NOTE: This is an unrevised entry from my old blog published June 10th, 2016
Sympathy in White Major
When I drop four cubes of ice
Chimingly in a glass, and add
Three goes of gin, a lemon slice,
And let a ten-ounce tonic void
In foaming gulps until it smothers
Everything else up to the edge,
I lift the lot in private pledge:
He devoted his life to others.
While other people wore like clothes
The human beings in their days
I set myself to bring to those
Who thought I could the lost displays;
It didn’t work for them or me,
But all concerned were nearer thus
(Or so we thought) to all the fuss
Than if we’ d missed it separately.
A decent chap, a real good sort,
Straight as a die, one of the best,
A brick, a trump, a proper sport,
Head and shoulders above the rest;
How many lives would have been duller
Had he not been here below?
Here’s to the whitest man I know —
Though white is not my favourite colour.
–Philip Larkin, 1967
I once made three gin-and-tonics — one each for myself and two friends — according to the recipe in the poem. Each glass contained enough for all three of us. It was moment of indulgence that we weren’t quite ready for. But Larkin gets a pass on his American-sized cocktails, because he is British and the British like their gin.
People almost everywhere drink them. It is said that in some places the drink can kill a cow from miles off. Not only is this a fairly pointless use of a leisure-time (or at least non-military) beverage, but it obscures the only real point of these absurd little cocktails — bringing people together. These little drinks are for sitting around with friends and being unproductive (coffee is for doing things). And about making sure that the happening place is where you happen to be, hence all the odd ceremony regarding their making and consuming.
The anxiety of not being in the happening place is a feeling that I have written ofbefore, and one which seems rather unbecoming of a grown man, who should be more secure than that, at least when not thinking about his unworn dinner suit. When I first read the poem I thought Larkin was a bit of a chump for writing about the subject, but now I think he displays the characteristic that he spent his career convincing us he didn’t have — courage.
But that night I did make it for myself and two friends (I keep better company in my life than he does in the poem), and we slowly sipped our drinks and talked all night. A night like that is worth as much as a fine poem or solitude.
* I know that the spelling ‘gin and tonic’ is preferred over gin-and-tonic, but it is my article and I will format things how I wish. Gin-and-Tonic is clearly a single word and should be spelled as such. If “gin-and-tonic” were not a single word the plural would be “gins and tonics” and few would ever commit that particular offense.
* Until I double-checked it, I thought this poem was Symphony in White Major — conflating it, I suppose, with Whistler’s painting. But the Poem isn’t that glum, even if it quite nearly as lonely.
* In British military history gin-and-tonic is counted as a medicinal remedy for malaria because of the quinine. If that were true why include the gin and garnish?
* On a second reading I realized that I assumed the reader would be up on Larkin-gossip. Forget the gossip, pour yourself a drink, and, for Heaven’s sake, use a lime.Wikipedia says British people often use lemon instead of lime. That is why you should never consult Wikipedia. This is a dangerous practice and pushes the gin-and-tonic close to Tom Collins’s domain. We will save our visit with Mr. Collins, However, for next week.