This collection of Kingsley Amis’ writings on his favourite subjects of drink and drinking has, as its base, his enormous knowledge of the subject imbued with the wit he was known for. The dash of strong opinion might conflict with an intolerance of snobbery but is thankfully avoided with a twist of not taking itself, or its subject, too seriously.
As a novelist Kingsley Amis was best known for the humour and wit of his novels but he wore many other hats as well. As a critic his sense of humour prevailed but was mixed as well with a not-unrelated fussiness for things not to his liking. Either way, an absence of mean spirit, meant you could enjoy him without agreeing with him. Amis was also known as a great lover and connoisseur of alcohol with a vast and diverse knowledge. As Christopher Hitchens, another drink lover, says in the Introduction on the ‘Muse of Booze’, he can’t think of an Amis book in which alcohol did not play a role and often a major one. Amis’ first and most famous novel, Lucky Jim, contains perhaps the most famous hangover scene in all of literature.
As well as his novels, poetry and criticism, Amis wrote a lot on the subject of alcohol. With those writings falling out of print, three of his previous publications on the subject – On Drink, Everyday Drinking and How’s Your Glass? – have been recollected here in one volume.
Of the three On Drink is probably the closest to being a conventional book on the subject of drinks and drinking. In the Introduction, Amis champions the enjoyment of alcohol as something that connects the whole human race of all periods and places. He argues for alcohol’s role as a social lubricant, relaxing the awkwardness of social encounters with strangers as humans migrated from rural to urban living.
The human race has not devised any way of dissolving barriers, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient as letting you and the other chap, or chaps, cease to be totally sober at about the same rate in agreeable surroundings.
In On Drink, Amis covers the subjects of recommended and not-recommended books on drink; a short uncomprehensive list of drink recipes, some of which are named for writers and including one named for his own famous novel, Lucky Jim; he also covers the tools, glasses and drinks you should keep in stock. This is followed by a few chapters on his thoughts on wine, how to pair drink with food, how to short-change your dinner guests without seeming to, how to deal with a hangover, how to stay slim while being a drinker and tips and advice on how to avoid over-indulging. As he covers these topics, Amis also shares his ‘General Principles’, such as:
General Principle 7: Never despise a drink because it is easy to make and/or uses commercial mixes. Unquestioning devotion to authenticity is, in any department of life, a mark of the naïve – or worse.
As you might expect, Amis’ writing is witty and enjoyable. Is it pompous and snobby too? Perhaps, but I prefer to use ‘fussy’, as I have above, for the spirit of it. If you enjoy alcohol but have only an amateur interest in it, he certainly inspires an enthusiasm to give it increased consideration. That was how I felt reading his thoughtful list of what to keep in stock. I would have really enjoyed his thoughts on the hangover, both physical and metaphysical, when I was a student. Some of his thoughts on wines – regions, labels, prices, etc – are probably outdated though.
[The Physical Hangover] Immediately on waking, start telling yourself how lucky you are to be feeling so bloody awful. This, known as George Gale’s Paradox, recognises the truth that if you do not feel bloody awful after a hefty night then you are still drunk, and must sober up in a waking state before hangover dawns.
[The Metaphysical Hangover] When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is, and there is no use crying over spilt milk.
The second part of this book, Everyday Drinking, is a collection of Amis’ Saturday newspaper opinion pieces on the topic of alcohol.
There’s a certain satisfaction to be got from bringing out a book or collected journalism. Being paid twice for the same basic work is always agreeable, and in my case not as frequent as I should like.
Some of the pieces are about specific ingredients – spirits such as gin, vodka, scotch; liqueurs, aperitifs, etc. Others are about mixes and cocktails – the Bloody Mary, the Dry Martini, Sangria, the Margarita, etc. Elsewhere, he deals with various alcohol related issues – the downfall of the British pub, the effects of not drinking, preparing for Christmas, dealing with wine snobs, etc. Like On Drink, all this made for pleasant but thirsty reading!
There’s no point in denying that [the Margarita] is one of the most delicious drinks in the world, but por Dios, Señor, watch it! After three of the same I once had the most violent quarrel I have ever had with a female, and in Mexico City too – but luckily we were both unarmed at the time.
As you can probably already imagine, you will not find new and trendy cocktails in this collection given the time that has passed since it was written. Even so, I suspect Amis would still only deal with the classics. That still leaves plenty to discuss, share and learn from. Apparently young people these days do not drink as much as previous generations. If true, then soon the classics may be all we have.
Part three of this book, How’s Your Glass?, was the least interesting for me. Feeling that a book on alcohol trivia would not be interesting, he instead wrote it as a series of quizzes but with some trick questions and snarky answers included. Unfortunately, unless you have a comparable knowledge to Amis, his quizzes will probably be too challenging to be fun.
I really could not finish this review without sharing my own favourite drink. One day, many years ago, I was in a bar in Guatemala, with a couple of friends I had made on the trip and one of them shared this recipe for a ‘Meet Joe Black’.
In an Old-Fashioned Glass (you probably know what this means but if it helps, Amis defines it as ‘a short broad tumbler holding about eight ounces when full, an ideal vessel for anything drunk on the rocks) add:
|Ice||I prefer less ice, more mixer, so I only use two regular-sized cubes or one large one.|
|Lime Juice||I would say the juice from an eighth of a lime is enough. I do not put the lime in the glass after juicing it. I want the sweetness and sourness of the juice without the bitterness of the rind.|
|Whiskey||I use Jack Daniels, as per my friend’s instructions. Jack Daniels, as I had not noticed until I read this book, is not a bourbon! How much whiskey? Shot glass sizes are not very standardised but I use about 60ml, roughly equivalent to 2 US fluid ounces or two shot glasses.|
|Amaretto||I use Disaronno. I think Galliano is fine if you are baking a cake, but I don’t like drinking it! Use the same amount as the whiskey.|
|Cola||Do I really need to specify Coca-Cola? Cold obviously.|
Stir and enjoy!
As you might imagine, this is a rather sweet drink. Probably best drunk before or after dinner than with food. I don’t imagine Amis would like it much – he was not a fan of cola as a mixer. But he was not opposed to mixing whiskey (or whisky) and amaretto. Two recipes in this book do so. One is the Godfather – scotch and amaretto, without cola or lime, though, as Amis admits, scotch is better straight. The other is an Amis original, the Antiquato – four parts whisky, one part amaretto and a dash of angostura bitters. Amis says “the whisky-plus-sweet-plus-bitter combination recalls the Old-Fashioned cocktail [with an Italian twist], and of course “antiquato” is Italian for “old-fashioned.” Dead cunning, what?”
Give the ‘Meet Joe Black’ a try, I’d love to hear what you think. Or, if you have your own favourite drink, please share!