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.

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