Tuesday, 29 March 2011


After the beginning, there is a journey. The narrative thrusts onwards and upwards relentlessly towards something clear. A point. Or that’s how it often is in stories. A fictional journey has expectations around it. Real life often, unfortunately, confounds these by taking a more meandering scenic route. It has a tendency to dawdle round in rhythms of its own devising for a while, curling up into a fixed routine and before you know it years have passed. Or a habit we will have settled upon.

This isn’t necessarily real life. Nor is it entirely a story.

Once a glass of wine opened the floodgates it wasn’t too long before I began sampling other alcoholic drinks in the supervised environment of the family home. Crème de Menthe became a firm after-lunch Christmas Day tipple, with which I would retreat into the quiet corner of my grandparents’ house, savour its sweetly sticky luminous greenness and read is isolation. Wine and liqueurs, easy flavours. Already, I was discovering that I quite liked how the words felt on the page when I had a drink to go with them.

But my new best friend was beer. Many people will say that it took them a while to understand what all the fuss was about with beer. Their first experience was not a happy one, but a confused moment of wondering why people drank the odd-tasting gassy stuff before preserving out of social obligation, out of a need to feel cool. Not me. As far as I recall it was love at first sup. (Although, once again, this could all be wrongly remembered.) At first I was weaned on bog-standard lagers, Heineken and Carlsberg’s UK market under four percent versions, Carling Black-Label (as it was then fully known) and the wonderfully bland Skol.

Skol is an odd beer. In contrast to most beer’s regional roots, Skol was consciously developed by a collection of breweries to be an international brand that could be sub-licensed at a local level. Shame they forget to make it taste nice. The British version was brewed by the Carlsberg-Tetley in Leeds, but to give it an air of the continental it was marketed by cartoon Vikings chugging away at vast tankards of the stuff chanting their drinking song: Skol, Skol, Skol, Skol, Skol, Skol, Skol, Skol, Skol. It is perhaps reflective of a less analysed age that lager could be marketed by a historical group best renowned for raping and pillaging and not get into trouble for promoting domestic violence when the man’s tea wasn’t on the table the moment he fell through the door after a heroic drinking session.

The main thing I remember about Skol was swiping cans of it to drink in my bedroom, hiding the empties behind the curtain and retrieving them in the morning to be ditched in a bin up the road somewhere. What, I thought, made me really sneaky was that I took it from the cupboard in the hall rather than the fridge, which of course meant I had to drink it warm, but I was convinced was less likely to be noticed. I suspect my parents instead chose to turn a blind eye as indeed they almost certainly did to my experimenting with measures of spirits in the cupboards, trying out whisky and water when I’d been left alone in the house under the pretext of doing some homework. Mischievous, but then isn’t mischief expected of teenage boys?

When my friend’s father died, I came home from college at lunch time to an empty house and fixed myself a whisky. I sat in the lounge, still in my coat and shoes, and drank the burning scotch before washing out the glass and putting it back in the cupboard. I remember doing this, but I wish I could remember what was going through my mind. Perhaps it was just what I thought was expected. I was replicating something I’d seen in a film or read in a book. When in moments of shock or grief a stiff drink will help.

Whilst, as we discussed last week, some writers have drunk seeking creative inspiration, maybe there is also a small cadre of writers who drank because it was expected of them, as though people somehow confused the people they wrote about and the author himself.

This distinction was not helped by people like Henry Miller deliberately blurring the lines between fiction and fact by writing things like the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. These books were marketed and produced as novels and yet the subject matter shadow Miller’s own nineteen thirties’ existence as he drank and fucked his way through Parisian society. At times it reads like little more than the dirty, drunken diary written beneath the sheets whilst this eye balls struggled to focus, but at other moments Miller cut to the core of what makes people function. Or fail to function.

Beer is arguably one of the world’s cornerstones. It is the most widely produced and deeply drunk alcoholic beverage, one which archaeologists have argued originated in what is now Iraq sometime around the moment man grunted his way into cereal harvesting. Part of its beauty is its simplicity. All that is required is some sort of cereal baseline, maize or wheat or corn, fermented with yeast and then flavoured, usually by hops. That something so straightforward can produce such a myriad range of wondrously tasty and diverse products is testament not only to the ingenuity of man, but the marvel of nature. Possibly even, to quote Thomas Jefferson, ‘proof of the existence of God and that he wishes us to be happy.’ Whilst the addition of, for example, a smudge of caramel can create interesting concoctions, the need for the fundamental basics to remain pure is strong. In the UK the Campaign for Real Ale snootily dismisses anything that’s been too mucked around with and in Germany the purity laws mean that each type of beer must be made in the way they have always been or else.

I suspect to breach these laws is punishable by a fine, but I quite like the idea of specially made prisons being filled up with criminals who tried to pasteurise a pilsner or stuck bloody blackcurrent in what’s supposed to be a wheat beer and being forced to drink Caffreys or Michelob every evening until it comes out their nose.

Whilst I was initially reared on lager, I quickly gravitated towards bitter.
Partly, I suspect, this was because I wanted to stand out from the in-crowd; partly,
I hope, it was a genuine affection for the taste, even if it was simply an acknowledgement that there was something more complex going on rather than a true appreciation. However, in the early-nineties the real-ale explosion had yet to happen and the range commonly available outside of pubs was limited to John Smiths, Tetley’s, bloody Newcastle Brown and the odd special bottle of things like Bishop’s Finger; in retrospect more interesting for its odd name than the flavour which today I find a bit blergh.

So, in the interim I found a different long tall alcoholic drink to differentiate me from the other teenage boys hanging around outside Victoria Wine’s: Guinness. Ah, a drop of the black stuff. These days Guinness is something I tend to steer clear of, partly from the over-sentimentalising of all things Paddy-cute, partly because of the nasty things it did to my bowels one hefty drinking session in Galway, partly because of the smug attempts at suggesting it is something world defining found in its advertising, but in the early nineties, Guinness was still promoting itself through genuinely entertaining and amusing adverts and was an unusual choice for a young boy-man to have as his tipple.

(Tch, listen to me. If the government ever wanted to do a case study of how advertising encouraged children to drink, I’d be a perfect poster boy.)

And so after several years of socially having a drink with my parents on a Saturday evening and on general special and not-so-special occasions, such as dropping in on my grandparents whilst walking the dog on a Sunday morning, and a shorter period of time lurking around off licences wondering if my long-black trench coat and increasingly shaggy hair was any aid to getting served or not, I finally entered the pub where I was born.

Dashiell Hammett’s creations Nick and Nora Charles, the detectives in the Thin Man, knock back whisky and sodas like they were tap water. Indeed, it’s impressive they’re ever sober enough to catch the criminal as their favourite hobby seems to be hanging around their New York hotel room just, well, drinking.

Hammett too was an industrial drinker and perhaps he couldn’t combine it with work, for the Thin Man was the last of his five novels which helped to define American hard-boiled/noir detective fiction. Hammett’s style dispensed with internal monologues and explanations of thought, simply recounting what characters did and driving narrative through dialogue. Simple and yet perhaps a wider expanse would have enabled him to keep writing, to keep being interested, to purge his own demons.

Seemingly unable or uninterested in writing, Hammett became a campaigner for the left-wing and for social justice and found himself jailed for contempt of court when he failed to reveal the local of communists who had skipped bail. When he came out of prison, his lover, the playwright Lillian Hellman, said that ‘jail had made the thin man thinner.’ He died of complications from tuberculosis exasperated by a lifetime of drink and cigarettes in 1961 having not published a word for almost thirty years.

Surprisingly, hops, the most common form of flavouring, is not particularly traditional. Initially used by Germans monks, the addition of roast hops to English didn’t occur until comfortably in the middle ages, after several hundred years of brewing. Before then the flavours were even more wide-reaching taking in roots such as ginger, various fruits, even flowers such as dandelion, and the ever popular Mead flavoured with honey. The arrival of hops saw great rolling acres of Kentish countryside given over to their cultivation and the tradition of cockneys from the capital spending the summer out on the land securing their drinking winter. The garden of England was in fact a vast plantation for beer’s raw ingredients.

The production of beer always used to be highly localised, with regional areas producing distinct brews based around the flavour of the local water, for example the heavy water of Dublin being particularly apt for dark Stout and the gypsum heavy soil of Burton ideal for Pale Ales, and other regional tastes and fashions. The industrialisation posed a heavy threat to this process enabling the mass transportation of beer around a country or continent without having to resort to the horrific American tradition of pasteurisation which makes most of their product flavourless gold piss. For a while the new future and the contracting of the world in the second half of the twentieth century threatened to standardise beer into a bland inoffensive drink where you knew it would be the same wherever you went. But beer fought back.

In the late seventies and early eighties, in Britain anyway, the battle was almost lost to the likes of Martin Amis’ Keith Talent character promoting lager as a necessity to his darts playing because “Lager’s kegged. Kegged. Standard. You know what you’re getting, some of these local brews…” In the end, though, it appears that beer has won out and only the dullest most tedious of drinking establishments offering fucking Carling or bottles of Bud as the sole option.

Talent is one of those characters in one of those books that just makes me want to have a drink to hand whilst I read it. David Peace’s Damned United was the same. As was Graham Swift’s Last Orders. There’s just so much drinking taking place that it seems rude not to be having one too. But that’s a failure to distinguish fiction from real life; the former stops the later tries not to.

Here, let me tell you a secret, expose another fiction: Beer doesn’t make you fat.
The beer belly is something of a myth. What makes you fat is being pissed up, stumbling off the bus that’s taken you a few hundred metres down the high street, falling through the door of the takeaway and getting a large doner kebab or three quarters of a chicken deep fried and coated in salt and fat, struggling home and then flopping down on your arse to watch late night TV with no content nor soul, as you chug down another couple of cans for a nightcap. Trust me. I know.

And another myth: Radegast, the Slavic God of hospitality invented beer. I like that legend. Beer is something easy to give. It’s a common language, a gift small enough to share with everyone. Who else, but a god of hospitality, would give it to us. I never used to count the value of a pint; standing someone a drink of ale in a pub was no more than offering the plumber who came to fix your boiler a cup of tea. It's what you were expected to do. At the very least, it gave you someone to talk to in the pub on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

People keep telling me that I must be feeling more alert. ‘You’ll notice it after a while,’ someone recently said. ‘Friends of mine who have stopped drinking can’t believe how sharp they feel.’ To be honest, I don’t feel more tuned in; I just feel knackered all the time. Okay so I’ve generally substituted alcohol (a stimulant) withherbal tea (a relaxant), but even so: I’ve been crushingly, brain drudgingly, gut stomping shattered every evening and the mornings are little better. I don’t awake with clarity from a deep and restful sleep, but rather find myself muddled and confused, my attention slipping as the day wears on. Mental oblivion, a mind distracted by tedium, a memory flooded by images of childhood continually replaying process of youth it all feels overwhelming. I want a way out.

My Dad gave up drinking sometime around the time I was ten or eleven, I think. Certainly before I became a teenager. He stopped for no particular reason. Just because. He still liked to tell tales of marathon pub sessions, of the folly of youth. After all, who doesn’t? But he indulged no longer. I wonder if my decision to embrace alcohol was enthusiastically (and it was a conscious decision, I believe) was one of those ways teenage boys try to find to both emulate and simultaneously mark themselves as distinct from their fathers?

Inside that first pub was warm when outside there was a chill to the winter evening and it bustled when the streets were empty. People were crushed together, young and old, laughter and debate, the clink of glasses and the sour faced people who’d lost so much that their only consolation was to have another and try to forget. I was in a group, but being skint youngsters, we’d queued individually to buy our drinks. As I waited my turn amongst the hustle I tired to think of ways in which I’d guarantee being served, ways in which I could suggest I was older than I was.

I asked for a Guinness not only because it was what I really wanted, but because part of me thought it would sound more convincing.

The boys I was with that night, I don’t know what happened to any of them. I am no longer in touch with any of them, they’re just names lost down the years, but that evening they were the best friends a guy could ever have and that pub was to be the centre of my world for the next couple of years. If anyone wondered where I was, come rain or shine, it was invariable that I could be found down the pub where I was born for the second time.

It was a local’s pub; I didn’t need to know everyone’s name, but it was sufficient to recognise the faces and the same drinks being raised to their lips at the same time each week, like the natural patterns of the earth. Years later, I would find myself on the other side of the bar taking the pump and the mystique would be eroded, battered open by the mundane inevitability of life, not that I ever fully fell out of love with that pub: it was everything and it was mine.

I even ended up structuring a series of interlocking short stories focused around somewhere that could very easily be mistaken for that pub. Tch, sentimental toss of course, but it was sentimentality I wanted to share. At sixteen I genuinely believed I was writing something original from the inside of a drunk, how romantic can the young be?

Never a stranger to heavy drinking’s romance, Raymond Chandler’s everyman character Phillip Marlowe became increasingly embittered and disillusioned with the world over the course of his fictional life. By the time of, arguably, Chandler’s finest novel the Long Goodbye, the author was heartbroken as his wife slowly died from a long illness and sunk deep in a bottle, much the way Marlow would have done. Chandler still managed to pull this outstanding line from the bottom of his depression: ‘Alcohol is like love; the first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third routine. After which you just take her clothes off.’ It’s the despair that makes it work so well. Love isn’t really like that, but habit is. Drink or sex, at the end of the journey you just resent it.

Beer has been on a journey of its own. It used to be drunk instead of water. In Medieval times weak, happily flavoured ale and bitter would be chugged down over breakfast. Too shallow in alcohol to induce drunkenness, safer than water with all the disease filtered out by the brewing. Medieval brewers were the public health experts of their times. It’s a practice that has only recently died out. Table beer, a popular Belgium beer of less than 1% by volume, was often served alongside school meals until the 1970s. Its popularity has finally fallen in recent years due to the rise of fizzy pop and mineral water.

And so now there are numerous types of beer, each wondrous in its own way. From the standard Pilsner pale Lagers to the hoppy English bitters to the roast malts of Stouts and the more obscure Belgian Abbey and trappist ales, the German Kolsch, only legally allowed to be brewed in the Cologne, area, or traditional Midlands milds, the sweet Scottish heather beer, or African Tusker malty-hoppy delight or thick deeply dark Czech lager, each, like wine, has its own suitability and place in the canon. For the discerning drinker it is not a case of either all, it is not a case of Stella Artois, that Cardiff brewed slop, or nothing else. Anything goes, so long as it is served at the right temperature in a pleasant atmosphere. And yet it is something special to be savoured, not just fuel to be consumed. Its purpose isn’t to clean the water, but to entertain; to provide stories to regale your friends with. To provide romantic myths.

In the late eighteenth, early nineteen century steel tankards were popular in Britain during the winter. Pokers would be left stuffed in the fire and a chilled drinker could take the hot metal spike and use it to warm his beer up. This may be complete bollocks. It may be invented, if so not by me. It may be folklore, but who cares? That’s kind of the point. A drinker has a myth to cling onto; an illusion of something romantic.

The other evening the old man staggered along the aisles of the eight-thirty train out of Charing Cross. His movements surged against the rocking of the carriage, his left hand stuttered from head rest to pole hauling him upright whilst his right hand, his drinking hand, clutched a glass half-full of what looked like whisky.

‘How you doing, son?’ he slurred as his reached the area by the doors where I’d tried to bury myself inside a book.

‘I’m all right. You?’ I replied, nodding at his glass.

‘Oh, aye.’ He took a gleeful sip of his drink. ‘Never better.’ The train clicker-clacked its way through the dulled city outside. ‘I’ve had a lovely day, I have.’

‘I bet.’

‘Aye. Taken myself up town. Had a rare old time. Seen some of the fellas. Had a few bevies. A snifter of the stiff stuff.’ He smiled through cracked yellowing-grey teeth, the curl of his lips sinking his scattershot reddened cheeks into their hollows. ‘Sssh!’ He put his finger to his lips. ‘Don’t tell anyone, but I might be a touch tipsy.’

‘Uh-huh,’ I smiled back. I couldn’t help myself. The old guy deserved his final hurrahs. If he wanted to get pissed up on a mid-week afternoon, why shouldn’t he? ‘Where are you going now? To where the party is?’

‘Nah.’ He took another sip. ‘I’m going home to bed. Except…’ He trailed off and stared hard at me. For the first time I noticed the broken welling up in his eyes. ‘Except I don’t know where that is anymore.’

Before I could form a reply the train had lurched to a halt, the doors open and off he had staggered into the dark of New Cross Gate.

Thursday, 24 March 2011


In the beginning it was a many splendoured thing. Something that was full of beauty. A composite of colour and light and to all that it touched, it gave mirth and delight.

Or so I imagined, as a child, watching the ruby red, golden and beech brown drinks pass over the lips of the adults. And as they drank the chatter and laughter and sometimes song that followed gleefully in its wake was something magical to behold.
Or perhaps, that’s just how I imagined it would be. Perhaps, after I had been sent to bed, I lay awake and stared at the ceiling with its ripples of plaster, craggy like the sides of mountains or the cliff faces along the steepest coasts, and I made up exciting lives downstairs where people still awake were allowed to be upright.

There has always been mystery at the bottom of a glass. It was there long before me and you, long before the adults in my child eyes and long before the adults in their childhood memories and even before everyone long gone who populated the smoke broken stories of highjinks and nostalgic remorse that filled the air. We, humanity, have been drinking for longer than is probably good for us.

Hasn’t it been beautiful?

Alcohol and the consumption thereof have formed a part of civilisation for thousands of years. There is evidence of wine being consumed in China as far back as 7000BC and beer in ancient Egypt. In both cases it wasn’t something to be squandered causally, not something that was idly consumed just as an aside to food. It wasn’t ingested for sustenance. It was something spiritual. Access to a higher life came in a glass.

(Or possibly not glass, depending upon when glass was invented. A clay pot, perhaps? Or a leather stitched skin?)

Times have changed, though. In the far-flung past there were no blue gloop drinks served against throbbing bass beats in murkily lit rooms. When I think of alcohol in the past it is always wine. Perhaps in a golden goblet.

Wine was originally concocted in the areas that are now Armenia, Georgia and Iran, and was scooped up for wider European consumption as the ancient Greeks foraged further eastwards. The Greeks though were a temperate lot. The image of toga-glad drunken meals descending into orgies is more Roman. The Greeks, however, believed in a little of everything. Keen on order and control, wanton drunkenness was frowned upon. Their wine was intended to be watered down and diluted, indeed it was only made in its purer form for easier transportation.

But Greek society was fractured, divided along lines of belief. The cult of Dionysus was the exception. Dionysus, the God of wine. Dionysus, the twice born man, torn from his mother’s womb and then carried inside Zeus’ thigh to term completion. He was forced to hide disguised as a girl on an isolated island for his youth, finally driven mad by Hera and then, almost accidentally, conquered India by force of arms. Sounds like the sort of life where a few too many would explain a lot.

His victory over India meant that he was usually portrayed in victory procession, his chariot being pulled along by panthers, his arrival being met by jubilation and its associated revelry. And his followers drank for all they were worth, for intoxication bought them closer to their God. Drunkenness was close to Godliness. Yet, for a long time the Dionysians were an exclusive club, a niche club, mainly based in Macedonia, until their most famous son conquered most of the known world. A heavy night never seemed to slow Alexander the Great up much.

The Romans, as they were want to do, incorporated the Greek God dynasties into their own magpie religious make-up. For Rome, assimilating local beliefs, repackaging and reselling them back was a standard subjection tactic. And so, from Dionysus came Bacchus.

Bacchus, like most other Roman Gods, found his portfolio of patronages expanded beyond his original brief and he became the God of Theatre and the God of Agriculture as well. Perhaps the links are obvious; theatre types happily embracing a wine and song lifestyle even back then, whilst agricultural drinkers, equally heavy going and perhaps more deserving of refreshment at the end of a sun-cracked working day.

Bacchus and Dionysus; two names for one deity prone to wandering amongst his worshippers sprinkling magic in his wake. And there is something rather magical about wine. I’m not sure if it’s the universal heritage, the fact that most alcohol producing countries have found similar process of fermenting fruit, if not always grapes, into juice with a zip, or perhaps the process with which it all comes together. There is something deeply personal about making wine. Sure, it’s also deeply commercialised and automated in the twenty-first century, but in its most basic form when the firm richly coloured grapes are plucked from the lying vines crawling across the valley and they are crushed between people’s toes, the same people whose families have been bound to the land for generations, then it is almost as though you are drinking someone’s heritage. A little bit of their soul. In the end, making wine is difficult, but for centuries people have forced a way through, because it’s worth it.

Wine attracts debate because people care about it passionately. All the petty little rituals get bound up in the sense of drinking something important. Should it be decanted or not? Are rubber stoppers ever a sufficient alternative to traditional corks? What temperature, given that today’s central heating boosts the warmth of the average room, should red wine be served at? Can the precocious new world wines ever live up the heritage of the competition or is the old world too wrapped up its own tradition of self-importance to actually produce good wine anymore? Is the damn stuff even healthy? How on earth, when their diet is flooded with saturated fat, do the French have traditionally lower instances of heart disease than other areas of Western Europe? The French Paradox, a mystery wrapped up in a way of life, concealed behind a refusal to compromise, supported by God’s breath in a ruby red filled glass at every table in every home with every meal.

But passion also breeds eccentrics. I have encountered several people who work in wine as importers, sellers and general all round enthusiasts over the years and two of whom were somewhat characterful. One had the most cock-eyed approach to profit margins I’ve ever encountered seeming content for vast waves of stock to act as an unequal exchange for goods, or occasionally just favours, plus a rather odd obsession with marking his territory by pissing outside his house. The other was entrenched in a bed and breakfast on the Welsh borders and wrote odd rants about society in general and wine in particular into his product catalogue. It was as ugh he hoped to entice a customer base, but refused to change his ways because wine doesn’t. It always stays the same and waits for the world to sensibly accommodate it.

I don’t remember the first drink I ever had. I suspect I was rather young. Certainly, I remember being young enough to still be over-excited by the prospect of Christmas morning when I was allowed an alcoholic drink the night before. Nothing too powerful, just that bastion of seventies and eighties taste disaster: Babycham. I remember the bubbles against the back of my throat and the glee in being able to follow the adults. (Or do I? Am I just muddling this up with want again?) It was my parents’ idea. A festive drink that was not only a treat, but that would also ease me to sleep. It didn’t work. Instead, I remember the minutes ticking down on the clock by my pillow and, bored by the dwindling dark, I decided to press a switched on torch against my eye. Gazing deep into the light, I marvelled at the hidden world inside. I imagined walking the light structures and girders of gold, of mixing between beams that curved within the light. I cast myself deep inside where perhaps there was something more. I stared harder, trying to work out its mysteries. I knew I wouldn’t sleep for I was too awakened to the possibility of what the world’s morning might bring.

Last Friday was harder than I had expected. My plans were disrupted and I was stuck at home alone. The week had been heady and the adrenaline was draining away. I was ten days into my enforced sobriety and the half-drunk bottles of spirits on the kitchen floor, stuffed up in the gap between the shelves, and, most of all, the glistening wine bottles in their rank on the window sill, the late evening light caressing their bulbs, were whispering temptation down my ear. I was tired and surprisingly bored by my own company. There was a nagging that scratched at the inside of my skull and I wanted a drink.

Wine has, over the centuries, become an integral part of many religious ceremonies. Much like the hallucinogenics, for example, of Native Americans cultures, a drop of alcohol is the cornerstone of the Jewish Kiddush ceremony and the Christian Eucharist ritual. In the latter, the dark (often cheap) deep red wine is intended to represent the blood of Christ the saviour. Devotion at such a fully immersed level seems, to my no-doubt damned soul, utterly bizarre. Do we really want to be drinking the blood of the Lord, like some weirdly sycophantic vampires? Probably not, but if one argument for the rapid and powerful rise of state religion in early-medieval society is that it was an extension of the crown’s authority, a way to keep the populace compliant and docile, then a free tipple on Sunday was the icing on the cake, the added bonus to doing as you were told. It was your earthly reward from the Kingdom of Heaven for your unswerving devotion.

But, once again, this was nothing new. Dionysus had his blood replaced with wine, almost an inversion of the sacrament. In China, the drinking of rice wine mixed with blood would supposedly bring life to the oddly precise age of on-hundred and ninety. St Bernard described wine as the link between fear and strength and perhaps this not only explains its presence in religion, but why people become dependant upon it.

Writers, as has been discussed in this blog before, are notorious for liking a tipple. The reasons as to why are too varied o thoroughly discuss here, but perhaps they are too poor to afford hard drugs but with as much time alone, lost inside someone else’s head as actors or rock and roll stars, and so turn to booze for relief. Maybe, but the majority of writers have had to maintain some sort of additional career to support both their habit and their love, not for them the many idle hours between sound-checks and the audience’s arrival and the night time loneliness of the tour machine drifting through another unknown town.

Robert Stone, in a 1985 Paris Review Interview said “If you do something you’re really pleased with, you’re in the crazy position of being exhilarated by yourself. I remember finishing one section…in the basement of a college library…and I staggered out in tears, talking to myself…It’s hard to come down from your work – it’s one of the reasons writers drink. The exhilaration of your work turns into the daily depression of the aftermath, but if you heal yourself with a lot of scotch you’re not fit for duty.”

So is booze a short-term fix to come down from the incredible high of writing? When the euphoria of a sentence, or a paragraph or (glory be) a whole scene clicks into place and you genuinely feel as though the words coming down on the page are cut from your heart and could possibly change the world, do you require some sort of assistance to prise yourself off the ceiling? Graham Greene probably thought so. Although he claimed to only possibly be able to write cold sober, he was more than partial to a drink even answering the first question of his own Paris Review Interview in 1953 with “[I’ll be] Very frank. Now, what will you have to drink?” Alcohol filled Greene’s non-writing time. He collected miniature whisky bottles, felt the need to write to a friend with great excitement when the bar of some random airport he was passing through during his relentless globe criss-crossing phase stocked his favourite gin, and once described his peak production phase as being based around rising early, churning out 500 to 750 words in the morning and then relaxing with a drink on an exotic veranda somewhere tropical.

Similarly, William Faulkner would stay largely sober whilst actually writing and then take himself out on a heroic binge to celebrate the completion, or to counteract the boredom of having nothing to write about, to help him walk with everyone else. This sort of behaviour was permissible even encouraged, for in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, before Elvis, writers were rock and roll. No-one was going to tell Kingsley Amis he couldn’t drink a bottle of whisky a day if he didn’t want to because, well, he was Kingsley Amis and he’d earned it. It was what people wanted him to do.

Others have used it as a crux to produce work, seeking inspiration in the broken down barriers in the brain that booze provides. In On Writing, Stephen King describes sitting in his attic pounding at the typewriter to produce the Shining, an overflowing ashtray and steadily diminishing bottles of painkillers and scotch and blood streaming out his nose from all the cocaine he’d snorted (King’s staggering success with Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot perhaps singling him out as an exception to the ‘can’t afford hard drugs’ rule).

Similarly, JG Ballard used to steadily grind his way through a bottle of whisky whilst letting the lack of reservations allow him to ask the questions most of us wouldn’t. In contrast to King, Ballard’s existence was gloriously suburban. He would get up, take his children to school in Shepperton, park his car (“It goes better after a couple of drinks.”) outside the semi-detached house and its neatly aligned front garden, the exact reflection of all the others along the cul-de-sac, go into the back room and pour himself a large whisky before sitting down to write. The glass would be steadily topped up as the pages filled up. In fairness, Ballard was also combating grief over the sudden death of his wife which had left him an isolated single father in an age when that wasn’t really the done thing, especially not for controversy courting writers determined to rub society’s face in its own vomit. Yet, as he produced the likes of Crash and the Atrocity Exhibition which smashed taboos aside, finding the unusual and the erotic in, for example, the mundane horror of car crashes, his undeniably uniquely inquisitive mind was being aided by drink.

And yet alcohol clearly isn’t always the most efficient way of achieving results. Take brandy. Proper, good brandy is a wonderful drink. All stickily burningly sharp, flavours that mug you and yet it gives an intense burst of endorphin fuelled energy where sleep becomes irrelevant. Whilst traditionally a French drink derived from wine, in 1900 many of the world’s most revered brandies came out of Georgia and Armenia. These routinely beat the leading French barrels in blind tasting in Paris and the Russian Tsar happily plundered his outlying provinces to amass one of history’s most enviable drink cellars at the Winter Palace.

In 1917, as the Communist revolution sacked the Palace they came across this immense store. All the booze was heartily attacked, but none as much as the much coveted brandy. So enthusiastic were the soldiers to get utterly fuck-eyed, that the revolution briefly ground to a halt whilst they wallowed in excess and toasted their future as free men and equals again and again until the lights dimmed on several days’ hedonism and little was left save for throbbing eyeballs in the morning sun.

Whilst Ballard dropped the whisky as either his grief diminished, or perhaps as Stone’s statement “when I was younger I was able to use hang-overs, but now I have to go to bed early” came true, Faulkner found it intruded further into his daily life. The binging at the end of a piece of work moved further and further forward, until it became at the heart of each piece. In his later writings you can see the heavy, clodden passages where his mind was soaked and his fingers couldn’t force the right words to appear on the page.

Maybe, in the end, beauty must fade and light must always fade to black.
Meanwhile, around the time that Babycham was being introduced to my life as a festive frivolity, I also began to be indulged in other mildly alcoholic treats.
Hot summer days were rewarded by kid-friendly cans of Panda Pop Shandy and Shandy Bass, both of which whilst minimally alcoholic in content did at least taste of sugary beer. I loved them. I’ve never been particularly partial to sweet sodas, and whilst the 0.5 or 1% proof pop was still laden down with glucose, it did at least have a genuine bittery tang too. ‘Made with real beer’ the Shandy Bass cans proudly proclaimed in marketing aimed at ten year olds and I, for one, was suckered.

From then on it was only a stuttering step to the next stage. Exactly when, again I’m not entirely sure when, but I suspect sometime before teenage years, I was permitted wine at family get-togethers. With the majority of my family living within a mile or so of each other, these were fairly frequent affairs and I was allowed a glass and then two and then three of white wine with the Sunday lunchtime meal we would have. This was sweet white, German wine. Not the sort of thing my palate particularly enjoys now, but, well, it was the eighties and the darkly smogged bottle of Black Tower was oddly alluring. It was definitely something properly alcoholic. I was doing something illicit, a thrill that buzzed with every sip. It was something adult; something real.

Jalal-al-Din Rumi, a Sufi mystic poet, wrote “before a garden, or a vine, or a grape existed in this world our souls were intoxicated with immortal wine.”

In the beginning, maybe that was where we came from, maybe that was how it all was.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011


Let’s get one thing straight, right from the start: This is not about desire. I am not writing about necessity. It is not about addiction. It is not even about excess. This is not because I have to, but because I choose to.

New Year’s Day and I felt empty. I felt turned inside out. I had been slightly sick and I had horrific diarrhoea, the sort that flushes you through until all that is left is a hollow husk. Feeling drained, I had been unable to get up properly.
I’d done small things, like taken a shower, then been a little more ill and then needed to lie down to recuperate. As I lay somewhat feebly on my girlfriend’s sofa with my head on her lap and the burble of the television somewhere behind my closed eyelids, I felt embarrassed; embarrassed and guilty because I knew that my patheticness would mean that we failed to meet some of her friends. By the time I was confident there was nothing left to come, it was too late. By the time we arrived at the pub in Old Street they had already left and it was all my fault.

But, contrary your expectations, I did not have a hang-over.

Oh, all right. Maybe a little one. When I first awoke there was a dehydrated crinkle to my brain, but it faded quickly enough. I’d drunk a fair bit the night before, but not to excess. Not like I used to. I hadn’t felt drunk as we’d walked home through the damp shadowed streets of West London. I’d consumed probably less than I had on many a Friday night over the years after which I would have sprung out of bed with ease on a Saturday morning. No, honestly. I wasn’t. My stomach was still upset three days later.

But this isn’t about any of that. I’m just setting the context.

On the evening of New Year’s Day I cooked my girlfriend some dinner whilst she read the paper. The Guardian’s magazine was full of helpful advice about how to live a prosperous and healthy 2011. It was the usual pointedly appropriate mix of drink less, eat more healthily, do more exercise, make time for life rather than just work. One section discussed cutting down on our media, the never-ending ways in which we are plugged in the world. We should, it argued, make sure we are connected, but with how people really look as well as their profile pictures.

‘I gave up Facebook last year,’ she said. ‘It was surprisingly easy. I might do that again.’

Self-denial has never featured high up my list of ways to be entertained, but, without thinking, I said: ‘I wonder what I could give up.’

‘Beer,’ she replied without hesitation. ‘Or,’ she gave the matter some more consideration, ’alcohol generally?’

‘Now, let’s not be silly.’

But the more I thought about it, the more it appealed. I can be a contrary bugger at times and there was something about the social experiment aspect that would be interesting.

(Plus, you know, I need material for these things to come from somewhere. Ah, my life: Nothing but a vehicle for your entertainment.)

‘Yeah, right,’ guffawed my Kiwi friend, when I initially touted the idea. ‘You know what they say, David? Only those with a problem have to completely abstain.’

Yes, thank you, but this isn’t about problems. I do not have a problem with alcohol. I frequently don’t drink. I rarely drink during the day under any circumstances, simply because I find it difficult to then get anything else done. I don’t race home from the office craving a beer. I am not one of those people I see around, the woman in the power-dressed stripped business suit nipping at a hipflask as the seven-thirty morning commute train arrives in London Bridge, or the scabby guy with the burst blood vessels in his cheeks picking up cans of Strongbow Black when I collect my Observer from the newsagents early on a Sunday.

But I am a habitual drinker. Whilst it’s not as though I’m churning my way through four times the recommended limit every week, I do enjoy my drink. Going to the pub forms the foundation of my social activity. When I haven’t seen a friend for a while I always suggest we meet for a beer. I enjoy nice wine with a meal. I confess I do that thing which supposedly marks the alcoholic from the casual boozer - I drink alone. I take pleasure in a beer or a glass of wine or a whisky and water after an evening writing. Ultimately, my sub-conscious associates relaxing, down time, allowing space for my thoughts, chilling out, whatever you want to call it, it comes with an alcoholic drink.

But the thing is, these are all my choices. I know that I don’t have to do any of these things. I don’t have a physical yearning to imbibe? I don’t believe that I have a mental crux that makes social interaction impossible without lubrication. I don’t think I’d be bored if I didn’t drink.

Yet as I wrote about music and got on with life Lent got closer and closer and somewhere in the back of my mind I began to get slightly apprehensive: what would happen when I stopped drinking altogether? Would social occasions feel weird?
Would people look at me oddly, so defined am I with glass in hand? Would I simply hide away in my flat being somewhat boring? And crucially, for someone whose only non-alcoholic drinks of choice are ginger beer (but more than one these days gives me heartburn), tea, coffee and water, what the hell am I going to physically do with myself whilst those around me quaff till it dribbles out their ears?

I wrote the first draft of this blog on the first Sunday of Lent. The night before I went to a party. On paper it was one of those events where perhaps a drink or two might have eased things along slightly. A charity bash at my girlfriend’s parents’ place and whilst her family and friends are absolutely lovely and have made me feel welcome in their circles, I would still be surrounded by people I didn’t know that well. All of whom would be enjoying a drink. Somewhat to my surprise, it couldn’t have been easier. Time flowed on by and, although I found myself adrift and swollen with tap water whilst frequently having to politely decline her Father when he proffered the open wine bottle, the evening was thoroughly enjoyable.

The morning after, however, was weird. Initially everything was fine, but once in the shower I felt a ringing sting shoot through my head. As the afternoon wore on it dulled to a consistent throb, but even though I was five days sober I was the one with the headache the day after the party. At times life really isn’t fair.

Which left me to wonder, what will happen next? Will my much feared insomnia, fuelled by deep sleeps, late rises and too much caffeine return? Will I find myself suddenly much more productive or, as paradoxically I found trying to carve this blog out, lethargic in my writing? Leafing through my diary shows numerous events coming up where not drinking may be socially unacceptable, not least a stag do. Am I going to find myself shunned and ridiculed by a society where the consumption of alcohol, if not quite at the mythological levels splattered across the tabloids suggesting a high-street hell or Gomorrah Great Britain, is at least the common ground for most formal engagements?

Well, sod it. There’s only one way to find out. Keep dry and carry on.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Adventures in a record collection (part 6)

Inside the marquee we found ourselves shielded from the sharply biting sunshine, but instead smothered by a tight sweat. Dust filled the air and then lay down on our damp skin. At the far end the band were playing up a storm: A thrashed electro-punk sound almost collapsing into an acid-jazz wig out as the singer catapulted himself around the stage with a sneer and the drummer pounded the skins like they were going to beat him to death.

We were there to see faux-Mississippi delta via Yorkshire blues men Gomez, but this spectacle was the warm-up act. The squawk faded into a mess of battered instruments and a final flourished kick of the microphone and stand, the tipping up of the drum kit and seeming ambivalent stalk off the stage. This was music as gestures, as statement of intent. Hell, it might even mean something.

‘That was amazing,’ my Kiwi friend gushed. ‘Who were they again?’

‘No idea,’ I replied somewhat staggered. All around us the same questions were being asked: Who? Where? What?

Later, with the aid of the internet I learned that they were from Los Angeles, they were called Funeral Party and nine months later the dice have thrown up their debut album, The Golden Age of Knowhere.

Ten years or so, an aspiring visual artist said to me something about needing to be successful now. Right this minute. The implication being that artists who didn’t make it young were never going to make it; only with youth would you have something new to say. With age you become more accepting of the establishment. Life, in the end, wears you down.

In this instance, they were explicitly referring to visual artists, but I think it’s something that could, maybe, be applied to all art forms. Certainly music, with the possible exceptions of jazz, classical and opera, would seem to suggest so.

Perhaps it’s just because so-called youngsters buy more music and are inclined to buy something made by people their own age. Were we more interested in elevating our peers to positions of grandeur because then it felt more feasible that we could do it too? David Baddiel thinks that there no more heroes to be found in the arts. He argues that an excessively large critique market means that the equivalent of Ezra Pound pointing out James Joyce was a genius will never happen again. There are too many people with access to an audience (ahem) who’ll poo-poo any such proclamation. But the young don’t really know this. They haven’t been saddled with too much expectation being dashed too often.

Perhaps youth also brings with it a bravery to be different, to be innovative, to throw fucking rule book out the window and play what you need to hear or say or make rather than just what needs to sell to cover your mortgage repayments and keep you stocked up with nice wine.

There’s a notion in music writing of the difficult second album syndrome. The idea that the incendiary debut is almost impossible to follow up because there are now fans with expectations to meet without just repeating the trick, there is a profile to adhere to. Oh, and because under pressure from those same fans and the traditional money end of the business the record needs to be written, recorded, produced and released in a year whilst still promoting the debut, and so the band don’t have the luxury of time that helped the first’s gestation. They don’t have the freedom to hone the new songs by performing them live and to write and rewrite. They just have to do it.

This lack of fear to make the shapes and sounds that rest in your head, I guess, was what my artist friend meant. Age brings caution.

Common consensus seems to suggest that writers are different. As a general rule, writers are expected to be older. They are supposed to use the benefit and experiences of the life they have lived to write new ones for everyone else. Maybe it is all a matter of perspective. Maybe the concept of youth just depends on which direction you’re looking in.

It’s an optimistic thought and feasible in that no-one ever talks about writers under twenty, do they? Granta’s best young British/American/Spanish writers’ issues are always popular and young always means those under forty. In the classic 1983 list all bar http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/feb/19/fiction.kazuoishiguroand Adam Mars-Jones were older than I am now. A similar list in the New Yorker last year threw up only one. The Telegraph, copying the Americans blatantly, came up with their own list and only had Evie Wyld younger, although Ross Raisin was born the same year (Goldsmiths alumni both, by the way).

This is all reassuring. Sort of. As another rejection letter lands on the door mat, I can tell myself that there is still time to get it right. But sometimes it still feels like there’s so much stuff my head, so many scraps of notes and plot outlines and fragments of dialogue that I am simply running out of time to find people to read them.

Because writers are young too. For every David Abbott only coming to pick up a pen once life is mostly through there is someone like the hugely talented Amy Sackville who was just twenty-eight when the Stillpoint was published last year. Or Joshua Ferris who was thirty-three when Then We Came To The End persuaded me there was little point trying to write the perfect office experience novel because he’d just done it. He was the same age as when Ali Smith when Free Love and Other Stories came out. Ernest Hemingway was just twenty-seven when The Sun Also Rises was published and F. Scott Fitzgerald was just twenty-four when he held his first edition of This Side of Paradise. Neither of them had quite as much time as they may have expected. That’s the problem with life. You never quite know how long it’ll be.

Compared to the Arctic Monkeys being seventeen with a number one album they all seem positively ancient. Maybe it’s all about how old you feel.

You know what, I have no idea how old Funeral Party are. They might be in their late twenties or early thirties. They might not. It doesn’t really matter. In the end, it’s about the sound. My Kiwi friend and I went to see them again, making an active decision to check them out this time when they played Cargo in Shoreditch recently. Perhaps, forewarned they simply weren’t as surprising, but it didn’t feel quite the same.

As the crowd bounced and punched the claustrophobic air in the catacombs of the railway arches and the singer stared at his disjointed hand clutched the remains of the tambourine and said ‘I think I broke my thumb’, I glanced around and felt by far the oldest person there. Not because I wasn’t enjoying myself. I was. Not because I didn’t get airborne with the same enthusiasm as everyone else. I did. But because when they sang about revolution and changing of the world for the better through hedonism and ideals I couldn’t help but be objectively distant. They weren’t singing to me. They were singing to youth, to belief.

So, are Funeral Party going to be the next big thing? Are they heralding in a new era of music? Don’t be silly. Of course they’re not. They’re just a band. A good one, sure, but just a band. They do make a glorious racket, though.