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.

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