Whisky and the written word

Whisky and the written word

Brian Hennigan examines the positive and often negative relationship between writers, their work and the water of life.

Whisky & Culture | 16 Dec 2001 | Issue 20 | By Brian Hennigan

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Often Daddy sat up very late working on a case of Scotch.” American humorist Robert Benchley – father of Jaws author Peter – is one of the many who could see the connection between writing and Scotland’s national drink. The relationship between writing and whisky is, in most respects, an easy and natural one. A good book is possibly the only accompaniment to whisky that is not likely to annoy the self-appointed zealots who guard the soul of the spirit. While water might be tolerated, ice frowned on and Coke reviled, a work of literature is a natural companion to this most introspective of drinks. A dark night, a roaring fire, a wee dram and a thick book form an idyllic picture of inner peace that few other libations can match. Therefore it is hardly surprising that, within the literary world, whisky has many fans. Kingsley Amis, creator of Lucky Jim and countless other comic masterpieces, was a well-known advocate of The Macallan. Ian Rankin, creator of the Inspector Rebus series (see Issue 15), is no slouch when it comes to identifying his drams. Stephen King even chose to describe Richard Bachman – the pseudonym under which King published all his pre-Carrie works – sitting at his Olivetti, glass of whisky by his side. Side by side to this somewhat romanticised portrait of the writer at work is another, slightly edgier one. The image of the hard-drinking, hard-living writer is one of the most enduring in popular culture. Folklore would have it that much of such writers’ output is accomplished merely by adding whisky, in the manner of adding water to plants. Yet while it is true that writers as varied as, for example, F Scott
Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and Charles Bukowski were notorious whisky aficionados, in the end they owed their success more to talent and their demise more to alcohol in general than whisky in particular. The first connections between whisky and the written word are easily traceable. Not surprisingly, it is in the realm of Scottish writers that whisky makes its earliest and most frequent appearances. As an aspect of the native landscape, it pops up regularly, for example, in the works of Sir Walter Scott. Thus in Scott’s The Black Dwarf, a shepherd is offered wise council with a measure of the local distillation,“‘Hout, Bauldie,’ replied the principal, ‘tak ye that dram the landlord’s offering ye, and never fash your head about the changes o’ the warld sae lang as ye’re blithe and bien yourself.’” Knock that whisky back and don’t worry about things as long as you’re in good nick, being the general sentiment expressed therein. The
importance of Scott to Scotland and his synonymy with quality can be held to account for the fact that one of his works, The Antiquary, even gave its name to a whisky itself. Following its appearance as an object or as part of the natural landscape, the next stage for writers was to give some advice in terms of how the spirit might best be enjoyed. Mark Twain was straight to the point: “Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.”While Wilkie Collins, creator of The Moonstone, arguably the world’s first detective novel, offers an interesting perspective on the invention of Bailey’s Irish Cream, in his short story Mr Marmaduke and The Minister. “I took out one of our little drinking cups (called among us a “Quaigh”), while Felicia, instructed by me, ran to the kitchen for the cream-jug. Filling the cup with whisky and cream in equal proportions, I offered it to him. He drank it off as if it had been so much water. ‘Stimulant and nourishment, you’ll observe, sir, in equal portions,’ I remarked to him. ‘How do you feel now?’ ‘Ready for another,’ says he.”The frequency of the name Felicia notwithstanding, this remains a common scene in many a Highland home to this day, with
Carnation Milk being a splendid substitute for fresh cream.If one novel could be said to exemplify the marriage of nation and spirit, it is surely Compton Mackenzie's Whisky Galore, in many respects the ultimate Scottish whisky novel. Based on the true story of the wrecking of the SS Politician off the Hebridean island of Eriskay, the story sees the island’s population going to all manner of trickery to ensure that the whisky cargo of the wreck remains their property. “Love makes the world go round? Not at all. Whisky makes it go round twice as fast,” notes one of the principal characters. Interestingly, the author was born Edward Montague Compton in West Hartlepool – the Mackenzie suffix being dragged from familial heritage as Edward’s
affection for Scotland grew.Yet just as whisky matures, so its use as a literary device has grown. From being an indication that the character drinking it was Scottish, whisky came to become shorthand for a certain type of person.Helped by Prohibition, the image of whisky as a drink came to represent a certain attitude and character. Whisky drinkers are a certain type of people. No literary genre has exploited this aspect of the drink more than crime writing. The use of whisky to depict a hard-drinking, hard-living detective is now so well established that it might be difficult for a teetotal detective to be taken seriously. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond
Chandler can be said to have started it all. Their reations of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe respectively were men who needed whisky to make life work. Marlowe, immortalised by Humphrey Bogart on the big screen, would have been proud of the legendary actor’s reported last words: “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”Americans Mickey Spillane and Walter Moseley continued this journey with their creations, while on this side of the Atlantic
Inspectors Morse and Rebus have done their bit for the water of life.Yet it is in the USA where the archetypal hard-drinking detectives and criminal can best be found. American writer Jim Thompson was a crime writer whose literary work seemed to mirror his own life. Prior to finding his voice Thompson boasted that he was born in a jail cell. In fact he was born above one, in 1906, when his father was Sheriff of Caddo County, Oklahoma, “the last refuge of cattle thieves, gunfighters and train and bank robbers”. Thompson worked as a steeplejack, actor, gambler and purveyor of bootleg whisky prior to achieving publication. With classics like The Getaway – filmed with Steve McQueen – The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me (also filmed) Thompson established himself as the true inheritor of the niche opened by Chandler and Hammett. And just like his characters, Thompson drank. A lot. An alcoholic for most of his life, at one stage Thompson was supposedly drinking an amazing six pints of whisky a day. Yet perhaps what is most revealing is that the wayward author’s most acclaimed works were written in a 19-month surge of inspiration in 1953 and 1954, when Thompson was on the wagon. In this latter respect it is worth considering US Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s observation that “my own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whisky”. Note the words ‘a little’. The presence of whisky for a writer may then be a useful glass of inspiration, rather than a wholesale crutch. Not that Faulkner was nervous about recommending drink as a tool. “A man shouldn’t fool with booze until he’s fifty,” he once explained, “then he’s a damn fool if he doesn’t.”Some writers might disagree with taking anything in moderation. Dylan Thomas, notoriously fond of a tipple, would have no truck with those who criticised his intake. “An alcoholic”, he declared, “is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.” Another good drinker and Nobel laureate for literature, Winston Churchill, said: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”Some writers are more forthcoming about the potential damage that can be done to their craft. A column by Westbrook Pegler for Time magazine in 1947 consisted of the sentence: “I must not mix champagne, whiskey and gin” repeated 50 times.When it comes to contributions to the cask of literary whisky, few have done as much as Graham Greene. A prolific writer of over 20 novels, many screenplays and much journalism to his name, Greene’s own life was as interesting as any of his characters. A notorious womaniser, Greene spent much of his pre-writing life as a spy, in particular in Freetown, Sierre Leone, where he was controlled by the Russian double agent Kim Philby. It was from here that he wrote home, lamenting the absence of decent alcohol. There was “only bad bottled export beer of uncertain kinds, Scotch if you are lucky, gin which is a depressant and South African wines that make you feel like hell the next morning.”Arguably one of the greatest writers never to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Greene had a fondness for whisky that found its way into two of his most celebrated works. In the comic thriller Our Man In Havana, the hero Wormold plays a game of draughts against Segura, corrupt head of the local police, using miniature whisky bottles instead of the usual counters. The rules are simple. Each time you have a ‘piece’ taken, you must drink the contents of the bottle. While the scenario ends in the escape of the hero from an otherwise tricky situation, this is largely an
innocent and amusing plot device. Yet in The Power And The Glory, Greene created one of the most memorable figures in 20th century literature – the whisky priest. Set in 1930s Mexico, the anonymous priest is on the run from the state, and one lieutenant in particular, who is
determined to eradicate all vestiges of the Roman Catholic Church. The tragic figure of the alcoholic priest is perhaps Greene’s most enduring creation, a haunting solitary figure condemned to fail yet determined to stick it out. What the ‘whisky priest’ demonstrates again is the
potential for using whisky to aid the speedy description of a particular character. The miserable cleric’s continual referral to the alcohol that was part of his undoing revealing all-too-human flaws.Greene’s own favoured tipple was J&B Rare. Given the day-to-day requirement of a spy to maintain his wits at all times – in particular at social occasions – the explanation for Greene’s choice may be found in another of his works, The Human Factor, wherein the character Maurice Castle “always bought J&B because of its colour – a large whisky and soda looked no stronger than a weak one of another brand.”It would be churlish to leave with the thought of whisky, or indeed alcohol, as anything other than a positive influence for writers and literature. For whatever misuse it might be put to by writers (or readers), the substance itself is in general a cause of great enjoyment, even if in a passive sense. As George Bernard Shaw once remarked: “Alcohol is the anaesthesia by which we endure the operation of life.”The final word then to a great writer who was able to see tragedy of life and yet still revel in its joyfulness when encountered. John Steinbeck is perhaps best known for novels such as Of Mice And Men and The Grapes of Wrath, great works of supreme depth. Yet his breakthrough work was a much slimmer volume (Tortilla Flat), charting the cheerful, impoverished lives of the Hispanic paisanos of Monterrey and their continual quest for a comfortable life with a roof over their head and a bottle by their side. In one memorable passage, Steinbeck charts the group-based consumption of the peasants’ preferred refreshment. “Two gallons is a great deal … even for two paisanos. Spiritually the jugs may be graduated thus: just below the shoulder of the first bottle,
serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves. An inch, thoughts of bitter loves. Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing. A thumb, every other song each one knows. The graduations stop here, for the trail splits and there is no certainty. From this point on anything can happen.”
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