What a subject! And, in very truth, for once, a “strangely neglected” one. Oh, I know you can hardly open a newspaper or magazine without coming across a set of instructions—most of them unoriginal, some of them quite unhelpful and one or two of them actually harmful—on how to cure this virtually pandemic ailment. But such discussions concentrate exclusively on physical manifestations, as if one were treating a mere illness. They omit altogether the psychological, moral, emotional, spiritual aspects: all that vast, vague, awful, shimmering metaphysical superstructure that makes the hangover a (fortunately) unique route to self-knowledge and self-realization.
Imaginative literature is not much better. There are poems and songs about drinking, of course, but none to speak of about getting drunk, let alone having been drunk. Novelists go into the subject more deeply and extensively, but tend to straddle the target, either polishing off the hero’s hangover in a few sentences or, so to speak, making it the whole of the novel. In the latter case, the hero will almost certainly be a dipsomaniac, who is not as most men are and never less so than on the morning after. This vital difference, together with much else, is firmly brought out in Charles Jackson’s marvelous and the hangover horrifying The Lost Weekend, still the best fictional account of alcoholism I have read.
A few writers can be taken as metaphorically illuminating the world of the hangover while ostensibly dealing with something else. Parts of Dostoevsky can be read in this way. Some of Poe’s Tales convey perfectly the prevailing gloomy uneasiness and sudden fits of outlandish dread so many of us could recognize, and Poe himself had a drink problem; contrary to popular belief, he was not a dipsomaniac, but his system was abnormally intolerant of alcohol, so that just a couple of slugs would lay him on his back, no doubt with a real premature burial of a hangover to follow.
Perhaps Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis, which starts with the hero waking up one morning and finding he has turned into a man-sized cockroach, is the best literary treatment of all. The central image could hardly be better chosen, and there is a telling touch in the nasty way everybody goes on at the chap. (I can find no information about Kafka’s drinking history.)
The reason why so many professional artists drink a lot is not necessarily very much to do with the artistic temperament, etc. It is simply that they can afford to, because they can normally take a large part of a day off to deal with the ravages.
It is not my job, or anyway I absolutely decline, to attempt a full, direct description of the metaphysical hangover: no fun to write or read. But I hope something of this will emerge by implication from my list of countermeasures. Before I get on to that, however, I must deal with the physical hangover, which is in any case the logical one to tackle first, and the dispersal of which will notably alleviate the other— mind and body, as we have already seen, being nowhere more intimately connected than in the sphere of drink. Here, then, is how to cope with
THE PHYSICAL HANGOVER
1. Immediately on waking, start telling yourself how lucky you are to be feeling so bloody awful. This, known as George Gale’s Paradox, recognizes the truth that if you do not feel bloody awful after a hefty night then you are still drunk, and must sober up in a waking state before hangover dawns.
2. If your wife or other partner is beside you, and (of course) is willing, perform the sexual act as vigorously as you can. The exercise will do you good, and—on the assumption that you enjoy sex—you will feel toned up emotionally, thus delivering a hit-and-run raid on your metaphysical hangover (M.H.) before you formally declare war on it.
Warnings. (i) If you are in bed with somebody you should not be in bed with, and have in the least degree a bad conscience about this, abstain. Guilt and shame are prominent constituents of the M.H., and will certainly be sharpened by indulgence on such an occasion.
(ii) For the same generic reason, do not take the matter into your own hands if you awake by yourself.
3. Having of course omitted to drink all that water before retiring, drink a lot of it now, more than you need to satisfy your immediate thirst. Alcohol is a notorious dehydrant, and a considerable part of your physical hangover (P.H.) comes from the lack of water in your cells.
At this point I must assume that you can devote at least a good part of the day to yourself and your condition. Those who inescapably have to get up and do something can only stay in bed as long as they dare, get up, shave, take a hot bath or shower (more of this later), breakfast off an unsweetened grapefruit (m.o.t.l.) and coffee, and clear off, with the intention of getting as drunk at lunchtime as they dare. Others can read on—but let me just observe in passing that the reason why so many professional artists drink a lot is not necessarily very much to do with the artistic temperament, etc. It is simply that they can afford to, because they can normally take a large part of a day off to deal with the ravages. So, then,
4. Stay in bed until you can stand it no longer. Simple fatigue is another great constituent of the P.H.
5. Refrain at all costs from taking a cold shower. It may bring temporary relief, but in my own and others’ experience it will give your M.H. a tremendous boost after about half an hour, in extreme cases making you feel like a creature from another planet. Perhaps this is the result of having dealt another shock to your already shocked system. The ideal arrangement, very much worth the trouble and expense if you are anything of a serious drinker, is a shower fixed over the bath. Run a bath as hot as you can bear and lie in it as long as you can bear. When it becomes too much, stand up and have a hot shower, then lie down again and repeat the sequence. This is time well spent.
Warning. Do not do this unless you are quite sure your heart and the rest of you will stand it. I would find it most disagreeable to be accused of precipitating your death, especially in court.
6. Shave. A drag, true, and you may well cut yourself, but it is a calming exercise and will lift your morale (another sideswipe at your M.H.).
7. Whatever the state of your stomach, do not take an alkalizing agent such as bicarbonate of soda. There is some of this in most hangover remedies but not enough to do you any harm, and the bubbling is cheerful. Better to take unsweetened fruit juice or a grapefruit without sugar. The reasoning behind this, known as Philip Hope-Wallace’s Syndrome, is that your stomach, on receiving a further dose of acid, will say to itself, “Oh, I see: we need more alkaline,” and proceed to neutralize itself. Bicarbonate will make it say, “Oh, I see: we need more acid,” and do you further damage.
If you find this unconvincing, take heed of what happened one morning when, with a kingly hangover, I took bicarbonate with a vodka chaser. My companion said “Let’s see what’s happening in your stomach,” and poured the remnant of the vodka into the remnant of the bicarbonate solution. The mixture turned black and gave off smoke.
8. Eat nothing, or nothing else. Give your digestion the morning off. You may drink coffee, though do not expect this to do anything for you beyond making you feel more wide-awake.
9. Try not to smoke. That nicotine has contributed to your P.H. is a view held by many people, including myself.
10. By now you will have shot a good deal of the morning. Get through the rest of it somehow, avoiding the society of your fellows. Talk is tiring. Go for a walk, or sit or lie about in the fresh air. At eleven or so, see if you fancy the idea of a Polish Bison (hot Bovril and vodka). It is still worth while without the vodka. You can start working on your M.H. any time you like.
11. About 12:30, firmly take a hair (or better, in Cyril Connolly’s phrase, a tuft) of the dog that bit you. The dog, by the way, is of no particular breed: there is no obligation to go for the same drink as the one you were mainly punishing the night before. Many will favor the Bloody Mary, though see my remarks on this in the Drinks section. Others swear by the Underburg. For the ignorant, this is a highly alcoholic bitters rather resembling Fernet Branca, but in my experience more usually effective. It comes in miniature bottles holding about a pub double, and should be put down in one.
The effect on one’s insides, after a few seconds, is rather like that of throwing a cricket-ball into an empty bath, and the resulting mild convulsions and cries of shock are well worth witnessing. But thereafter a comforting glow supervenes, and very often a marked turn for the better. By now, one way or another, you will be readier to face the rest of mankind and a convivial lunchtime can well result. Eat what you like within reason, avoiding anything greasy or rich. If your P.H. is still with you afterwards, go to bed.
Before going on to the M.H., I will, for completeness’ sake, mention three supposed hangover cures, all described as infallible by those who told me about them, though I have not tried any of the three. The first two are hard to come by.
12. Go down the mine on the early-morning shift at the coal-face.
13. Go up for half an hour in an open aeroplane, needless to say with a non-hungover person at the controls.
14. Known as Donald Watt’s Jolt, this consists of a tumbler of some sweet liqueur, Bénédictine or Grand Marnier, taken in lieu of breakfast. Its inventor told me that with one of them inside him he once spent three-quarters of an hour at a freezing bus-stop “without turning a hair.” It is true that the sugar in the drink will give you energy and the alcohol alcohol.
At this point, younger readers may relax the unremitting attention with which they have followed the above. They are mostly strangers to the M.H. But they will grin or jeer at their peril. Let them rest assured that, as they grow older, the M.H. will more and more come to fill the gap left by their progressively less severe P.H. And, of the two, incomparably the more dreadful is
THE METAPHYSICAL HANGOVER
1. Deal thoroughly with your P.H.
2. When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is, and there is no use crying over spilt milk. If this works, if you can convince yourself, you need do no more, as provided in the markedly philosophical
G.P. 9: He who truly believes he has a hangover has no hangover.
3. If necessary, then, embark on either the M.H. Literature Course or the M.H. Music Course or both in succession (not simultaneously). Going off and gazing at some painting, building or bit of statuary might do you good too, but most people, I think, will find such things unimmediate for this— perhaps any—purpose. The structure of both Courses, hangover reading and hangover listening, rests on the principle that you must feel worse emotionally before you start to feel better. A good cry is the initial aim.
When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover.
Begin with verse, if you have any taste for it. Any really gloomy stuff that you admire will do. My own choice would tend to include the final scene of Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines 606 to the end, with what is probably the most poignant moment in all our literature coming at lines 624–6. The trouble here, though, is that today of all days you do not want to be reminded of how inferior you are to the man next door, let alone to a chap like Milton. Safer to pick somebody less horribly great. I would plump for the poems of A. E. Housman and/or R. S. Thomas, not that they are in the least interchangeable. Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum is good, too, if a little long for the purpose.
Switch to prose with the same principles of selection. I suggest Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It is not gloomy exactly, but its picture of life in a Russian labour camp will do you the important service of suggesting that there are plenty of people about who have a bloody sight more to put up with than you (or I) have or ever will have, and who put up with it, if not cheerfully, at any rate in no mood of self-pity.
Turn now to stuff that suggests there may be some point to living after all. Battle poems come in rather well here: Macaulay’s Horatius, for instance. Or, should you feel that this selection is getting a bit British (for the Roman virtues Macaulay celebrates have very much that sort of flavor), try Chesterton’s Lepanto. The naval victory in 1571 of the forces of the Papal League over the Turks and their allies was accomplished without the assistance of a single Anglo-Saxon (or Protestant). Try not to mind the way Chesterton makes some play with the fact that this was a victory of Christians over Moslems.
By this time you could well be finding it conceivable that you might smile again some day. However, defer funny stuff for the moment. Try a good thriller or action story, which will start to wean you from self-observation and the darker emotions: Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, Gavin Lyall, Dick Francis, Geoffrey Household, C. S. Forester (perhaps the most useful of the lot). Turn to comedy only after that; but it must be white—i.e. not black—comedy: P. G. Wodehouse, Stephen Leacock, Captain Marryat, Anthony Powell (not Evelyn Waugh), Peter De Vries (not The Blood of the Lamb, which, though very funny, has its real place in the tearful category, and a distinguished one). I am not suggesting that these writers are comparable in other ways than that they make unwillingness to laugh seem a little pompous and absurd.
Excerpted from Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis by Kingsley Amis. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2022 by the Estate of Kingsley Amis.