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Don’t Miss This High-Spirited Launch

To alcohol – the cause of, and answer to, all of life’s problems.’

Homer Simpson may seem an unlikely character to provide the epigraph to a short story collection, yet it is his suitably felicitous words that welcome readers to High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories, an anthology of drunken tales written on or about the bottle. Edited by Karen Stevens and Jonathan Taylor – who compose an engaging and informative introduction tracing the various links between alcohol and writing, as well as each contributing pieces of their own – this collection of contemporary stories is full of both the pleasure and pain of drinking.

The anthology opens with Jenn Ashworth’s ‘Jackie Kennedy and the Widow’, in which a woman chronicles, drink by drink, the hours after her husband’s funeral, her attempts at channeling the elegance and dignity of Jackie Kennedy following JFK’s assassination growing ever more futile. As the sun rises the next morning, she wakes alone on a park bench, quietly consoled that, just as ‘Jackie wouldn’t cry’ she herself has not shed a tear.

Like Ashworth’s story, the rituals of human life – births, deaths, marriages, career achievements, and the festive season – are also the excuse for drinking in Melanie Whipman’s narrative of the disintegration of a marriage in ‘Tasting Notes’; in Jonathan Taylor’s buck’s night monologue, ‘Just One More’; and in Louis de Bernieres’s ‘Buying It Back’, a memoiristic piece in which an aging writer recalls the drunken celebration of an early publishing success and the subsequent acquisition, during a nauseous taxi ride home, of a ‘pukka bucket’ that stays with him for many years to come.

Yet it is not only human ritual that incites drinking in these stories. In Alison Moore’s ‘May Day’, it is a need to escape the pain and disappointment of family relationships that drives its central character to drink. Here, protagonist Gareth visits his ex-wife and daughter who now live in Paris, only to find his already shaky relations ever more fragile. When the planned visit to the catacombs with his daughter is indefinitely postponed, Gareth turns to a bottle of coffee liquor to help him get through this arduous day. Soon however, he finds himself walking towards the Seine, and into a local bar, each beer offering him momentary comfort:

‘He ought to stop at two, he thought, and get back to the flat, but he found himself ordering a third, which arrived with a shot. ‘I wanted to take her to the catacombs,’ said Gareth, ‘but they’re closed.’ He downed the shot. It was getting gloomy outside and Gareth wondered if it would rain and then he realized it was just late; he had lost track of time. But he saw no harm in staying in the tranquility of the bar for a while longer.’

Later, at the invitation of the barman, Gareth finds himself in the cellar, inching his hands ‘along the crumbly walls, feeling his way forward through the cold tunnels’, and wondering if he wants to return to his family at all.

Similarly, in Jane Feaver’s ‘I Know Where I’m Going’, a woman seeks solace on a wild Scottish peninsula in an effort to escape the cruel, inebriated words of her ill-tempered lover after three nights of drinking.

‘The sea slopped and gurgled below as it slithered off and then returned, slithered off then threw its scorn up in her face. She blinked, her eyes stung, blinded for a moment, panicked. Water everywhere, roiling, bitter-tasting, as if there was no option but to give in, drink, be drowned. Her skin was quick with sweat and cold. She backed off stiffly on her haunches, inch by inch, her breath lodged in her mouth. When she reached down with her leg, it was plunged into a pool that spilled over her boot and made a sock of ice around her foot. The dark was breaking over her head; she was hours from anywhere, from anyone. What a fool to imagine the sea would be on her side!’

When it becomes clear her lover will not venture out after her as she secretly hopes, the woman tearfully makes her way back to their cottage. Feaver eloquently evokes her protagonist’s desperation to rouse some tenderness in her drunken lover, as she masks her disappointment with distressing self-criticisms, the effect prompting the reader’s empathy with the character’s feelings of isolation and loneliness.

There are many compelling stories in this collection: Michael Stewart’s ‘Painting the Walls White’, Hannah Stevens’ ‘Bones’ and finally David Swann’s wonderfully titled ‘The Ballad of Barefoot Bob’, which brings the anthology to a close, are just a few others of note. In all of these stories though readers are invited on journeys with characters who are bewildered, disillusioned, enraged and inspired, each of them emboldened along the way by the intoxication of alcohol. As Stevens and Taylor write in the final lines of their introduction, these stories capture the ‘unfixedness’ of people in flux, who find themselves experiencing a transformation: of spirit, of perception, of understanding. So, ‘pull up a bar stool and order a double’; you’ll need one for the road.

By Nicole Mansour. Originally from Sydney, Nicole Mansour has lived in Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Hong Kong and London. A graduate of Actors Centre Australia, she is currently completing a MA in Creative Writing. Like Susan Sontag, she loves to read the way other people love to watch television.

We’d love to see you for ‘Word Factory #67 – High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories’ on 16th Feb. Tickets include a free drink and are available here.