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Milton Crawford recommends the best books on

Drunkenness and Writing

For writers, alcohol gives the brain a holiday, so you can sit down and start afresh the next day, says writer and drinker Milton Crawford. He chooses five books by like-minded authors

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    1

    The Great Gatsby
    by F Scott Fitzgerald

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    2

    Ulysses
    by James Joyce

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    3

    In Cold Blood
    by Truman Capote

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    4

    Hell’s Angels
    by Hunter S Thompson

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    5

    The Long Goodbye
    by Raymond Chandler

Milton Crawford

Milton Crawford was born somewhere north of the Zambezi and west of the Rift Valley in a small town in the middle of Africa. He has travelled the world in search of good liquor and in an attempt to outrun the hangovers that seem to follow him wherever he goes. He is an author and journalist, and in keeping with the most honourable traditions of the writing profession, a drinker of distinction. His previous books have been published under a more sober alias. Milton Crawford on Twitter

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Milton Crawford

Milton Crawford was born somewhere north of the Zambezi and west of the Rift Valley in a small town in the middle of Africa. He has travelled the world in search of good liquor and in an attempt to outrun the hangovers that seem to follow him wherever he goes. He is an author and journalist, and in keeping with the most honourable traditions of the writing profession, a drinker of distinction. His previous books have been published under a more sober alias. Milton Crawford on Twitter

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Why are you interested in writers who are drinkers?

I think there is a very rich vein of good literature written by people who were big boozers. I also think there is a noticeable intensity to all these writers. Hemingway said, for example: I have drunk since I was 15 and few things have given me more pleasure. When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whiskey? When you are cold and wet what else can warm you? Before an attack who can say anything that gives you the momentary well-being that rum does? The only time it isn’t good for you is when you write or when you fight. You have to do that cold. But it always helps my shooting. Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief. 

I think that when he is talking about writing there is this idea that alcohol gives the brain a holiday, so the next day you can sit down and start afresh. When you are a writer, a lot of the time you are kind of chewing over the same problems and you worry all night about it, and actually I don’t think that does you much good.

You sound like you are speaking from experience.

I am!

Well, moving on to your five books, let’s start with The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald.

Scott Fitzgerald was obviously quite a big boozer himself and alcohol plays a central role in this book. Gatsby is a bootlegger in the prohibition days and a lot of the action takes place with alcohol around, either at Gatsby’s parties or on Tom and Daisy’s verandah where they are drinking whiskey, so alcohol is a big backdrop to the whole book.

And he actually coined the phrase ‘the jazz age’ and was one of the lost generation, which was a very decadent scene.

Yes. There is this sense of decadence. And the other quality – which I think is related to his drinking – is the slightly dreamlike quality of the whole book. It’s like there is this alcoholic haze hanging over the whole thing. His later work suffered from his alcoholism, which of course eventually killed him, but this book is enhanced by it, and there is no sense of alcohol destroying his focus: I love the wonderfully precise prose in The Great Gatsby. The first page is one of my favourite first pages of any novel. It really sets up Gatsby as this fascinating character right from the outset.

You say his later work was damaged by his alcoholism – in what way?

It was more rambling. His last book was the 17 short stories, which were later collected as The Pat Hobby Stories. In them it is a bit like life imitating art because he is mocking himself as this alcoholic Hollywood hack. They are very sad because they show his decline

Your next choice is James Joyce’s classic, Ulysses.

I have a personal connection to this because my birthday is on Bloomsday, which is the single day that Ulysses is set on. So that’s 16 June, but in the case of Ulysses it was 1904. I even tried, a couple of years ago when I was a bit younger and more earnest than I am now, to read Ulysses in a single day on Bloomsday but didn’t manage it! Joyce was also a great drinker all across Europe in places like Dublin and Paris.

They say his drinking got worse after the death of his mother. He was in Paris at the time and got this telegram and she died before he got there.

Yes, and I think you can see how his drinking is reflected in the book. The thing about Ulysses is it has all kinds of language. It is a kind of equaliser of language by making the everyday into an epic. You have the language of the pub and of drinking, which is this coarse unliterary language which he makes famous through this book. He really was innovative. For Leopold Bloom, who is this everyman kind of character, this is his odyssey. Also Leopold Bloom’s favourite food is grilled mutton kidneys and I have devilled kidneys in my Hungover Cookbook.

Was that a tribute to Joyce?

No, but I remember it’s a really lovely passage in the book, which I will read to you: Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

So are you with him on this idea of filling up on grease and stodge after a big night out?

Not necessarily. It depends on the hangover. The recipes in my cookbook are tailored to fit each of P G Wodehouse’s six different types of hangover, namely the Broken Compass, the Sewing Machine, the Comet, the Atomic, the Cement Mixer and, of course, the Gremlin Boogie. So it depends on the type of hangover you have as to what your solution should be.

What’s one of your favourites?

Well I think the Gremlin Boogie is the most serious of all hangovers. It is when you are really feeling quite ill so if you have one of them I think it is best to go for something simple and clean tasting, like a carrot, apple and ginger juice, which is very restorative. But if you have a different type of hangover you might have something far more hearty and traditional, like a breakfast tortilla, which is all the ingredients of an English breakfast made into a big omelette.

Sounds delicious; I am sure I will be trying it soon. Your next author has been described as an openly gay Southern author with a weaknesses for fame, alcohol and attention.

Yes, that is Truman Capote and I have chosen his book In Cold Blood. He was a notorious drinker for most of his life. In Cold Blood is a nonfiction book about a real life crime story of a farmer, his wife and two of his children who were killed in Kansas in the 1950s. It’s an incredibly gripping book which broke new ground in that kind of genre as novelistic nonfiction. That kind of thing has become more commonplace now but most people would say he wrote the first nonfiction novel.

He had to wait a very long time to finish it, didn’t he?

Yes, the murder happened in 1959 and Capote started work on it not long after. He spent six years on it and it finally came out in 1966 after the conviction of the two killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. He spent a lot of time in the town where it all took place.

But considering how successful the book was it sounds like it was worth all the effort he put into it. Your next author is one of the most celebrated drinkers of our time – Hunter S Thompson. I am interested that you went for Hell’s Angels instead of one of his more famous books.

This is his first published book. He wrote a novel before this, which didn’t get published until recently. And this was the big breakthrough for his writing career. It has these familiar themes that he developed later on about the road and the outlaw culture and it has his distinctively bombastic prose in it. But not to the same extent as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – it is something he is obviously developing.

But having said that, it is a really carefully researched book. He followed the Hell’s Angels round for a year. It is very well structured and although it is kind of a documentary style, at the same time there is still plenty of scope for Thompson to develop the feeling for his subject. There are some great passages where he writes about the men being at one with their motorbikes and how if you saw some Hell’s Angel walking down the street they looked like fish out of water. But once you put them on their motorbikes they become amazingly in tune with their vehicles. He romanticised that part of them.

What you are describing sounds like the Gonzo journalism, which he pioneered, where you are basically embedded with your subject and often become part of the action.

Yes, absolutely. That was how he developed the Gonzo style, becoming part of the drama. He saw himself as an outlaw as well, so this felt like a fitting subject for him.

And do you admire his extreme hedonism?

Well, I admired him more when I was younger. As a literary inspiration I think he has his limits. Thompson idealised Hemingway and chose the same way to end his life by shooting himself.

Tell me about your last book, The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler.

There are various drunks in this book but the most notorious one is Roger Wade, a writer who goes missing. He is a Hemingway-type character who lives down on the sea, and later in the book it appears that he has killed himself, although it turns out he has been murdered. Quite a lot of the action about the writer is that he goes into rehab clinics to try to get dry.

Raymond Chandler was an alcoholic also, and his detective Philip Marlowe is a connoisseur of whiskeys. The book reminds me of those great Humphrey Bogart films of the 50s: everywhere he goes he has a drink poured for him. He is also like James Bond in that respect. If Philip Marlowe really drank as much as he was supposed to have done there is no way he would have solved any of these crimes. I really do think that Raymond Chandler is a wonderful crime writer and Philip Marlowe is an iconic character in 20th-century culture; not just in literature, but in films too.

January 1, 2011

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