The Morning After
Illustration by Mimi Dickson
“Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out the way… He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning… His mouth has been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.” Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim. 1954
The hangover has long acted as muse to writers, in many formats, but I’m almost certain that none has surpassed the late English comic novelist and essayist, Kingsley Amis, when it comes to bringing the blistering ravages of the morning after, to life.
The exact details of what causes the hangover, that period of jarring malaise which often follows late nights, is a question for the ages. Bilious mornings, forming the post-script to bibulous nights. Dehydration plays a part, but the main driver of the hangover is simply chemistry, and specifically the build of acetaldehyde, a metabolite of ethanol. Acetaldehyde will eventually be broken down to acetic acid and excreted, but if there’s been too much boozing or if the drinker naturally has lower levels of aldehyde dehydrogenase, the enzyme that normally breaks down these intoxicants, there will be a cost in the morning…lethargy, stomach ailments, headaches, nausea, the list goes on and on, and these are just the easy-to-define ill-effects…
Indeed, much has been written on this subject. One of the best treatises on the subject was predictably written by the aforementioned Amis, in his book of essays, Everyday Drinking. Amis splits the hangover’s affects into two categories – the physical hangover (PH) and the metaphysical hangover (MH). The PH is primarily explained by the actions of the chemical compounds with long names in the preceding paragraph, and the author lays out precise instructions to assuage the PH. The MH is, of course, more nuanced and unknowable, as it concerns the mysteries of the human psyche – a land of moral judgements, pride, shame, hubris, but also of self-knowledge, and even, dare I say it, spiritual clarity! I will not try to paraphrase Amis any further, but suffice to say, it should be required reading for those struggling over the holidays. I don’t agree with his views on cold showers…but horses for courses and all.
My own experience of hangovers is various. The worst I can recall involved large quantities of red wine, layered with Benedictine, and Cointreau. A very challenging morning followed. There was a incident involving Absinthe which didn’t end well at all. Port’s reputation as proffering a stinker of a hangover is justified, although in my view Grappa, is the worst. Finishing off a bottle of the local winemaker’s Grappa on holiday is a decision that will likely render the drinker all-but-useless, in those brutal, waking hours as the rising sun’s watery light elbows its way into the troubled consciousness.
So to restoratives, cures, balms and tinctures. Hydration prior to sleep is, of course, wise. Water makes most sense, although I recently heard of a well-known wine writer who used to opt instead for a light, fruity, low-alcohol Mosel Riesling for refreshment in the early hours – hydration with welcome charm.
Hair of the dog works, the science makes sense; it’s as close to medical intervention as you’ll manage without a trip to A&E, although restraint and near-military precision is vital, to avoid compounding matters.
Some swear by Fernet Branca as their morning after restorative of choice, and I wouldn’t argue with that, but once in the highlands of Scotland on a wet, freezing, New Year’s day, a bottle of The King’s Ginger all but saved my life. This is a restorative solution, which to me is sui generis. A sort of Calpol for grownups. Created by our friends at Berry Brothers & Rudd in 1903 to “warm and revivify” King Edward VII, the drink is a potent blend spirit, citrus fruits, honey and ginger. Taken while suffering the effects of over-indulgence, it is without equal in my opinion. The spirit lifts the mood, while the sugar, ginger and bright aromatics bind body and soul together.
The holistic approach I take at the this time of the year, lucky as I am to live by the sea, is as follows.
Arise from your slumber as late as is possible. Avoid eating immediately, but instead make your way to a body of very cold water. Throw yourself into the water, and stay there for as long as your extremities will allow. Return home, and warm up in a shower or bath set to as hot a temperature as you can manage. Drink a healthy measure of The King’s Ginger (or Fernet), as soon as the clock reaches a time you feel comfortable doing so. If you are able, take it extremely easy for the rest of the day, engage in whatever activities bring you the most joy, eat well, then sleep.