Why do some writers destroy themselves by drinking alcohol? Before our health-conscious age it would be true to say that many writers drank what we now regard as excessive amounts.
Graham Greene, for instance, drank on a daily basis quantities of spirits and wine and beer most doctors would consider as being dangerous to his health. But he was rarely out of control and lived with his considerable wits intact to the age of eighty-six. W. H. Auden drank the most of a bottle of spirits a day, but also worked hard and steadily every day until his death. Even T. S. Eliot, for all his pontifical demeanour, was extremely fond of gin and was once observed completely drunk on a London Tube station by a startled friend.
These were not writers who are generally regarded as alcoholics. ‘Alcoholic’ is, in any case, a slippery word, as exemplified by Dylan Thomas’s definition of an alcoholic as ‘someone you dislike who drinks as much as you.’ The word is still controversial and often misunderstood and misapplied.
What acclaimed novelist and poet William Palmer’s book is interested in is the effect that heavy drinking had on writers, how they lived with it and were sometimes destroyed by it, and how they described the whole private and social world of the drinker in their work.