Whisky & Culture

The Irish Rover

William Trevor knew the effects of alcohol on a situation: how it could be both catalyst and extinguisher. Jefferson Chase looks at how Trevor used alcohol as an ingenious device in his work
By Jefferson Chase
Few authors have written more extensively or with greater imagination about drinking than William Trevor, born in 1928 in Mitchelstown in County Cork. In some fifteen novels and hundreds of short stories, Trevor has described literally thousands of characters imbibing everything from porter to Cinzano cocktails to Irish whiskey. Trevor is the understated poet laureate of social drinking and its revelations.Readers of Trevor will not find any stereotypically Irish hymns to Paddy, John Jameson or Bushmills. What they will find are meticulous, often blackly humorous depictions of England and Ireland’s watering holes, and those who frequent them. Consider the setting of one of his later stories The Paradise Lounge:The bar was a dim, square lounge with a scattering of small tables, one of which they occupied. Ashtrays advertised Guinness, beer-mats Heineken. Sunlight touched the darkened glass in one of the two windows, drawing from it a glow that was not unlike the amber gleam of whiskey. Behind the bar itself the rows of bottles, spirits upside down in their global measures, glittered pleasantly as a centrepiece, their reflections gaudy in a cluttered mirror. The floor had a patterned carpet, further patterned with cigarette burns and a diversity of stains. The Paradise Lounge the bar had been titled in a moment of hyperbole by the grandfather of the present proprietor … Beatrice’s friend had hesitated, for the place seemed hardly promising: Keegan’s Railway Hotel in a town neither of them knew.What better place for two protagonists to end a tawdry affair of many years? Over drinks, naturally.
Marriage and infidelity are among Trevor’s favorite themes, with whiskey not only easing the pain of lost loves and other ghosts of the past, but also providing the catalyst for people to reveal the truth behind the social front. For example, Anna Mackintosh, heroine of The Mark-2 Wife at a dire dinner party in the English suburbs:‘May I telephone?’ she said. ‘Quietly somewhere?’‘Upstairs,’ said Mr Lowhr, smiling immensely at her … ‘Take a glass with you.’She nodded, saying she’d like a little whisky.‘Let me give you a tip,’ Mr Lowhr said, as he poured her some from a nearby bottle. ‘Always buy Haig whisky. It’s distilled by a special method.’…He held out his hand with the glass of whisky in it. Anna took it, and as she did so she caught a glimpse of the Ritchies watching her from the other end of the room … The Lowhrs, she noticed, were looking at her too, and smiling. She wanted to ask them why they were smiling, but she knew if she did that they’d simply make some polite reply. Instead she said:
‘You shouldn’t expose your guests to men who eat hair. Even unimportant guests.”The dark humour, bordering on the surreal, the deceptively genteel style and attention to detail, which extends to spelling whiskey with an ‘e’ in Ireland and without in England, are typical Trevor. He is no stranger to the public house, hotel bar or refreshment area at the rural grocers. “I couldn’t face you without a drink in,” says the Jameson-drinking hero of The Third Party to his wife’s lover – with that the author is off and running. Trevor’s métier is the well-observed vignette; reading him is like sitting alone at a bar over a good Irish whiskey, contemplating the world and life stories of those around you.The Collected Stories of William Trevor is published by Penguin – www.penguin.co.uk.