Several other passages seem to confirm the suspicion created by all those contradictions that Palmer is essentially plonking down whatever crosses his mind at any given moment. A quarter of the Burgess chapter is devoted to a misty-eyed and Burgess-free reminiscence of pubs in the 1960s when the men wore ties, swearing was restricted to “bloody” and the landlord was “oddly priest-like”. But at least this has some relevance to the main subject: not something that can be said about, say, Palmer’s attacks on creative writing courses and modern libraries. In Love with Hell does contain some useful biographical snippets and a few good anecdotes. They do, however, have to be dug out from the surrounding messiness of a book that might have been more suitably subtitled Eleven Characters in Search of a Thesis.
An enjoyable feature of this entertaining book is its abrupt digressions and switchings of mood. While discussing the fictional pub in Burgess’s The Right to an Answer, Palmer digresses into a four-page blizzard of clichés describing a “typical” real-life pub in 1950s England, its rooms, furnishings, landlord and clientele. Speculating about how a movie of Bishop’s life would portray her, he wonders: “Was there ever a Hollywood biopic about a poet?” (At least two dozen, by my reckoning.) Discussing the miscasting of Ian Carmichael as the bespectacled hero of the Lucky Jim film, he wonders if short-sightedness might be the reason for the lack of physical description in Amis’s fiction. At such moments, you find yourself wondering if the author might himself have had a couple of sherbets, mid-composition.
Because although there may not be one defining reason why writers drink, they do all share the fact that they write and it is the writing that really interests Palmer. He is a critic not a fan and perfectly happy to accuse O’Brien of pickling his talents or Lowry of degenerating to self-parody; but his enjoyment of the good parts is infectious. It is an achievement to take on this subject and succumb to neither puritanism nor romanticising. In Love With Hell will send you not to the drinks cabinet but back to your bookshelves to rediscover the brilliance that Palmer’s writers couldn’t quite drown.