the well-known high livers with strong livers such as Dylan Thomas, Ernest Hemingway, Brendan Behan, Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh who mixed alcohol and literature. According to research carried out for the new book Creative Spirits: A Toast To Literary Drinkers - to be published next week by Andre Deutsch - Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell, Hardy, Wilde and Tolkien all owed part of their creative spirit to other spirits.

The book's author, John Booth, who also wrote The Good Pub Guide and A History of European Wine, has combined in the work an anthology of writing about drink with research into the drinking habits of the authors. To the despair of anti-drink campaigners, it covers many of the best known writers in English literature - though not a single one of them is female. Women, it seems, have been able to write without an aperitif.

Booth says: "It is surely unarguable that drink has been as powerful an influence on creative writing as love, philosophy, desire, for fame or any other form of inspiration ... The pages of literature are crowded with bibulous characters whose drinking is one of the few principal human activities of which most literary people can claim expert knowledge, Love, passion, carnal knowledge, murder, war, gluttony, jealousy, infidelity, bestiality - some may boast of knowledge of one or other or all of these, but it is of drink that most can speak with perfect assurance."

The tales of some of the modern writers are not surprising. When Kingsley Amis's first novel, Lucky Jim, was read by the publishers, he was told that a description of his hero drinking 10 or 12 pints in a session stretched credulity, so Amis, with extreme reluctance, reduced it to a measly eight pints. Neither is it a great shock to see that Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary: "Tuesday, a drunken day; lunched at Beefsteak ... Drinking in White's most of the afternoon. Then to Beefsteak where I got drunk ... Then to St James's for another bottle of champagne."

But it is it shock to see Shakespeare included in the ranks of the boozers. Booth explains that drinking "sack", an amber wine, is mentioned a lot in Shakespeare's Henry plays, but this wine was unknown in Britain during the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V. According to Booth, "... it is reasonable to assume that the paean of praise for the drink comes from the direct experience of none other than Will Shakespeare."

The image of Thomas Hardy as melancholy, introspective and respectable is not the whole truth either says Booth. "When ill, he recovered in Dorset, taking a prescribed bottle of stout a day. `The bitter ales of Bass and Allsop' were also recommended. And it is certain he sampled the `sweet cyder' of Dorset that he remembered so fondly in his poems. The cider- making described in his novel Desperate Remedies has the authentic flavour of personal observation."

As for Charles Dickens, the contents of his wine cellar are revealed in a catalogue for its sale in 1870: "4 dozen cyder; 12 dozen sherry, dry golden sherry; 18 bottles sherry solera; 1 dozen amontillado; 13 magnums of gold sherry, 4 dozen rare old madeira; 5 dozen port; 18 magnums port vintage 1851; 8 doz dry champagne, 17 doz very fine old Highland whisky, 16 botts Volnay; 16 botts clos vougeot....".

Oscar Wilde was never known to be drunk, once observing: "I have discovered that alcohol, taken in sufficient quantity, produces all the effects of drunkenness." But references in The Importance of Being Earnest show a detailed knowledge of fine wines and he was described by friends as "a three-decanter man".

However, aspiring writers tempted to consider hard drinking to improve their chances of being published should note the words of J.B. Priestley quoted in the book. He wrote: "Drunkenness in good literature is not like drunkenness in real life; it is subtly spiritualised; the sparkle, bloom and fragrance of wine, the jolly comradeship of the bottle, the Bacchic ardours and ecstasies, are all there, without the hiccoughs and the carbuncles, the sagging mouth and the shaking hands."