Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis

When I was at the University of King’s College in Halifax for undergrad, I spent three out of the four years living in a residence called Radical Bay, the Latin motto for which was “Bibo ergo sum.” This of course translates into “I drink, therefore I am,” a play on Rene Descartes’ epistemological declaration Cogito ergo sum. Presumably this motto originated in part because we read Descartes as part of King’s Foundation Year Program in first year, and in part because undergrads like to drink. (Not me; I was a teetotaler under my senior year. Shocking, I know!)

If there is one writer above all others who lived by this creed, it would be Kingsley Amis (1922 – 1995); or so you’d gather from the recently released book Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, which collects his three seminal works about boozing: On Drink, Every Day Drinking and How’s Your Glass?, written between 1971 and 1984. Alcohol seems to have been at the very core of Amis’ existence. By the accounts contained here, it would seem that the man drank all day every day, and had a diverse range of tastes. Wine, beer, gin, cocktails, martinis, concoctions from strange and foreign lands – he seems to have sampled it all.

The first part of the book discusses Amis’ overarching philosophies and advice around boozing, with aptly named chapters like the “Mean Sod’s Guide”, “The Hangover” and “The Boozing Man’s Diet”. It also contains a chapter specifically of cocktail recipes, several untested by Amis himself and quite possibly fictitious. The second part reprints a regular column on drinking that he wrote for one of the dailies in England. The third is a long, laborious series of quizzes about various types of alcohol.

The strength of Everyday Drinking is not simply Amis’ encyclopedic knowledge of booze and his ability to take a firm stand behind what he likes and dislikes. The real gem here is the ongoing satirical tone that runs through most of the work. The editors were quite wise to leave the author’s various jibes, anachronisms and fuddyduddyism untouched. He mentions, for example, that a good price for a bottle of wine is between £1 and £2. There are instances of offhanded misogyny (I raised an eyebrow when Amis lamented the loss of pub culture due in part to the ever-increasing presence of women; the pub being, of course, a “male refuge”) but also a number of funny bits that equally catch you off guard. He closes, for example, his recipe for “The Old Fashioned”, a short-drink cocktail, with “You may supply drinking-straws if it is that sort of party.”

Of course, after 302 pages it all starts to get a bit tedious. I must admit that by the time I reached the quizzes at the end of the book, I was pretty much licked and ready to rejoin the world of simpler drinkers and less sardonic tones. I can see taking this book off the shelf and reading certain passages to dinner guests while in the midst of our partaking. But not for a while. Everyday Drinking should be sipped on occasion, not guzzled in one go.

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