Former wine merchant Richard Warburton examines the role alcohol has played in his life – and in the lives of strangers, friends and family members.
The theory of ‘irreducible complexity’ cites the eye as an organ too complex to have evolved through natural selection. Creationists brandish this news aloft like a holy relic and use it to authenticate their god. If I were peddling such quackery I would hail the liver as powerful evidence that god exists and his name is Bacchus. The good old liver regenerates more often than a Time Lord and, provided you give it as many holidays as a French civil servant, it should perform splendidly.
Most of us drink, yet it is viewed as a crippling vice. Temperance January is nearly over and winter’s ascetics will soon be swapping Perrier for Pilsner. Some may abstain forever but most will be eying February 1st with a steely knowing. Prolonged abstinences on my behalf, whether through illness or experiment, have rarely extended beyond a week. The morning of a dry day feels bleak. Dean Martin nailed it when he observed of teetotallers, ‘When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.’
My relationship with alcohol began on a hot day in Belgium. My father was mowing the front garden and stopped for a slug of beer from a stubby brown bottle. He saw me watching and offered me a sip, no doubt assuming I would spit it out and run screaming for my mother. I thought it was delicious. I was seven years old. Despite this premature awakening, the sticky allure of Ribena, followed by an unaccountable teenage infatuation with tomato juice, kept me from a fall of Bukowski-esque proportions. Years passed until I learned that tomato juice needs vodka, Lea & Perrins, lemon and celery salt with a dash of tabasco to taste.
Drinking for the young usually begins in pubs. Frosted windows concealing two mysterious drinking dens. The dilemma of public, or saloon bar, was just one hazard for the bibulous youth on the threshold of a life of drinking. I remember the warm and stale smell of beer riding on a cloud of Benson and Hedges that would waft from The Moorings, a fisherman’s pub in Pevensey Bay. A forbidden zone as exotic and impregnable as a casbah. My parents would leave me on the beach when they took my grandmother to sip her way through a pair of Gold Labels. I would re-enact William the Conqueror’s landing on the very same beach by charging up the shingle with a piece of driftwood to beat off the Saxon horde. My father would bring me crisps and promise they wouldn’t be long. About ten years ago I went back and entered the place. The frosted windows had gone and so had the fishermen. A cheerful conservatory had been tacked on where families ate battered fish and admired the view.
From sixteen we dabbled in alcohol. Teenage taste buds are unaccustomed to bitter, dry flavours so we tried Malibu or vodka with coke. Bottles that could be swiped from the back of the cabinet, bottles only required at Christmas. Intoxication was swift but the euphoria evaporated before the spins sent us staggering for sofas.
Once you think you have the reins on booze, then competitive drinking is inevitable among the young. This will reach its peak at university. It always struck me that those least capable of handling large quantities of alcohol, knocked back in quick time, should play drinking games. The games always involved rules that when broken required forfeits measured in fingers. I can’t remember much but have dim recall of a ‘no pointing’ statute. When someone did point, the delighted grass would inevitably point at the pointer thereby also infringing. Before long, everyone was shrieking and stabbing fingers at everyone else like demented Salem witches.
In Africa I learned how to be a bum. With six others we waited a week for our dispersed group to be reunited. Straddling a dusty road was our tiny Zairean village which functioned as a pit-stop for lorries. The rare and ridiculous okapi was the only sight of note, and once you had clapped eyes on this curious combination of zebra and giraffe there was nothing left to do. We lounged in plastic picnic chairs by a roadside shack. In the shack was the only fridge in the village and it was full of beer for thirsty drivers. “Ice cold” the owner would chant as he passed us bottles dripping with condensation. Each one cost two thousand Zaires which was very reasonable. We would watch the trucks rumble past, blinking away the dust and only return to our tents at dark. To maintain a healthy interval between beers I would take my time dismantling a mango or two. I took extra care anointing the tropical ulcers on my ankles while my smoking crept up to, and beyond, thirty a day. These were happy days indeed, so when our idling was interrupted by the noisy reunion we secretly mourned the loss of our little spot by the road.
After university I found myself working for a wine merchant, a clear case of mixing business with pleasure. I had not exactly savoured wine until then. Knocking back mugs of Hungarian Bull’s Blood around the kitchen table while playing Risk or guzzling my parents’ good stuff at Christmas hardly qualified. I was soon knee deep in pungent pinot noirs and minerally Sancerres. I learned that Chablis was chardonnay, you made champagne from red grapes and that wine shows were brilliant places at which to get sozzled for free.
The negative side of all this unbridled libation is the hangover. Kingsley Amis cites Kafka’s Metamorphosis as classic hangover literature. Waking up and finding yourself turned into a man-sized cockroach,…well exactly. I once found myself prone on the concrete floor of an alfresco bar in Ghana. The sun burning my cheek woke me up. I crawled through fag butts to some shade under a table and cradled my thumping head until a cleaner prodded me with a mop and suggested I take my misery elsewhere. There has never been any decent cure although a Scottish acquaintance persuaded me that Irn Bru was it. It wasn’t and we are no longer in touch.
My nieces are now entering the squalid atrium of their drinking lives. The seventeen-year-old recently threw up all over a Routemaster as well as her friend’s home. She refuses to drink with the adults when we convene but the odd bottle of vodka has been discovered by my sister when “tidying up”. Pubs are pricey so pre-loading is the thing. This rite of passage and my unbridled amusement at each sordid tale bears more than a hint of schadenfreude. I know I will never be slumped by the toilet again. The room will not spin and where I wake up will always be familiar. I haven’t heard the pub bell ring for over ten years. We would always check our watches and tut that last orders was early. More drinks and remember to get some change for the fag machine.
A French friend of mine told me how, soon after arriving in the UK, he was at a garden party and was presented with what from afar he had identified as English soup. It was ladled into his glass all afternoon until he could only speak his native language. He loved Pimms so much he claims it’s why he decided to stay. I have taken to making Pimms with tea instead of lemonade – a bit of tannin gives a cocktail some backbone in the same way it does wine.
The consolation of summer’s departure is the cosy pub, however, December represents a challenge for the happy drinker. His favourite haunts fill up with tipsy office workers in Santa hats and he has to drink more indifferent prosecco than he would like. He may receive an unwelcome advance or two and endure constant exaltations to be jolly when, for eleven months of the year he is.
So come on, and give booze a chance. Don’t be shy with the ice in a g&t, and remember that wine needs to breathe as much as we do.