Do you remember the ridiculous level of coverage when the last Oasis album came out? Newspapers were reviewing it on the front page, acclaiming it as a work of genius. Over a few months, people gradually realised that behind the almost comically bombastic sleeve and the pretentious cover was a fairly mediocre rock album.
The band later admitted as much. "We lost the album down the drug dealer's," Noel Gallagher commented. A record ruined by drugs? How could that be? Isn't this rock'n'roll? But there's a long tradition of controversy about this, in which some drugs are regarded as more acceptable than others. Philip Larkin wrote that he thought that nobody listening to Bix Beiderbecke would have guessed he was an alcoholic, whereas anybody listening to Charlie Parker would infer he was a heroin addict. In his fine book on the Beatles, Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald argues that drugs gave them, especially John Lennon, brief inspiration but then sapped their ability to create at all.
In the Times Literary Supplement, Charles Nicholl has written an interesting article on drugs and their problematic relationship with creatitivity: "Many writers drink coffee while they are writing," he observes, "but one would not describe the resulting paragraphs as the product of a 'caffeine experience'." I'm not so sure about that. I generally sink into a comatose state at around two in the afternoon from which I can extract myself only by drinking several mugs of coffee, after which my hands tremble so much that I can scarcely hit the keyboard. Ideas, if they come at all, arrive in a sort of manic free association.
But does anybody really create anything of any substance while drunk or stoned or tripping? Take the novelists who were celebrated or notorious for their epic drinking, such as Patrick Hamilton, Henry Green, Ernest Hemingway and Evelyn Waugh. All of them were disciplined writers who were resolutely sober while they wrote. Nevertheless, they all produced their important work while young. In early middle age, both the quality and quantity of their work declined sharply.
But I know what you're thinking. What about "Kubla Khan"? Samuel T Coleridge famously wrote how he had fallen asleep after taking an "anodyne" (a dose of laudanum) and composed a poem of "two to three hundred lines" in his head. When he woke up, he wrote down the 50 lines of the poem we have. He was just about to write the other 250 when he was "unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock". By the time he had gone, he had forgotten the whole thing. Well, it makes a change from claiming that the cat ate it. Nicholl mentions the poem's literary antecedents and so on, but the real giveaway is that this beautiful poem clearly is not a fragment of a dream at all. It is a poem about the fragility of inspiration and it has a beginning, a middle and - whatever anybody says - an end. Coleridge was always making claims about the great works he was about to write or had almost written, and these excuses sometimes prevent readers focusing properly on what he actually did write.
Incidentally, readers may remember that, a few years ago, Nicholl wrote a very good book called The Reckoning, about the death of Christopher Marlowe. A couple of years later, Anthony Burgess wrote an excellent novel on the same subject, A Dead Man in Deptford, and puckishly named one of the characters - a torturer I believe - Charles Nicholl. When Nicholl saw this in proof, he contacted the publishers and insisted on the name being changed, which seems a bit of a pity. I'd rather like to appear as a torturer in an Anthony Burgess novel. There is a minor tradition of characters mischievously being given the names of rivals or enemies. For example, do you remember the episode of Fawlty Towers in which one of the guests dies? As Basil and Manuel stagger along the corridor carrying the corpse, they blunder into a room and find the occupant inflating a rubber woman. At the beginning of the episode this man has been identified as Mr Ingrams - a very convoluted blow at Richard Ingrams, the one person in the world who didn't find the show funny and said so week after week in Another Magazine. I think I would even be honoured if a character named after me inflated a rubber woman in Fawlty Towers. Some of us will grab any chance of immortality we can.