Monday 3 August 2015

Drinking with Kingsley Amis

A signed Kingsely Amis first edition for £7? Naturally, when I spotted it on the shelves of a local charity shop, I wasn't going to let that go. Not a first-rank Amis, for sure - nor even second-rank - but a slim volume titled Every Day Drinking, nicely illustrated by Merrily Harpur, with a fine Marc caricature of the great man on the cover and, on the title page, a commendably legible, sober signature: Kingsley Amis.
 Every Day Drinking is a compilation of Amis's newspaper columns on drink and drinking - which is fine by Kingsley: 'Being paid twice for the same basic work is always agreeable, and in my case not as frequent as I should like. More than that, you have the chance of correcting your mistakes of fact and style[...] and righting the wrongs done you by the copy editor and printer[...] It would be nice if everybody who saw the newspaper columns were to buy and read this book, but no, and all over the place some people will continue to think that I think that 'anymore' and 'forever' are single words and[...] that 'alright in it's way' is all right in some way or other.' (Odd that the book's title commits the same error in reverse: Every Day Drinking might describe how Kingsley spent his time, but does not denote the subject of the book - Everyday Drinking, i.e. quotidian imbibing. Also, by the way, 'forever' as a single word is quite correct if used to mean 'all the time' rather than 'for all time'.)
 Amis makes no bones about his limitations as an expert: he's a beer and spirits man - gin and malts his staples - not a wine buff (though he has useful tips on how to pass yourself off as one). These pieces date from the early Eighties - a time when decent beer had returned to English pubs but decent wine was hard to find, fads and novelty drinks abounded, and serious drinking was to a large extent a matter of getting the best drinkable hit for the least outlay. Hence the popularity - not least with Amis - of all kinds of potent mixed drinks, for many of which Kingsley provides recipes, some of them jaw-dropping. Take (or rather don't) the Swagger Sling - one bottle champagne, one bottle claret, one glass brandy, one glass Grand Marnier, lemon and sugar. Chilled, no ice. 'Calculated to put young ladies completely at their ease,' says Amis. Or how about Evelyn Waugh's idea of a nice light shandy? 'Put into a silver tankard, or failing that a pint glass, some ice cubes, one or two double gins according to mood, and a bottle of Guinness. Fill up with ginger beer.' Or not.
 The decline of the English pub is a theme that crops up early, and Amis vigorously expresses his loathing of piped music, trendy decor, useless staff and - horror of horrors - Space Invaders machines (themselves the subject of an early work by young Martin). Kingsley's prejudices and, er, strong opinions are, as you'd expect, well to the fore and provide a large part of the entertainment, but these columns are also quite informative about a range of drinks you might never have heard of (and are unlikely ever to want to try). Amis is a big fan of a dangerous potion I remember all too well - Carlsberg Special Brew: 'a wonderful drink,' he declares, 'but after a certain amount of it you do tend to fall over.' He recommends diluting it half and half with regular Carlsberg; this mixture, drunk from a silver tankard, 'produces as much goodwill as anything I know'.
 Sometimes Amis flirts with objectivity, as in a piece on Rioja wines: 'Regular readers of this column will know,' he writes, 'that I have my likes and dislikes, even my weaknesses and prejudices. Nevertheless I always try to be scrupulously objective. As in the present case. Everything I've said here to the advantage of Rioja wines is true and verifiable. Now comes the moment for me to state my own opinion of them, which is that they are quite vile.'
 What will he make of grappa (one of my own favourites), I wondered? My curiosity was soon satisfied: 'Not to take a glass of grappa after an Italian meal strikes me as the grossest folly.' Well, quite.
 This book is great fun for anyone with an interest in drink and/or Kingsley and his views on a subject with which he had, as he puts it, a 'close personal involvement' over many years. Also available, I gather, is Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, a single volume that brings together what might be called Amis's Booze Trilogy: On Drink, Every Day Drinking and How's Your Glass?
 Time for a drink, I think...


  1. Thanks for your parenthetical explanation of the meaning of the words 'everyday' and 'forever' Nige. Tremendously helpful.

  2. These things matter (well, a bit). The Americans happily use 'forever' in both senses, which seems a shame...