There's a reason so many writers drink and smoke
There's a reason so many writers drink and smoke
If someone asks me to name the contemporary writers I most admire, I reply Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens. I say this because it more or less is the case, but also because when you think of Hitchens you think of Amis, and vice versa. And it's just so neat: Amis has the world of fiction sewn up, Hitchens the non-fiction.
I am tempted to add that, on the extra-curricular side, Amis looks after the heavy smoking while Hitchens handled the heavy drinking - because Amis is so well known for his smoking. But then so is Hitchens. And Amis has apparently had his big drinking phases. I can well believe it, too. Here he is, from Yellow Dog: "He finished the bottle of wine that night. He needed a bottle of wine to get him through it: that is to say, he needed a bottle of wine to get him through an evening with only a bottle of wine to get him through it."
I have, anyhow, become fixated on their oral fixations. A while back, the two were interviewed on the same Saturday by different newspapers about their new paperbacks, The Pregnant Widow and Hitch-22. Amis, in London in the early evening, was recorded as being on the beer (two bottles) and smelling, "not unpleasantly", of nicotine. Hitchens, in Washington, DC in the afternoon, drank cups of what he called "brown, left-wing, working-class tea", and one glass of whisky. No cigarettes. Hitchens has cancer of the oesophagus, and if you don't stop smoking then, you never will - so he evidently has.
When, during a recent TV interview, Jeremy Paxman suggested that his was a type of cancer entirely compatible with a lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking, Hitchens might have caved in with an embarrassing mea culpa, but his response showed wonderful grace under pressure: "Yes . . . which is a bit of a yawn."
Incidentally, I love what Hitchens said about why you should stick with one colour wine throughout the evening: "Dance with the one that brung ya." And, to go back to Amis and smoking, a friend of mine once interviewed him for a university publication. The amazing thing about the tape was the way the Amis drawl was punctuated by a vigorous and committed scraping of match against matchbox as he lit each successive roll-up.
I don't know either man, but I saw them on stage together at Jewish Book Week about three years ago. Apart from a half-bottle of kosher wine with the cork put back in it that I saw on the refreshments counter, all the alcohol available at that event was on the stage with them. They were also demonstrating how to chain-smoke, which is what you might call a dying art. Both were hyper-articulate, naturally, Hitchens in direct proportion to the red wine he was drinking; but at one point he faltered momentarily, at which Amis tapped him on the knee and tenderly inquired: "Would you like another cigarette, Hitch?"
We can take the keenness of writers on fags and booze as a given. In his book Cigarettes Are Sublime, Richard Klein quotes Baudelaire to the effect that the inhalation and exhalation of smoke is analogous to the writing process: you internalise, then you externalise. More to the point, Klein writes that a cigarette is "the occasion for reverie and the tool of concentration"; it is also "a clock" - which reminded me that Tom Stoppard lays his cigarettes out on the arm of his chair, and writes until there are none left.
Very good on writers and drink is Tom Dardis in The Thirsty Muse. He quotes Ernest Hemingway: "When you work hard all day with your head and you know you must work again the next day, what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whiskey?" For his own, neurotic reasons, Hemingway wanted to establish writing as a job fit for a man, and I believe that Amis and Hitchens are engaged in the same endeavour.
The ashtray on the desk normalises the study, makes an elision between it and, say, a pub. (Let's forget about the smoking ban for a minute.)
A cigarette is a demotic and democratic object. Anyone can smoke, and there is no difference between any two cigarettes. By the same token, the writer puts in a shift and so is perfectly entitled to a drink afterwards; the culmination of The Pregnant Widow involves the Amis stand-in, Keith Nearing, "finishing up" after a day's writing and preparing to give dinner to a bunch of friends.
But in 2011 writing is an increasingly untenable profession for either gender. You might say that smoking and drinking and writing and reading books are now bundled together as retrograde activities, and that Hitchens and Amis are going down with the ship. So am I, the difference being that they're on the bridge, and I'm somewhere aft, with my white wine and cheap cigars. When I see my fellow authors puffing away outside the London Library, I am reminded less of the exuberant cigarette-dandyism of Wilde, Woolf, Yeats or Waugh, and more of the last fag of the condemned man. And perhaps writing as a profession deserves to die, if it makes us do these terrible things to our bodies.
Andrew Martin's latest novel is "The Somme Stations" (Faber & Faber, £12.99)