In defense of the Noble Drunk

Courtesy Associated Press

Yesterday, while toughing out 20 minutes of enforced motionlessness as I iced my elbow, I ran across an old favorite from movieland, and it got me to thinking. Now, how I developed golfer’s elbow remains a mystery as I don’t play. You may be thinking it could be due to the repetitive strain of lifting glasses of wine, bottles of beer or cases of what have you; however, it has afflicted my left elbow, which is not my drinking lifiting elbow, but that’s a story for another day.

As I said, I was sitting with the elbow swaddled in an ice pack with some time to kill, so I snapped on the tube and was thrilled to stumble upon one of my all time favorite movies featuring one of my all time favorite actors. And since I’m slinging the term around, it was My Favorite Year with none other than the magnificent Peter O’Toole swanking around New York as the dipsomaniacal swashbuckler Alan Swann. Take a look:

If you haven’t seen this movie, you really must. And if, after viewing it, you still buy that codswollop* about demon liquor ruining your life, destroying your family and flushing decent society down the spout, consider our man Pete, still going strong as his 80th birthday nears — or it may be his 79th depending on which source you consult. It’s hard to know when the birthday boy himself is unsure, but I attribute that to lax Depression-era record keeping at the time of his birth rather than any “forgetfulness” on the part of the man himself. In any case, once you make it past 70, what’s a year or two one way or another?

So as I drank in (pardon the cheap pun, I couldn’t resist) the glory of Peter O’Toole in full whiskey-sotted excess, it occurred to me that in these days of rigid abstemiousness, high colonics, juice cleanses, monastic dietary regimes, yoga, kettle bells, personal training, Gwyneth bloody Paltrow and one-glass-of-wine-a-night groupthink, what we as a society could really use is some highbrow Dionysian excess such as has been modeled by history’s greatest Noble Drunks.

Miss Snookie via the Superficial.

Now when I speak of the Noble Sot, I’m not talking about Charlie Sheen, Paula Abdul, those mooks from The Jersey Shore or anyone who thinks that swallowing Jell-O shots qualifies as actual drinking. The Noble Tippler uses alcohol as fuel for the muse, grist for the party mill and fodder for the odd frolic, as the great O’Toole once put it.

The entertainment industry has given us some of the great Noble Drunks of our time — Richard Harris, WC Fields, and Spencer Tracy to name but a few.

In the Thirties and Forties Nick and Nora, as interpreted on celluloid by Myrna Loy and William Powell, took imbibing to elegant heights, courtesy of Dashiell Hammett (who was no slouch at the bar, and you wouldn’t have been either if you’d had to bunk with Lillian Hellman).

But I think we can agree that the ultimate marriage(s) of Noble Drunks in Hollywood was Liz and Dick. I maintain that there is absolutely no way they could have portrayed George and Martha that well without having lived a life of protracted dissolution, or something very like it. If you haven’t screened the movie adaptation of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, put it at the top of your list. Scathing, devastating and as black as comedy gets right before it turns to horror, it is worth every second to hear Liz hiss, “If you existed, I’d divorce you.”

Now no hommage to the great lushes would be complete without reference to the literary world, where boozy colossi bestride the landscape like, well, colossi really. Some of the cleverest and greatest works of fiction were penned by history’s most vigorous barflies: Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Raymond Chandler and Scott Fitzgerald to name but a few.

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle in London on the day of their wedding in 1931. Someone looks like he could use a pick-me-up. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

As a rule, no list of tippling typists is complete without a reference to Hemingway, but it strikes me that he was probably something of a tool. Brilliant of course, but no fun with a load on, though he is responsible for the best writing advice I’ve ever read, namely, “Write drunk. Edit sober.”

And of course, there’s Kingsley Amis who was no stranger to cocktail hour and gave us Jim Dixon, one of the greatest Noble Drunks in literature (second only to Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, of course), as well as the most brilliant description of a hangover ever committed to paper in Lucky Jim:

He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

In the field of nonfiction, journalists too have long been renowned boozers. Among the most notable was the late Christopher Hitchens, one of the quickest wits and best minds of our time and a legendary iron man of the tavern, who said of drink, “Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.”

V is for vodka!

Politicians and military men, too, have their poster boys, such as US Grant and Winston Churchill, who managed an entire country in wartime, and won, with a snifter, stem or highball glass in hand most of the time. Of his tippling, he famously said, “Always remember that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”

And lest you believe all that fitness hot air, let me remind you that the world of sport has given us some of our most splendid boozers, such as golfer John Daly or pitchers David Wells (Boomer famously threw a perfect game “half drunk” with just three hours’ sleep separating him from a legendary bender) and the Spaceman Bill Lee. He of course branched out into chemicals, the combination of which apparently shorted out his internal edit button and caused him to say things like, “You take a team with twenty-five assholes and I’ll show you a pennant. I’ll show you the New York Yankees.” You’re not going to get quotes like that from Tim Tebow, people.

Courtesy America Fun Fact of the Day

But when we think of athletes with a fondness for the shaker, more often than not we think of Babe Ruth. One of the greatest baseball players of all time and an unapologetic one-man barroom, the Babe set records, showed up for work every day and knocked the stuffing out of his opponents, frequently with a gut full of suds, a hangover or both, and without ever sticking himself in the ass with anything you couldn’t get on tap. That we know of.

So as you contemplate your evening cocktail and consider the possibility of an after dinner drink, bear in mind the wise words of P.J. O’Rourke:

Anyway, no drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we’re looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.

* * * * * * * *

* Which is not to say that I have not seen the devastating effects of alcoholism up close and personal on many occasions; I certainly have and would urge anyone with a problem to seek help from friends, family, church, AA, doctors or Betty Ford, all of whom are capable of wondrous works of great and lasting good.

About WSW

Writer, wife, mother. Toiler in the bottomless, black, soul-sucking coal mine of domestic life. Thank God for the portable bar.

Posted on July 9, 2012, in Cocktails!, The Slattern Speaks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. My favorite movie and favorite line -“if I were drunk could I do this”? And promply falling head over heels.

  2. Reblogged this on Kitchen Slattern and commented:

    An oldie, but a goodie. Just to put in in the proper frame of mind for the upcoming season of joy.

  3. This is a great post. I’m a cynic when it comes to reading glib posts and comments about drinking fun, having been in close relationship with a couple of raging lunatic alcoholics, but this is a good one. Another epic hangover description was from “Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe which I was able to dredge up on-line:

    “The telephone blasted Peter Fallow awake inside an egg with the shell peeled away and only the membranous sac holding it intact. Ah! The membranous sac was his head, and the right side of his head was on the pillow, and the yolk was as heavy as mercury, and it rolled like mercury, and it was pressing down on his right temple… If he tried to get up to answer the telephone, the yolk, the mercury, the poisoned mass, would shift and roll and rupture the sac, and his brains would fall out.”

  4. My 95 year old grandfather was living proof that alcohol-thinned blood makes for a great cardiovascular system. And I have to admit, some of my fondest snippets of memories come back to me in flashbacks of long ago hazy, drunken stupors. Bummer about the hangovers and bed spins though.

    • Dissolve two Airborne tablets in warm water and drink before bed to prevent — or at least de-fang — the hangover. I doubt it can prevent the spins though. You are WELCOME!

  5. Perhaps one day you will be adding Mr. Glutton to this list. 😉

  6. I’m still chuckling over codswollop. That’s my new favorite word. After martini, of course. Wonderful post…but stop writing about me, would you?

    • You know, if you weren’t such an egomaniac, you’d see that I never write about anyone but myself. If I did, the sun would certainly fail to rise the next day, the Earth would cease spinning on its axis, and the universe would very likely implode. I can’t have that on what little conscience I have. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, Sister.

  7. I swear we have some weird telepathy going on. Just when I thought I should lay off on the booze, so I can lose weight, I see this post from you. Hope your elbow gets better soon; you need a drink in EACH hand – as good a writer as you are, you can easily type your next post with your nose.

    • Actually I type with my toes, which are quite strong and entirely bunion free. Of course if I continue to break down at the current rate, I’ll need a secretary (something in this line I think) and a better pedicurist sooner than later.

      You are far too kind, my friend. Now, next time you’re stateside, I’ve owe you a big old bender in a class establishment. In the meantime, expect a fruit basket with some “diuretics” in the wrapping. Should it get seized by customs, however, I will disavow all knowledge of the contents. Just so you know. 😉

      • Over a year after you posted this the first time, I’m in Taipei, where the only drinks to be had are sugary concoctions at TGI Fridays or outrageously-priced Whiskey to be sipped with a cigar. Think I’m ready for that big old bender in a class establishment, which we all know for me, will be somewhere in between the dumpster at a gas station or an Elks Lodge. I’ll wear something non staining, like a garbage bag. Please wear something that I can recognize you in easily, an Amish bonnet, for example.

        An even better read the second time around!

        • I don’t think Taipei is on my itinerary, but next time you’re on the right coast, I am buying. Anyone who reads my scribblings twice goes to the top of my comp list. Don’t dismiss the Elks lodge out of hand, btw. I have heard a good time can be had at their soirees, where every night is ladies’ night.

  8. Salude to another great post!!

  9. I adore Peter O’Toole and anyone who can use the word “mooks” in a sentence. Great post!

  10. Being slightly buzzed liberates my mind. Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve drawn plans and ideas when under the influence that I haven’t when sober. It works for writing and it works for scientific experiment design as well.
    Bill Maher once said that drugs might be killing children, but it gives us great music. He then added, A lot of good has come from drugs. I think ‘Penny Lane’ is worth 10 dead kids. Dark Side of the Moon is worth 100 dead kids. Something similar can be said for alcohol.

    • Can’t say I agree about the dead kids, or Dark Side of the Moon for that matter (it only sounds good if you’re stoned, I have been TOLD), but in the spirit of open debate, I take your point.

      • Bill was joking about the dead kids. In fact, it was part of a stand-up routine. But being under the influence of something does take away your inhibitions. You’re more likely to do some divergent, lateral thinking. Your results are less linear, more imaginative.

  11. Cheers. Loved, loved this post.

  12. great post- long live the noble drunk!

  13. As a former semi-pro sot, I can say that I came up with funny ideas for stories. The problem was drink made me lazy. Not one idea saw the light of day. Today, I appreciate those who hold their liquor and shun the rookies. Common sense and planning can keep you unharmed and unarrested. When the sun dips below the yardarm have one on me.

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