Code / November 2015

I Drink, Therefore I Can

Alcohol, the abstemious naysayers claim, is a harmful depressant which impairs cerebral faculty. Try telling that, though, to the manifold writers, artists and other luminaries – not to mention a…

'My tastes are simple,' Winston Churchill once averred. 'I am easily satisfied with the best.' He certainly bore this out when it came to alcohol, where the best - Hine brandy, Pol Roger champagne, Johnnie Walker Red Label scotch - was constantly on tap. Churchill's appetite for a tipple was prodigious by anyone's - and would be regarded as ruinously reckless by today's - standards. Tony Blair's confession in his memoirs that he used alcohol as a 'prop' to cope with pressure in his time as prime minister was hailed as an audaciously candid admission, but Churchill would have speared him on his cocktail stick and dunked him in one of the famous wartime martinis he was wont to consume, along with the scotches, champagnes, brandies and highballs, while directing operations against the Nazis. 'I drink champagne at all meals, and buckets of claret and soda in between,' he attested, with only minimal exaggeration; but unlike, say, Herbert Asquith, the Liberal premier during World War I who was often observed swaying and slurring at the dispatch box, and acquired the nickname 'Squiffy' rather than fog it. 'Always remember,' he enjoined in his memoir The World Crisis, 'that I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me.'

Many looked upon that statement as an addict's wilful blindness, but a fair number of the greatest writers, painters and musicians have also been assiduous in getting their rounds in, keen to exemplify Arthur Rimbaud's dictum that 'The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses' (if not to go the whole lock-in hog with Charles Baudelaire's more hardcore 'be drunk always'). William Faulkner claimed not to be able to face a blank page without a bottle of Jack Daniels to hand, and, many tumblers later, had filled his A4 sheets with portions of future Penguin Modern Classics like As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. Beethoven fell heavily under the influence in the later - and many would say the greater - part of his creative life. It's hard to divorce Jackson Pollock's compulsive drips, Francis Bacon's bodily contortions or Vincent van Gogh's pulsating cornfields from the scotch - and absinthe - fuelled maelstrom of their creation. And then there's American painter Robert Rauschenberg, who typically drank a bottle-and-a-half of Jack Daniels a day over the course of a long and phenomenally productive life (83 years, at least 6,000 artworks). At one time, he checked himself into the Betty Ford Center; following his stay, a writer visited his studio to find him partly through his revised daily intake of a bottle of white wine and several vodka and sodas.

'One of the things they teach you at Betty Ford is, 'Don't ever be without something to drink,'' explained Rauschenberg to The New Yorker's Calvin Tomkins. The writer demurred. Surely the draught(s) in question should be non-alcoholic? 'That's what she means!' he laughed.

Such thriving in the face of seemingly toxic adversity has led to speculation that a 'Churchill gene' may allow some people to remain focused and creative despite a unit consumption level that would seriously stymie the vast majority. Mark Twain believed it - 'My vices protect me, but they would assassinate you!' - and now science seems to have vindicated the brigade of booze-aliers. A 2004 study at the University of Colorado found that around 15 percent of Caucasians have a genetic variant - the G-variant, as in G-spot - that makes ethanol behave more like an opioid drug, such as morphine, with a stronger-than-normal effect on mood and behaviour. Alcohol was injected directly into the subjects' bloodstreams, and those with the G-variant reported stronger feelings of happiness and elation, with the euphoria followed by a state of relaxation lasting several hours, during which their creative processes blossomed.

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Stuart Husband