Writers, Booze & Czech Mate

An inspiring sculpture in Prague

  On a recent trip to Prague, at the Shakespeare and Sons Bookstore located at 10 U Lužického Semináre, I bought a book titled Everyday Drinking, by Kingley Amis. The introduction, titled ‘The Muse of Booze,’ was written by Christopher Hitchens. That alone made the purchase worthwhile.

Within Shakespeare bookstore in Prague

When I lived in Laguna Beach in southern California, a female physician living in Newport Beach invited me to the local (and beautiful) library to listen to a free talk being given by visiting writer Christopher Hitchens. He was (as expected) bright, articulate, incisive and motivational as he told his compelling tale. After visiting North Korea and Burma, Hitchens changed from being a hard-core Leftie — who wrote for the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper — to an almost die hard Right winger.

Ancient and attractive billboard in Prague

Hitchens was scheduled to give this same talk the following day (a Sunday, I believe) to another audience that apparently included busloads of schoolchildren eager to hear recollections of a foraying news correspondent. Unlike the evening talk we attended, this subsequent session was in the afternoon.

View of the Vltava River in Prague

I was later told about the event. Apparently, Hitchens attended a post-lunch and pre-talk cocktail event where he downed enough free drink to become thoroughly schnockered and even feistier than usual. (With Hitchens, ‘feisty’ meant Churchillian in terms of sarcasm and loathing of any soggy minded humans who, like limp trousers in a hot tumble dryer, have opinions that align with any prevalent flow.) Supposedly he stammered through his talk, quite wasted, though apparently still mesmerizing. The school children apparently weathered this ‘cultural experience’ with giggles. Hitchens passed away years ago. I believe his last book was a logic-laden invective toward religion titled: God Is Not Great.

A Prague hotel ‘library’ reading room

I’m happy we heard him speak. I remember how he referred to North Korea as being ‘Kafkayesque.’ He was a bare-souled, bright-bulb icon with a razor sharp mind and a tongue always able to decimate. Back to the Kingsley Amis book. As part of his brief introduction, Hitchens wrote: With alcoholic ritual, the whole point is generosity. If you open a bottle of wine, for heaven’s sake have the grace to throw away the damn cork.

Interior of Tempo Allegro Wine Bar in Prague

Hitchens also emphasized the crucial need to be specific when ordering a drink (never, for example, say only the words ‘white wine’ to a bartender). If you don’t state a clear preference, then your drink is like a bad game of poker or a hasty drug transaction: It is whatever the dealer says it is. Please do try to bear this in mind.

Random store window showing science and history writings in the Czech Republic

He ended his introduction by mentioning that: Winston Churchill once boasted that he himself had got more out of drink than it had taken out of him and, life being the wager that it is, was quite probably not wrong in that.

‘Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism’ – Oh, great title!

In his own introduction to his book, Kingsley Amis summarized thoughts about drinks so: General Principle 1. Up to a point, go for quantity rather than quality. Most people would rather have two glasses of ordinary decent port than one of a rare vintage. On the same reasoning, give them big drinks rather than small…Serious drinkers will be pleased and reassured, unserious ones will not be offended, and you will use up less chatting-time going round to recharge glasses. Within Prague, I bought a few other books at another huge store named NeoLuxor. These included Prague Spring, by Simon Mawer. Showcasing how authors often have affinity for the topic of booze, I just now plucked this (still unread) book from the shelf, opened to the first paragraph and read:

Night light on some random Prague bookstore window

It started in a pub. Not unusual for a journey. Phileas Fogg started his at the Reform Club in London, but then James Borthwick was not Phileas Fogg, and this pub was the nearest thing to a club that James knew. And this journey wasn’t round the world, which these days you can probably do in less than eighty hours and never leave aircraft or airport. So, a pub, a student pub full of noise and laughter and spilt beer, with photographs of rowing eights on the walls and signatures of oarsmen and rugby players on the ceiling and even an oar hanging over the bar. Yes, one of those pubs that anxious tourists enter during the vacations in the vain hope that they are going to witness that ephemeral will-o’-the-wisp student life, when all they find is indifferent bar staff, flabby beer and flabbier meat pies.

Remember the words from the band Genesis: ‘You gotta get in, to get out.’

Later, at the Franz Kafka Museum, I purchased Kafka’s book The Trial, in which he begins his second chapter so: This spring K. had usually spent his evenings going for a short walk after work, if it was possiblehe stayed in his office most days until nine o’clock – alone, or with acquaintances, and then going to a beer cellar where he would sit at a table for regulars, with some older gentlemen, until eleven o’clock. But there were exceptions to this arrangement, for example when K. was invited by the bank manager, who greatly valued his diligence and trustworthiness, for a ride in his car to to dine at his villa. And once a week K. went to see a girl called Elsa, who worked as a waitress in a wine tavern all night and in the daytime received her visitors in bed.

Bridge side sculpture and architecture in Prague

Also purchased was the book Prague: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Paul Wilson. The essay titled ‘A Pyschiatric Mystery,’ by Jaroslav Hašek, begins so: It was about two o’clock in the morning and Mr. Hurych was walking hom from a meeting of teetotalers that evening in a restaurant in Malá Strana. The meeting had lasted so long because they’d been discussing the resignation of the chairman, who’d got mixed up in an ugly affair. He’d been seen drinking a glass of Pilsener beer in a certain establishment. As a man of honor, he had stepped down.

Zvonice is an amazing restaurant on the 8th floor of this tower

These books, chosen randomly in Prague, highlight the influence of spirits on spirits. I also purchased, as is habit in every new country visited, a cookbook. This is titled Czech & Slovak Food and Cooking, by Ivana Veruzabova. In the chapter titled Beer & Winemaking she begins: Drinking alcohol is an essential part of the culture of both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and it is usual for alcohol to be on offer at most social gatherings….The Czech Republic produces burčák, a young fermented wine, which…can only be produced from Moravian grapes. It is sweet, golden and cloudy, reminiscent of a juice or a soft drink, but still alcoholic in content, between 5 and 8 percent. ‘Essential part of culture.’ Well, that’s being honest.

‘You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy wine.’

Thanks for tuning into this Prague based episode about how drinks continue to influence life and literature. My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include a review of a rags-to-riches book by shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo.

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