I remember when I began to think seriously about hangovers, it was just before they started to think seriously about me. The harsh facts of the matter were revealed by a true sage in one of the hallowed halls of Soho drinking – Peter O’Toole in The Coach and Horses, just after opening time one Friday morning in October 1999.
The wisdom he shared enjoyed a sacred, sodden timeline of its own. He was starring in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, the stage play about the life of the grand inebriate writer, set in the pub in which we sat, and written by Keith Waterhouse, himself no stranger to libation and a patron of the same establishment in its heyday: an era long since passed but subject to persistent bouts of tribute drinking from younger writers like myself who thought that if you drank like these people in the places where they had drunk then, maybe, you could write like them, too.
One might just as well kick a football against the wall of Wembley Stadium and expect sporting prowess to follow, but at least it was fun trying. O’Toole knew how to run a press day, not for him the bottled-water, hovering-PR hinterland that bedevils the process in the main, instead you just met him in the pub.
I ordered a drink and he declined, waiting until midday before he accepted, in the meantime he looked me up and down and asked if I was hungover. I said I was. He asked me my age — I was 29.
He lit a cigarette, shook his head and said in that case I had no idea what I was talking about.
He had, he told me, been 29 himself, working with Richard Burton when the older (by seven years) actor issued him with a similar proclamation. Hangovers don’t begin until you’re 30, Burton said.
All the apparent post-alcoholic tragedies of earlier life were mere rehearsal. A queasy overture to a rising symphony that would accompany the later years of drinking like some unholy piper: playing hard and horrible from the opening of your eyes, louder as the years rolled by and stubbornly refusing to be either silenced or paid, postponed only by more indulgence and returning duly enflamed.
The implication, as I understood it, was that this was as it should be. That a man given to intoxication might measure the calibre of his senses by the terrors they inflicted upon his return to them. The price of admission to a ride that was best embraced, repeated or abandoned all together.
Certainly, the wise thespian seemed to be saying, one shouldn’t carp about the consequences. That would never do at all. Fourteen years later and carping is the least of it. The modern hangover is under attack, from science, healthcare and a culture that would prefer to avoid discomfort altogether but will content itself with digitally sharing its (so-called) hangovers for cheap internet lulz in the meantime.
My own hangovers have progressed just as O’Toole predicted. The simple incontinent puppy of binges past has morphed into the red-eyed quivering attack dog of mornings present. My contention, as science and style seek to rid the world of this turbulent beast, is that I wouldn’t be without it.
For as long as I am drinking, then the shadow of swift physical and psychiatric justice is a welcome and necessary partner. If you think Britain has a drinking problem now, wait until a hangover prophylactic hits the chemists where an already ageing, broke population is queuing up to soothe its woes.
Those that have shunned drunkenness will return to the fray, those new to it will never learn the ropes and it will be like... well, you can insert your own comedic/grotesque analogy here depending on your inclination, but it will be shit, I can assure you.
Those are just the practical matters as the effect on the collective soul of the human experiment of such a seismic, karmic cop-out can scarcely be guessed at. Which is why we have to draw a line in the sawdust and the sand, and step up for the hangover now, lest it go the way of polio, record shops, smoking around babies and everything else that has made us great.
First though, we must define what we mean by hangover, and also who we’re talking to. Like scripture — these truths are aimed at the anointed — and I don’t mean those of you that have drunk, I’m reaching out specifically to those of you that have drunk and suffered levels of pain and psychedelic internal torment that have caused you to question your sanity, humanity and the wisdom of continued living.
We are speaking here about real hangovers. “The real hangover is not something to try out family remedies on,” wrote Robert Benchley, “the only cure for a real hangover is death.”
I don’t mean to be divisive but seriously, if you haven’t served, we don’t need you at the sermon. And I can feel you, loitering at the back, all stoked about how your hangovers aren’t that bad. Good for you — now turn the pages and buy yourself some shoes. Get a good pair. It’s not like you’ll be throwing up into them.
To invoke Benchley is to recall that in writing about hangovers, one is only ever retching on the slippers of giants — colossal among them Kingsley Amis, who, with Newtonian insight and simplicity was the first to clinically dissect the hangover into its contingent parts — the physical and the metaphysical.
“Such discussions,” wrote Amis about the tedious and perpetual debate concerning “cure”, “concentrate exclusively on physical manifestations, as if one were treating a mere illness. They omit the psychological, moral, emotional, spiritual aspects: all that vast, vague, awful, shimmering metaphysical superstructure that makes the hangover a (fortunately) unique route to self-knowledge and self-realisation.”
He continued: “When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is and there is no use crying over spilt milk.”
Here, Amis is handing us one of the great texts of intoxication, the Mormon’s magic spectacles of morning afters, the kamikaze drinker’s Koran. There is such a density of wisdom in those two paragraphs that one must and should return to their principles again before reaching any kind of understanding — and so we shall.
But first a more modern but no less accurate assessment of the state in question, from Michael Smith’s eulogy to 21st-century oblivion on a tight budget, The Giro Playboy.
“I love waking up at 1:30, just in time for Quincy, with a fuck-off muggy headache, sleep crusting my eyes, snot clogging up the very back of my nose that I can never quite get rid of, swollen sinuses, itchy scalp, no energy and my left trouser leg damp with cold piss... this is when the world is truly my oyster and I know I am an unstoppable winner.”
Now we know we’re on the same page, let us consider those who would try and wipe this key stage of existence and spur to mighty prose from the records of humanity.
Well-meaning research into fighting alcoholism has thrown up the spectre of dihydromyricetin or DHM, a chemical heralded as reducing dependency, reckoned to diminish intoxication relative to consumption and, most worryingly of all, to eliminate hangovers.
Scientists at the University of California observed that lab rats “given heavy doses of alcohol cowered away in corners of the maze”. While the image of a rodent, shaking on the margins of a labyrinth is a near perfect rendering of a true hangover, the same report observes that rats given DHM and alcohol showed no such symptoms.
If the claims for DHM are accurate, and the research seems to be extensive, then the post-hangover age may soon be upon us — at least for those willing and able to embrace such things.
Though DHM, or something like it, will be heralded as a public health measure, given the spending power of the average chronic alcoholic troubling the NHS budget, the profit in this — and we are talking about major corporate investment to bring that to market, so let’s not be coy — will come from peddling it to people who want to get pissed and feel nothing in the morning and from drinks manufacturers inclined to include it with their products.
You can hear the slogans now — “Drink It Like There’s No Tomorrow”.
To subtract the morning after from the night before is to miss the point entirely, not just of drinking but perhaps life itself. How could that be, you might well be thinking as you weep inwardly on the way into work after three hours of oblivious pseudo-sleep and a cheap fried breakfast that won’t keep still. Well, here’s how...
The true hangover is a mythical foe, precisely as powerful as the forces afoot within you that inspired it. It grows as you do, retreats as you do. A dark knight in mirrored armour, and like all the enemies of fable and folklore it is there to teach us something.
Without it, the way ahead remains forever unknown. Without it, we cannot grow. Now, while perpetual adolescence might be desirable for some, I would invite you to spend a Sunday afternoon in say, east London’s Spitalfields Market, and consider whether the cupcake ukulele dipshits that have lately made it their own represent any kind of ideal society. Far from it.
If anything, what you find there and in numerous other locales in Britain and across the world is the triumph of a subspecies that is nowhere near hungover enough. People whose only good stories about incontinence are about their children. Scum.
Sweeping societal judgements apart, to experience the hangover as Amis described it, “a (fortunately) unique route to self-knowledge and self-realisation”, you must go through it on your own terms. Swerving the issue with fancy modern drugs doesn’t cut it.
Besides, you’re missing a trick. Correctly wrangled, the hangover can be a thing of beauty. As your cortex pickles and your retinas flinch, even the most mundane stimuli are rendered potentially splendid. Most movies can bring you to tears. Music assumes an epic tone.
Amis favoured the classical route (specifically Tchaikovsky’s sixth and Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody); Michael Fassbender, in this very magazine, spoke of the restorative powers of AC/DC. You may not favour either genre but there will be something in your remit that works equally well.
Unless, of course, you don’t like music, in which case we might assume that the finer points of existence, self-doubt and intoxication are strangers to you, too.
The point is this: when you look back on your life, which memories of yourself will seem more resonant, a stoic confrontation of the void soundtracked by a deceased Russian/Australian, or painlessly “liking” pictures of strangers’ pets on Facebook?
At the very least, one might aim for a balance of both. Other experiences tangibly enhanced by hangovers (and thus erroneously described as “cures”) are sexual activity and food.
Since the abiding narrative is that we are supposed to be grateful for either, to submit that both can be mundane and thus enhanced by a bit of old lager queueing for its turn in your liver loiters on the edge of heresy. It is, nonetheless, entirely true.
The rise of primitive drives in the post-inebriate brain is instructive in itself. There was a time when such things were our only priorities: could it be that the “shame” that washes over the hungover soul is not (and seldom is) for something we have actually done, but instead something deeper and more millennial?
Perhaps this gnawing and widely felt doubt is simply our evolved self, blushing at the base nature of its real priorities, all the while cave-self looks on laughing, as if to say, “Good work with the penicillin, the particle physics and the internet and everything — now eat some meat and have an orgasm and remember where you came from.”
These are lessons worth learning and repeating as we drift ever deeper into the digital daydream. It seems churlish to me to fight rich atavistic wisdom with joyless modern pharmaceuticals. I am in no hurry to try it out but I am willing to bet that the great, unspoken hangover cure involves masturbating into an open fire.
From the primal to the poetic, William Blake’s proposed route from the road of excess to the palace of wisdom doesn’t detour via Superdrug. Especially if the wisdom you need is, “for God’s sake stop drinking”.
The grand irony here is that a drug concocted to deal with alcoholism might, through removal of the drink’s built-in safety net, render it more dangerous still.
Back in the metaphysics, what Amis is striving to remind us is that a real hangover is both problem and opportunity. Years ago, I noticed that from time to time I had what I came to think of as the “ideal hangover”.
This is a very special state, possibly the exact midpoint between the delusional false hangovers of adolescence and the clinical withdrawals of outright dependency. A moment to be enjoyed with caution perhaps, for this is for most a one-way journey, but a great moment nonetheless.
This kind of hangover is actually a hangover within a hangover, a sustained instant before the horrors kick in that can, with luck and some determination, be eked out over hours.
The circumstantial factor cannot be overlooked here. Boston University’s 2008 study “The Incidence and Severity of Hangover the Morning After Moderate Alcohol Intoxication” — which is often quoted for its apparent finding that around 25 per cent of people get no hangovers at all — has within it an astonishing and revealing flaw.
The study group, for reasons best known to those assembling it, was comprised of 118 Boston University students and 54 Swedish merchant seamen. Now I’m guessing, that a life of academe is more conducive to sitting around thinking you’re hungover than day-to-day life on a Scandinavian trawler. Just guessing mind.
My point is that you’re unlikely to hit the perfect hangover, or indeed any kind of hangover, if you’ve got some old-school hard labour ahead of you. Deep coal mining, I’m told, is a similarly purging experience. I’m sure there are others. Writing is not one of them. Quite the reverse.
It was through writing, and above all having no option but to write regardless of the circumstances, that the perfect hangover revealed itself to me. Though certain compositional elements were completely lost (chiefly the editorial sense of whether the next word you are considering is the right choice or the wrong one) the perceptual side of writing — the solving of narrative and structural problems — revealed itself as never before.
In this frame of mind, problems in the real world became more approachable, too. It was as though one had sneaked up on life from another angle and caught it napping.
In that space you are seeing the world afresh: like illness, or terrible news, the world is suddenly more serious, the (comparatively) perfect past more valued than it was when it was present. Life has new values. Somewhere between the fading drone of everyday consciousness and the beginnings of paranoia, lies a state worth seeing.
If you are still half-pissed then you may also find your sense of humour takes a left turn, too. The results can be fairly extreme: I would advise note-taking over finished prose, and try not to post anything public on the internet.
I thought I was pretty clever, in my post-indulgent reveries, until I realised that a) they were getting harder to find as I got older, and b) what I was actually experiencing was brain damage.
People with brain damage, it turns out, are indeed better at solving certain kinds of puzzles than those without. In response to tests that showed this, WIRED.com noted, “The patients with a severe cognitive deficit... can’t restrict their search. They are forced by their brain injury to consider a much wider range of possible answers. And this is why they’re nearly twice as likely to have a breakthrough.
“Of course, this doesn’t mean you should take a hammer to your frontal lobes. Being able to direct the spotlight of attention is a crucial talent. However, the creative upside of brain damage — the unexpected benefits of not being able to focus — does reveal something important about the imagination. Sometimes, it helps to consider irrelevant information, to eavesdrop on all the stray associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain. We are more likely to find the answer because we have less control over where we look.”
So there. You get nothing for nothing, which is really the point of what we’re trying to say here. By all means fight for your right to party, but haggle just as hard for your hangover.
In a world blighted by economic imbalance, gladly picking up the tab for our own internal excesses may be one of the last decent things left for us to do.