Great literary hangovers

Kingsley Amis and Tom Wolfe captured the horror. Byron served up the cure

Image: Chiara Brazzale

Some of the most deliciously excruciating passages in fiction have been inspired by the hangover. Lately, perhaps in need of a bit of schadenfreude, I’ve found myself digging them out. Kingsley Amis was the master of the morning after. The hangover he imposes on Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim is as cruel as it is brilliant: “Jim Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way... He lay sprawled... spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning... 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 the secret police.”

Once you’ve endured a morning of swirling anxiety and nausea in the mind of Jim Dixon, no hangover will ever feel quite as bad again.

The same could be said of the famous “egg” hangover in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities: “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. 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.”

Writers have some strong views on hangover cures too. Amis recommends a shot of hot Bovril and vodka, and a ride in an open-topped aeroplane. Samuel Taylor Coleridge reputedly favoured six fried eggs and a stiff laudanum and seltzer. Ernest Hemingway’s signature reviver was a shot of absinthe in a glass of champagne – a drink he named after his book about bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon.

In PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves Takes Charge, Bertie Wooster recounts a Prairie Oyster-style curative of raw egg, Worcestershire sauce and red pepper, served to him by a solicitous Jeeves.

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These all sound perfectly foul to me. I much prefer the remedy prescribed by Lord Byron in his ode to drinking, The Best of Life – the humble white-wine spritzer:

“For not the blest sherbet, sublimed with snow, [...] / Nor burgundy in all its sunset glow, / After long travel, Ennui, Love or Slaughter, / Vie with that draught of hock and soda-water!”

A while back I gave at talk at the HQ of Byron’s publishers, John Murray, and in honour of this poem I finished up by making everyone a round of white-wine spritzers. And you know what? They were bloody good. So my advice would be: don’t wait for a hangover to revisit this neglected drink. Mix one this weekend. Take a large wine glass, fill it with ice, add two parts “hock” or medium-sweet German white wine, top up with one part chilled soda water and a lemon slice. With luck there’ll be no call for laudanum.  

Alice Lascelles is Fortnum & Mason Drinks Writer of the Year 2019. @alicelascelles

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