Literary drinkers


The actual book being discussed is entitled ‘More Literary Drinkers’, but as we at Jot 101 haven’t read Pete Bunten’s ‘Literary Drinkers’, we will start with this sequel.

Bunten assembles the usual suspects in alphabetical order rather than in their degrees of bibulousness, which in some cases is not why they are in his book. They are: the Brontes, Roy Campbell (left), J.P.Donleavy, Ian Fleming, John Fothergill, Oliver Goldsmith, W.W.Jacobs, Jerome K Jerome, D.H.Lawrence, C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkein,Norman McCaig, Julian Maclaren Ross, Thomas Nashe, Eugene O’Neill, Dorothy Parker, Joseph Roth, Shakespeare, R.S.Surtees, Graham Swift , and Evelyn Waugh.

The book is well written, as it should be, considering that Bunten, who is ( or was ) a schoolteacher, is a graduate in  English from Cambridge. And there are some amusing pen portraits. One of the best concerns the belligerent South African poet Roy Campbell, who comes across as a near-alcoholic, quite capable of downing 4 ½ litres of wine a day. Bunten is right to see him as a victim of his own determination to project himself as macho through reckless physical activity and alcohol. His fiancee’s father warned her against marrying a ‘dipsomaniac‘, but she ignored his advice and paid the price. The discovery of her affair with Vita Sackville West sent Campbell off on a lengthy bender, which seems to us the sign of an emotionally weak person, rather than a manly one. And is it manly, one asks, to physically attack an unarmed Stephen Spender and Geoffrey Grigson, who Bunten calls ‘ timid ‘,with a knobkerrie ?  To evade such a drunken assault, as Grigson did, after having learnt that Spender had already been hit by Campbell, is hardly the action of a timid person. Later, Anthony West commented on the encounter   with the gruff ‘ You should have kicked him in the balls ‘.In his brilliant Recollections (1984) Grigson recalls being  a witness to another example of  Campbell’s boorish behaviour.

It occurred at a meeting in the BBC HQ, when the South African took a bottle of beer from the hospitality trolley and, with no opener available , ‘ pulled out a drawer in the controller’s desk, inserted the bottle neck, closed the drawer, and in  the clumsiest way jerked the bottle down. It slipped and the sharp-edged stopper widely and obviously scored the veneered front of the desk…Bluster from Roy, beer in the drawer, and then from Roy mumble, sulks and silence.’ To his credit, Campbell wrote sensitively about the drinking culture he enjoyed in France and Spain, but in the end he became a victim of the bar-room milieu he craved. His health was already in marked decline when in 1957 he was killed in a car crash in Portugal aged 55.

Bunten portrays Campbell as mainly a wine drinker. Somehow, one cannot imagine this enemy of effete men ordering a cocktail or a G & T. In strong contrast is Bond creator Ian Fleming, whose privileged upbringing in the Strawberry Hill ‘Gothick ‘ mansion of Brazier’s Park, Oxfordshire, doubtless gave him a taste for the more sophisticated things of life. Although Bunten doesn’t discuss Fleming’s own drinking habits, we must suppose that they were not too different from those of his creation.  James Bond never appears to drink beer. Instead, as we know, his favourite tipple was vodka martini, though according to Bunten, he was equally partial to other spirits, including Raki, Ouzo, whiskey and brandy, and when turning to wine, he is a bit of a connoisseur, opting for a Mouton Rothschild 1947 when Goldfinger offers him a choice.

It is as the host of the Spreadeagle in Thame, rather than a customer, that John Fothergill claimed a place in literary history. He arrived at the place in 1922 and his  Innkeeper’s Diary and Confessions of an Innkeeper are packed with amusing anecdotes of literary figures who supped in his pub. These included George Bernard Shaw, Jerome K. Jerome and G.K.Chesterton, but the pub was also popular with the bright young Oxonians of the twenties, notably John Betjeman and Evelyn Waugh. Fothergill appears to have been a sort of Basil Fawlty character. He took a special delight in alienating local farmers, whose ‘meanness and selfishness ‘he bewailed. Charabanc parties he considered ‘ill bred ‘ and one party who dined at the inn were charged an extra sixpence a head because Fothergill considered them so ugly. When one undergraduate threatened to ‘never come here again ‘,Fothergill replied ‘ Yes, but will you give me another undertaking; to tell all your friends not to come’.

To be continued… [R.M.Healey]



4 thoughts on “Literary drinkers

  1. rainer

    Surely Roy Campbell was a full blown alcoholic. These days a litre of wine a day would be cause for concern , 4.5 liters and you would be a lost cause! -A few yanks could be added – Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Bukowski, Hemingway.

  2. R.M.Healey

    I haven’t read Literary Drinkers, but in this second array of boozers Bunten confines himself to writers from the British Isles, which is a pity in a way, since some equally amusing anecdotes would doubtless emerge from a study of Hemingway et al.
    Surely Philip Larkin must be considered too. His letters are scattered with references to his drinking habits, which he appears to have shared with his friend Kingsley Amis and his lover Monica Jones. When, at last, she moved in with Larkin the couple appear to have spent whole days downing gin and whiskey. In a You Tube video A.N.Wilson describes Miss Jones as a boozer on a ‘ heroic scale’ and indeed she was interviewed nursing a large gin and tonic. In his very funny and moving Letters to Monica (2010) Larkin often complains about the small amounts of alcohol offered to him at various functions and the quality and scarcity of watering holes at various places.

    1. R.M.Healey

      Let me revise my last comment. Bunten does include some Americans, notably Dorothy Parker, in More Literary Drinkers. Perhaps we should wait for Even more Literary Drinkers to read of some more Americans.

  3. Roger

    Larkin’s poem Sympathy in White Major begins with a mouth-watering description of how he makes an enormous – possibly a pint – G&T:

    When I drop four cubes of ice
    Chimingly in a glass, and add
    Three goes of gin, a lemon slice,
    And let a ten-ounce tonic void
    In foaming gulps until it smoothers
    Everything else up to the edge…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *