Photographs of the novelist Kingsley Amis, taken between his fiftieth birthday in April 1972 and his death in October 1995, sometimes show a resplendent sheen on his forehead, nose, and cheeks. This is what some people call “sweat alcohol,” a common problem among heavy drinkers of shorts and beer. On both of the occasions on which I had the pleasure to meet this funny and distinguished man, he drank whisky throughout lunch and by the afternoon was wearing that slightly bewildered, slightly aggressive, slightly penitent expression known as the “Scotch gaze,” a look familiar to all who have walked the streets of Glasgow or Aberdeen at closing time on a Friday night. It is an expression curiously unique to whisky drinkers. You can often tell a man’s tipple just by looking at him. Beer drinkers have bellies, gin swiggers sallow jowls, and wine, port, and brandy drinkers a “Rudolph conk,” formed by a rosaceous labyrinth of tiny, luminous blood vessels assembling itself on the nose.
Amis drank like a proverbial fish from boyhood through adulthood. In his early days, when he was poor and unrecognized, he went for whatever gave the most alcohol for the smallest amount of money. This method is known in England as “drinking the park-bench bottle,” because it is by looking under park benches, where the tramps have left their empties, that one may discover, without having to work it out for oneself, which drink gets one drunkest for the fewest pennies. Young Amis discovered for himself that for twenty-five old pennies he could get himself plastered on three barley wines, a pint of rough cider, and a small whisky. As his means improved, he moved on to beer as his daily tipple and from beer advanced to Scotch whisky, of which he drank so much that by the late ’70s, his monthly bill for the stuff was one thousand pounds. “Scotch whisky is my desert-island drink,” he said. “I mean not only that it is my favorite but that for me it comes nearer than anything else to being a drink for all occasions and all times of day.” Like most writers, however distinguished, Amis was not a particularly rich man. “If I had pots of money,” he used to say, “the only thing I would buy is people to carry me around.”