A history of the hangover.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
March 26 2008 8:06 AM

A History of the Hangover

Their prevalence during recessions; baseball and the hangover; the search for a cure; are all hangovers bad?

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But if remorse is one part of the hangover, so is resolve—the refusal to give into the worst of it. This resolve isn't always there; capitulation is just as common. But the refusal to give in, or give up, isn't uncommon, and it's not always fueled by Irn Bru. Years ago, the story goes, an English cricket team toured India, and a maharajah believed he could influence what would be a five-day game by getting two of the players drunk. So he did, and the two men woke up the next morning with bad hangovers. Worse, when the game began, they were the first two players to bat. Yet they survived the entire day—all six hours of it. The adversity of their hangovers appeared to introduce further circumspection to their playing. As in baseball, keeping your eye on the ball is essential for a batsman, and I've heard this tale told to numerous players feeling the worse for wear before the start of a game—to remind them that this may be, improbably, their best day.

Kingsely Amis, for some the hangover godhead, knew all about the resolution associated with hangovers. He said of them that they exerted "a great restraining influence" on life. He also laid down the principle that anyone who says they have a hangover has no hangover, an observation that others less experienced than he might disagree with. Then again, it's not as if experience or another person's wisdom is tremendously helpful in identifying a hangover, and being told about hangovers worse than your own is really no cure.

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The Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, and the English seem to have special relationships with the hangover. Why do societies drink? The answer is obvious, in a way, but not entirely. Several years ago, Nature, the science journal, published a report suggesting that drink was, from a biological point of view, engrained among the British. There are historical reasons for that. Fermented drinks contained none of the bugs that could be found in water. In Dublin in the 1940s, it wasn't unusual for people to give the young children Guinness when the water wasn't potable. Contamination-free water is one of the greatest public-health achievements of the last 150 years, and although a glass of water is often the last thing anyone with a hangover wants, it's the absence of water that's partly responsible for the hangover.

Not that there was anything peculiarly Irish, Scottish, English, or Welsh about bad water or about drinking brewed or fermented drinks—or about the hangover. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a bit of an expert. "The hangover," he said in a description of New York in the 1920s, "became a part of the day as well allowed-for as the Spanish siesta." The test pilots Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Right Stuff operated on conditions of a near-permanent hangover. It was their fuel. Flying and drinking and drinking and driving was the military ethos—that's what you did. That's easier to understand among people for whom there really may not be much of a tomorrow. Not everyone is a test pilot living with the prospect of their next and potentially fatal crash.

Drinking and hangovers were for years part of the legislative process on Capitol Hill. In Sean Wilentz's The Triumph of American Democracy, 850 pages pass with barely a drink mentioned. That's a remarkable achievement; in reality, congressional committee chambers in the first half of the 19th century were stashed with liquor every night when there were to be deliberations over a bill, as Joanne Freeman, an immensely witty historian at Yale, pointed out in a recent talk about the violence among congressmen in antebellum Washington. Much of the violence on Capitol Hill during that period—and there were an immense number of fights within Congress before the Civil War—was fuelled by drink and hangovers. And much of the drinking, one suspects, was to fulfill that old Scottish piece of drinking wisdom known as the hair of the dog: The drink to get you out of this hangover and into the next one.

Christopher Hitchens has written memorably about smoking and drinking; in fact, there's almost no better place to begin a consideration of the hangover than with an essay he wrote in the early 1990s on drinking and smoking, which appears in his book For the Sake of Argument. As Hitchens points out, there has been a nicotine ingredient in the modern hangover, and quite a few people swear that it wasn't the drink that did them in the night before; it was the cigarettes. "Only a fool expects smoking and drinking to bring happiness," Hitchens wrote, "just as only a dolt expects money to do so. Like money, booze and fags are happiness, and people cannot expect to pursue happiness in moderation." In the absence of moderation, there will always be hangovers, and when one has finally receded there will sometimes be the elation at having seen it off—sometimes not.

Hangovers are typically of the morning, but they can last all day. Eventually, they pass. Life moves on. Never again is something that you say.

Inigo Thomas lives in London. He writes for theLondon Review of Books.