Verse for wear

The fraught relationship between alcohol and creativity is one of the most hackneyed topics out there – a slew of books are published each year on it. And the exaggeratedly bibulous ghost of Dylan Thomas hovers crapulously above all such narratives and accounts. But there’s a reason for all that – it’s an eternally fascinating, if morbid, subject. My interest in imbibing and scribbling is both academic and personal, as someone (I’ll admit) who sometimes struggles with alcohol themselves. Much of my research for my PhD was on generally male Scottish poets born in the late 1900s or early 20th century, those who loosely formed (willingly or reluctantly) ‘the Scottish literary renaissance’, led by big boozer Hugh MacDiarmid. I recently came across this gem, in a 1992 catalogue for an exhibition of MacDiarmid manuscripts and rare publications called ‘The Thorn in Scotland’s Rose’, the letter is dated 1962 (when MacDiarmid was 70):

Letter to G. Ross Roy from the Edinburgh antiquarian bookseller Kulgin Duval, who had recently published [MacDiarmid’s] The Kind of Poetry I Want and had arranged for MacDiarmid to inscribe the Roy copy. Unfortunately, Duval notes, ‘Christopher is here but alas too too drunk to sign your book, but he’ll do it, he says so, you’ll get it soon’. Two months later MacDiarmid was capable of inscribing the book…

Admittedly the letter was sent the day after Hogmanay, but MacDiarmid had a problematic relationship with drink to say the least – it was a major reason (alongside the financial) behind his self-imposed exile on Whalsay, in the Shetland archipelago in the 1930s and early 1940s. His second wife Valda had for many years valiantly managed to curb his consumption, but he was a devil for Glenfiddich particularly. When he descended on Norman MacCaig’s flat in Edinburgh from Biggar, he was known to go on drinking sprees from which he would sleep solidly for three days in order to recover.

So many of the poets whose work I admire were, I think we can all agree, borderline or fully fledged high-level functioning alcoholics: Sydney Goodsir Smith, Norman MacCaig, George Mackay Brown, George Campbell Hay, Ruthven Todd (particularly!), W. S. Graham, Burns Singer – the list goes on out the door and around the block and back. Just look at this 1972 film about Hugh MacDiarmid by Oscar Marzaroli, called ‘No Fellow Travellers’ – the first scene is a beery, smoky Milne’s Bar full of pickled poets arguing the toss about their master’s ‘greatness’.

A retired professor friend of mine said that he had spoken to W. S. Graham in the early 1980s when he was on a reading tour of Scotland (his last visit to his native Scotland). Graham was drinking whisky out of a pewter tankard (and this was before the reading started) and when my friend volunteered to buy him another, Graham pointed to the tankard and said ‘In there’. In there went another double measure and Graham lifted the tankard to his lips with both hands, trembling. My friend says he will never forget the sound of the pewter chattering against Graham’s teeth as he forced the barley-bree down.

Of course, a lot of Graham’s drinking was to do with chronic anxiety about performing in front of an audience as well as the usual thanatic drive in the artist for self-destruction. Drink made him an extremely volatile reader of his work and it led to brilliant but also bathetic and bellicose performances where he told the audience to ‘Fuck off!’. George Mackay Brown was a painfully shy man who drank to overcome social nerves and it is well documented that while he lived in Edinburgh as a student in the 1950s and early 1960s (sometimes even being arrested for public drunkenness), his great love was the artist Stella Cartwright (who can be seen in her prime here, in this lovely short film by Margaret Tait), a woman destroyed by alcohol addiction that she acquired in trying to keep up with the drouthy poets. She died in her late 40s, more or less deserted by the fair-weather friends of her misspent youth.

Alan Bold (1943-1998), the poet, writer and biographer of MacDiarmid, saw himself as a direct descendent of these Renaissance poets and much of his journalism affectionately toys with their drinking antics (see here). (He can be seen as the first of the impassioned speakers in the MacDiarmid video, above – he’s the chubby man with the beard who says ‘It’s a question of a man who can write bloody good poetry!’ in the opening shot). Yet, behind these funny, larger-than-life anecdotes, Bold is measuring himself against his heroes as a drinker and trying to show us that alcohol is not a harmful thing, if greater men have used and abused it and have written such great works as A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle using alcohol as a central motif. Bold himself was certainly no slouch in the quaffing stakes – a contemporary of his says that when he travelled in from Fife on the train to Edinburgh to research his latest book in the National Library, he’d always have with him eight cans of Guinness, which was supplemented, presumably, by a lengthy liquid lunch in a nearby howff. The conjecture surrounding his early death in his mid-50s is centred on his heavy drinking. It appears that the near-death of his close friend the artist John Bellany in the mid-1980s, from alcohol-induced cirrhosis, did little to dampen his fondness for the jar.


Perhaps one of the most harrowing and moving accounts of alcoholism in literary Edinburgh in the 1950s and 1960s is the grossly undervalued and more-or-less impossibly scarce short book Another Little Drink by ‘Abraham Adams’ (pseudonym for the writer, librarian and latterly owner of ‘Stromness Books and Prints’, John L. Broom, who died in 1991). Published in 1973, safely after Broom’s recovery from severe alcoholism (over two bottles of whisky a day, and whatever he could down in the pub), the book was published by poet and fellow librarian David Morrison’s and Edna Morrison’s press ‘Scotia’. Morrison, a practicing heavy drinker himself but also survivor of the Rose Street scene must have seen in the book a number of uncomfortable truths. Marketing itself as ‘The story of an alcoholic’s decline, fall and return to life’, the book at the time fell between two stools – not didactic enough to be a self-help guide or technical or academic enough to be a study, but having enough knowledge of the pathology of drinking to not make it merely a ‘warts and all’ gossip book.

The book was clearly an important part of Broom’s recovery, and like Jack London’s John Barleycorn, it’s an alcoholic’s memoirs, with a focus on how drinking became such a large domineering part of a life. Much of the book is taken up with vivid descriptions of the sheer messiness of alcohol taking a hold on a life (after an evocation of literary Edinburgh in the ‘golden’ years of drinking) – the hallucinations and DTs, the wet beds, the blackouts while driving, the drinking through Antabuse treatment, the loss of jobs and the lasting stigma of addiction (thus the pseudonym). There are sometimes funny imbroglios and compromising situations but Broom is never preachy and the book is ultimately a positive one, with an emphasis on recovery. So often such books ring a falsely rhetorical note, but Broom managed to get and stay sober for decades. So did my late friend, the poet Marcus Cumberlege, though he did so with the assistance of a firm belief in a higher power. The fact that Broom’s book has not been republished baffles me, because I think it would be more readily understood, even enjoyed and benefitted from, these days.

I don’t have any gory stories like John Broom to tell, but I’ve been reassessing my drinking over the last few years. In the past I did try to fortify myself with drink before poetry readings and it’s taken me a long time to realise that the stuff actually undermines what I do. I recall one particularly cringey reading where I could actually hear myself slurring and stumbling over words – that was a bit of a wake-up call. It’s a matter of principle to me now that I don’t drink before I read, but that only accounts for a very small part of my time / life. I also emphatically don’t drink in order to write – anything I’ve written in the past under the influence has been total bilge. But again, that doesn’t really say much and I accept that there are some poets who need alcohol in order to write, to open up a part of their brain or imagination. I’ve heard that Angus Calder worked this way as a poet – getting drunk and writing drafts of poems that he would find scattered around the day after and try to edit and type up.

All drinking gives me is false hope – if I drink then write I think each idea is an epiphany (much the same when smoking cannabis) and then in the cold light of day, it’s gibberish. My problem is the drinking between poems, in the time when I don’t have a poem to write or something more meaningful to do. My other downfall is literary / poetry festivals. Being a rather introverted and reticent character, I really struggle to mingle at poetry events where so much of what seems like bonhomie is in fact note-taking, networking, reconnaissance and schmoozing. Once my reading is over, I want a drink in my hand in order to cope with it all and off to the pub I go, because there I can also hide from poetry people I find intimidating. It’s sad, but that’s how it’s been for me.

I’m also something of an alcohol tourist – I love finding the pubs with important literary connections and I love discovering new beers. My problem is that in my (mal)formative early years of drinking, I made an indelibly romantic connection between literature and drinking, and instead of questioning that, I swallowed it by the pint. But as times goes on, I’m finding it’s less and less the wonder product it once was, with each occasion when I feel groggy or short-tempered or thin-skinned. After the age of thirty, a hangover of any size has become unbearable. I remember once watching an interview with Raymond Carver about his own alcoholism where he says that he had it bad because, unlike many alcoholics, he loved the taste of alcohol. That set off something of a tocsin in my head, because my experience of drinking is also deeply gustatory. I can certainly relate to George Mackay Brown’s account, via biographer Maggie Fergusson, of his troubled love affair with the bottle:

One Saturday morning the following May, the Stromness Hotel opened its bar for the first time in twenty-seven years. George went in, downed two glasses of beer, and was hooked. Those first glasses, he wrote, were ‘a revelation; they flushed my veins with happiness; they washed away all cares and shyness and worries. I remember thinking to myself “If I could have two pints of beer every afternoon, life would be a great happiness.”’ It was not long before two pints ceased to satisfy […]