Sunday, 12 October 2014

'Three brandy' Auden

The latest Auden Society Newsletter includes a marvellous piece by Roger Mallion, Research Lecturer at Christ Church College between 1971 and 1976. He knew Auden, who was then living in the College's former Brewhouse, a kind of 'grace and favour' arrangement with the poet's alma mater.

Here's an extract, reproduced with kind permission of the author:

A feature of Wystan Auden that it was difficult to be unaware of for anyone who shared any space with him was his chain-smoking and his conspicuous consumption of alcohol. I do not know how many cigarettes he smoked per day but I can say that whenever I think of the man I always mentally picture him with a cigarette. As for alcohol, in addition to his pre-dinner cocktails (presumably taken in the privacy of the Brewhouse and/or sometimes in the Common Room), which were usually followed by a couple of glasses of wine at dinner, he invariably consumed a post-prandial brandy or two in the Common Room. These brandies were the subject of a little good-natured jocularity on the part of the scientific Research Lecturers. The system for purchasing drinks that operated in the Senior Common Room was that a member helped himself and then stated his purchase and signed his initials on a white card (with a Christ Church crest at the top), a new one of which was placed on the drinks table for this purpose, each evening, by the late Mr. Cyril Little, the Common Room Butler. For example, I like port, and so, on taking a glass, I would write ‘R.B.M. 1 port’. Wystan liked brandy, so he would likewise sign ‘W.H.A. 1 brandy’. The joke among the young scientific ‘set’ in the Common Room was that Wystan’s idea of what ‘one brandy’ constituted was such an outrageous overestimate that we used to jest that a normal-sized brandy would be about what, with mock scientific solemnity, we dubbed ‘300,000 micro-Audens’. There was a rumour that, although he had by this stage of the evening usually retired back to his pantry, wily Mr. Little was well aware of all of this and that when, later, in the course of doing his accounts, he saw ‘W.H.A. 1 brandy’ on the card, he recorded on Wystan’s ‘battels’ (that is, his Common Room/College bill) that three brandies had been consumed. 

"Micro-Audens' might also be used to measure the range and potency of lesser poets.

There's a book to be written about Auden's relationship with booze. I blogged briefly last summer about his method of mixing the imperfect martini. Roger Mallion's delightful memoir can be found on the W. H. Auden Society website, which offers archived Newsletters and much else of great interest 


  1. Did you listen to Auden McMillan In Praise of Limestone, on last Monday, still on player?

  2. Indeed I did - and enjoyed your contributions very much. I wrote about it earlier this week in fact. Click on the 'lesser poets' link above.