Of booze and books

What happens when a writer stops drinking?

Tom Shone explores pedestrian prose from writers who stop drinking in Intelligent Life. He discovers that, from Fitzgerald to Faulkner, "none of these authors would write much that was any good beyond the age of 40", blaming their creative decline on sobriety and enforced rehab. "AA can only help weak people because their ego is strengthened by the group," said Fitzgerald. "I was never a joiner." Shone agrees, noting that:

Certainly, if what you're used to is rolling champagne bottles down Fifth Avenue beneath the light of a wanton moon or getting into the kind of bar fights that make a man feel alive, truly alive, the basic facts of recovered life - the endless meetings, the rote ingestion of the sort of clichés the writer has spent his entire life avoiding - are below prosaic.

Ironically enough, the writing that resulted from these writers' battles with alcoholism (Fitzgerald's "The Crack-Up" in Esquire and John Berryman's Recovery) would have been instant bestsellers today, given the immense popularity of misery memoirs on both the Oprah and Richard and Judy book lists.

For more on literary inebriation, read Victoria Moore's account of following Papa Hemingway's "rum-soaked tracks in Cuba".

Show Hide image

Poem: "When the Americans came"

“Do you have vampires around here?”

When the Americans came,

they didn’t take to our gardens:

the apple orchard smelling of wild garlic,

foxgloves growing among the runner beans.


“Do you have vampires around here?”

a visitor from Carolina asked me.

It was a shambles, Wilfred knew that,

nodding wisely as though apologising


for the ill manners of King George,

the clematis purple in the thatched roofing.

But come the softe sonne,

there are oxlips in Fry’s woods,


forget-me-nots in the shallow stream,

lettuce and spring onions for a salad.

It’s certain that fine women eat

A crazy salad with their meat*


I tried to tell them. But they weren’t women,

and didn’t care to listen to a boy.

They preferred the red rosehips

we used for making wine.


Danced outside the village church

round the maypole Jack Parnham made.

Now they’re gone,

the wild garlic has returned.


* W B Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”


William Bedford is a novelist, children’s author and poet. His eighth collection of verse, The Bread Horse, is published by Red Squirrel Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood