Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Wet (an epilogue).

Are you sitting comfortably? Then, I’ll begin.

That was how, in my head, I intended to start this blog. I wanted to tell you a story. I would have told you about the man with sand beneath his feet who became lost in the desert and bested the temptation of the beast. It’s an old one. You’ve probably heard it before. I would talk about resistance and possibly even a bit of redemption. I had it all mapped out from back in early March; notes scrawled across an A3 sheet of paper folded and crossed next to my keyboard. There’s no detail, just themes and notes. Next to week six it says “Why does everyone think Lent finishes at Easter? Doctrine? Conclude, summarise – the future. Is there ever an ending? Or does it always come later than we think?’

As I sat down to write out the final broadcast in this series I was no longer sure what the tale I’ve been telling is.

There was no final redemption. I never fell to my knees on the road to Damascus. There was no narrative arc to conclude. This is just about life, just random gatherings of useless knowledge and half remembered late nights.

Last weekend was my Grandpa’s ninetieth birthday. A phenomenal milestone and so I visited my family, went back to the places I’d been telling you about. Perhaps I hadn’t fully thought things through when I pressed ‘post’ last Thursday for one of the first things I was asked was: ‘How much of it was true?’

I shirked the question, answered without saying anything mainly because I wanted to avoid the conversation, but perhaps it deserves a response: All of it.

And none of it.

As I said right at the start, I don’t have - and never have had - a problem with alcohol. This is about why such a thing could have been possible.

I’ve presented you with snapshots. I’ve given you glimpses into ten years. A long time. Time more than enough for low and high moments. I don’t consistently drink too much, but I have done. Who hasn’t? I have never drunk for extended periods of time quantities of alcohol that would make you liver ache just reading about them. And yet, once, once upon a time I took pride in my capacity for drink. I was secretly pleased that I was capable of out drinking people as though it were…
As though it was what? I’m not sure. Some twisted sense of masculinity? No.
Not that.

More like not having grown up; like I was stuck at fifteen.

There was never any reason for it. I wasn’t depressed or bored or lonely. It certainly wasn’t because I thought it would make me more creative. I am not that naive. I’ve read things written after I have had a drink. They’re rubbish.

I thought I was blank.

‘So, why did you stop?’ my girlfriend asked.

I glanced at her and then back at the road. ‘What do you mean?’

‘If you started because you’d just arrived in London and had enough money,’ opportunity and means, ‘why did you stop?’

The traffic soared through the Paddington sky, arcing across the concrete flyover underneath the glittering sun.

After a while I said: ‘I don’t know.’

I’d never thought to ask myself that question. It just had. A couple of years ago, after a heavy night at a wedding, I had a pint with some friends at a lunch. Everyone else was on soft drinks. The fact I was drinking was remarked upon. It was a point of humour, as though it were inevitable that I would have started up again. It was only a pint, I thought, but I also felt slightly embarrassed. Did everyone else see something that I didn’t? It reminded me of a guy I met on a stag do, a man about ten, fifteen years old than me. We’d been fairly drunk the first night and as everyone else struggled their fried breakfasts down and grudgingly clambering into a middle bus that tilted around country lanes as though tempting our stomachs to evacuate, he cracked open a can of lager.

‘I’m like a machine,’ he joked, but his skin was blotched and his hair flayed, his paunch sagged and his eyes were hollow. He was alone.

I didn’t want to be him.

But remember, this is only a story. The epilogue makes no sense without all the words that precede it.

There were plenty of drunken writers I never got around to mentioning. Jack Kerouac left speed for booze as he became older, as he slowed down and his skin took on an increasingly yellowed hue until early one morning, sipping whisky and rye, his stomach haemorrhaged and he bled to death, vomiting great globules of salty blood up as he went.

Jack London once wrote: "I was carrying a beautiful alcoholic conflagration around with me. The thing fed on its own heat and flamed the fiercer. There was no time, in all my waking time, that I didn't want a drink. I began to anticipate the completion of my daily thousand words by taking a drink when only five hundred words were written. It was not long until I prefaced the beginning of the thousand words with a drink." By 1916, aged forty, London was treating his various painful ailments, dysentery, uremia, scurvy and the rest all aggravated by the drinking, with morphine when he appeared to decide that enough ache had passed. He let himself slip away on the front porch of his ranch, never to wake again.

Not everyone died young. Dorothy Parker made it to her seventies. Jean Rhys drank herself to bitterness but still preserved out of bloody mindedness to eighty-eight.
Then there’s the bizarre: Edgar Allen Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore wearing another man’s clothes and delirious when he collapsed and died; although all records have been lost he is believed to have been drunk beyond belief.

John Cheever; Eugene O’Neill; Anne Sexton; James Joyce; Hunter S Thompson; Tennessee Williams; Truman Capote and a thousand lost faces at the bar besides yet their stories are alien to me; more extreme than anything I can remember.

Why do writers drink so heavily? Stupidly, my page of notes suggests that I might be able to answer this question. Whilst there’s a little bit of me that is tempted to go with Robert Stone’s suggestion that it is to bring you down from the euphoria of words transcending the page they’ve been cast upon it would be ridiculous to suggest that there was a single reason. Or indeed that, proportionately, writers drink any heavier or deeply that any other cross-section of society. Maybe they have more demons to carry, but that’s a different question. That’s asking why they write in the first place; why they feel the need to demand that people listen to what they have to say.

Whatever the tortured artist is looking for inside the solace of an empty head, it isn’t inspiration. Or at least not the ability to convert inspiration into words. Wherever stories come from, it isn’t inside a deep drunk.

Maybe, though, it is to enable them to disassociate themselves from the norm.

Despite what the Daily Mail would have you believe, heavy drinking is not a keystone of society. Drinking is, yes, but long lasting, thorough spirit drinking at nine in the morning is still mainly socially unacceptable. It puts the drunk writer on the outside, looking in. They have been ejected out into the cold which makes it easier to look on everyone else with jealousy, with scorn, with envy, with a sense of the absurd. Maybe that’s it, maybe Hemmingway and Fitzgerald and Chandler and Greene and everyone else drank because it helped them to pass judgement.

Maybe that’s what I did too, you ask.

Sort of. Maybe. Maybe not.

I wonder if it was just that I wasn’t sure who I was yet. I’ve always had a good and happy life and yet it often felt a little empty, as though devoid of purpose. My own internal narrative lacked voice and direction. Perhaps it made me a little more interesting to myself. I think that maybe I bored me. I wanted a mythology without doing anything and so I replaced doing with dreaming and occasionally with drinking.

This story has no narrative and so has no ending because it has no true conflict. Giving up drinking for forty days wasn’t hard. Possibly giving up that representation of me (even if these days only the gremlin that walks my past inside my head sees it) was a little harder, but it was fun to confound people’s expectations.

I missed the social aspects. I missed the camaraderie for the Boy-John’s stag-do. I missed not being able to toast my Grandpa with anything other than lemonade. I missed sharing a bottle of wine with my girlfriend. This culture, this land, I love so is built of liquid foundations, but much to my surprise I didn’t actually miss the drinking.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote ‘first you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink and then the drink takes you.’ Maybe, a while ago, the drink was insisting it was its round, but I left it to its own devices in some late night bar somewhere and went home to bed. Or so I hope. I might be wrong. Perhaps Lent hasn’t finished after all. Perhaps the true ending comes later. Perhaps that’s how life really works; the ending isn’t on the last page but somewhere in the blankness at the back.


I am not a machine. I won’t be alone and broken. I know which I want to do. I am starting to know who I am.

At the weekend, I bought some bottles of beer including the gorgeous tangy delight that is the Badger Brewery’s spring ale, Hopping Hare. It sits on my kitchen table. The dipping sunlight strokes the bottle; the golden contents sparkle. It is unseasonably hot. A glass is placed next to it. I sit in the chair and look. I think about the cap fitch-popping under my fingers, about the glugging of the refreshing drink filling the glass, about the anticipation and the glorious thrill as it brushes over my lips.

I get up.

I put the kettle on.

Not tonight. Another time.

And they all lived happily ever after.

The end.

Thursday, 14 April 2011


Dylan sighed, a well of weariness drawn up from deep inside, pulled from far away back home. He was tired. Tired and sick. Tired and sick and unable to sleep. And drunk. Most of all, Dylan was darkly drunk. He let his lids sink and gently massaged his temple. Breath escape his ragged lungs and then, whilst the release had been calm, the attempt to snatch air back hacked and thracked his whole body. Stifling his coughs, Dyan indicated at his empty glass on the bar’s counter. The barman nodded and duly obliged to pour a slug of whisky.

Plagued by looming insolvency and the probable collapse of his marriage - poor Caitlin lost to the winds of her fancy and equally swallowed up by the drink - Dylan had readily accepted the lecture tour of America. A thousands pounds a week would solve his money problems, would leave him free from work and blissful in the arms of his musing, but America wasn’t suiting him. He’d enjoyed himself when he’d last visited. Or so he imagined. He couldn’t quite remember. They told him that he felt up the movie starlet and urinated in Charlie Chaplin’s pot plant, the sort of ego deflation that was within his gift to deliver. But this time, in New York, the air was laden with smog; worse even than London. A dank, smouldering cloud that penetrated life and moodily sagged.

Not that he truly felt any better in Wales. Dylan rarely felt well anymore. Instead he felt dragged down, weighed on by the burden of the need for words. The blackouts were almost a release. A gift of a few moments away from the throb inside, in his gut.

He necked the whisky. It glided down with ease to join the others.

The barman tipped the bottle. Dylan nodded. Amber honeyed peace sloshed in the glass.

Unable to sleep, Dylan had left his hotel and prowled his way through Chelsea to the bar. Dylan liked to drink in the same places. He enjoyed the nod of recognition, the slight apprehension over what he might do, who he might speak with, what he might offend. Dylan enjoyed his reputation. He’d carefully built up the myth of a drinker. He was a poet whose words bought the truth that beer and whisky cleared the mind for. Life was nothing save an interlinked mess of dreary beauty but for a drink, ah a drink and the people one found at the bottom of the glass, made it worthwhile. Yet there was no-one that night. There was just Dylan and New York, cold and distant, the murmur around the bar, whisky and the memories of words that might have been.

Should he have another? He tried to count how many he’d already had and to work out whether it would make any difference the following day. He felt mildly sick, but then booze increasingly made him nauseous. And whilst he wondered, he pointed at the empty glass and it was duly topped up; his semblance of a choice in the matter shattered by his body acting on its own accord, broken by reality.

There was no choice. No matter how much he pretended otherwise, no matter how much he longed to retain control, he would drink either until he was broke and could charm no-one to join him or he blacked out.

Choice was but an illusion caused by wants.

Later Dylan stumbled home through the smogged streets of Chelsea. He didn’t pause, he didn’t clutch drunkenly at lampposts, Dylan was used to walking whilst drunk and he adapted his step to accept his stagger. Arriving in the red bricked entrance of the Chelsea Hotel, he nodded at the receptionist with a sly yet troubled grin.
‘I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies,’ he proudly proclaimed to no-one in particular. He paused and rubbed his temple as though easing thoughts of nothing out. ‘I think that’s a record.’

He stumbled up the stairs to his room not realising that when he lay down in the cool crashing forgiveness of the sheets he would never rise again. Even the hacking cough had rescinded, but the deep blue horror of his lungs reached out to his heart and embraced it. Sometime in his slumber Dylan slipped into a coma.

There he lay, at peace at last, in amongst the future ghosts of the Chelsea hotel. The rooms where Charles Jackson had chugged down sufficient pills to never wake from his final Lost Weekend; where Kerouac had battered out On The Road on a single endless tube of writing paper; where Dylan’s namesake Bob would compose his early calls to arms and sorrowful laments of love lost; where Andy’s glamour and vice would be filmed for fleeting fame; where Jimi and Janis and gravely Tom and Dee Dee and Johnny Thunders and Rufus before he got straight would all lose a sliver of their souls; where Sid would murder Nancy in his drugged oblivion, where in the twenty-first century Joseph O’Neil would compose a novel of loneliness and isolation, of being lost in a city that belongs to the world. Dylan’s breath rattled and rolled, cracking amongst his dreamless sleep. His soul drifted into the walls, the foundations, the plaster and the time.

Eventually a doctor arrived, sent him to hospital and incorrectly administered too much morphine and that was poor Dylan gone. Gone to the wind of the world.

“And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.”

-And Death Shall Have No Dominion by Dylan Thomas.

Years later, Caitlin would write, as though we didn’t know, “ours was a drink story not a love story, just like millions of others.”

Just like millions of others? How despairing Dylan would have found all his efforts to be for naught.

When I first came to London, ten years ago this summer, I was a young man suddenly gifted a disposable income. Unexpectedly finding myself flush for cash after years of penniless studenthood and poorly paid bar work, I wasn’t, initially, interested in saving for anything. After all, what did I have to save up for? I had a rented flat I could afford and property ownership seemed a distant hassle. I had a patched together car. My interests were records, books and, well, going to the pub.

So I did. Lots.

The company I worked for mythologised drunken editorial staff. It actively encouraged lunchtime boozer visits with managers just as effortlessly tired as the rest of us. I quickly became accustomed to journalists turning up at lunch time having stopped off for a morning stiffner and that feeling of sinking weightlessness as the only lunch I’d had was two pints of lager. Friday afternoons were a void. I stumbled back to my desk at about three-thirty and tried not to screw up.
But I was young and didn’t know any better. Besides it was what everyone else did.

By the Christmas of that first year I deemed it appropriate behaviour to turn up to a dinner party with a four pack, two bottles of wine and a half bottle of brandy, largely for my own consumption. The resulting walk home saw me, so I’m told, nearly fall head first under the wheels of a taxi followed by an empty head and a flooded stomach the morning after. This three day hang-over did lead me to calm down somewhat, but slowly over the years it snuck back up.

The Boy John had his stag do right in the middle of Lent. That was okay. It was a countryside weekend away, not one swamped in drink and the typical distractions of male bravado around girls and fights and sights. I offered to make life easier and drive everyone.

As we walked away from the racecourse, the others were slightly flushed from midday drinking, but my head clean and clear. I watched the throngs of staggering bodies we passed. The red-stung face of the young man in his shiny grey court suit being held back by his mate as he raged at the world around, filled with anger for every living injustice; the orange skinned over-exposed girl tottering on implausibly high heels as she tried to navigate the kerb; the older guy with his head resting on his arms supported by a handy wall at the end of someone’s drive, the puddle of sick over his shiny shoes; the lad groaning under the weight of his girlfriend in his arms, who berated him in slurred words as he carried her from the melee. I was never like that. I just used to sit quietly, drink and turn off.

Time eased by. I started to hang around the less salubrious pubs in South-East London, chatting merrily to people with speckled red faces and faded love and hate tattoos on their knuckles. But still, it didn’t feel any different to all those who went and passed out on a Saturday night. At a party in Peterborough I remember sitting under the barbecue sky and an Australian girl with a bottle of whisky hanging out her dungarees asked us why weren’t getting drunk.

‘I don’t think,’ I replied, ‘there’s any real danger of us missing out.’ I knew I’d get there, I had ample ale to get through and fancied poaching some of her scotch, but I couldn’t see what the hurry was.

In many ways I almost preferred drinking alone, even occasionally leaving a work drinks early to go home, sit and watch TV and chug back cans of lager and a couple of hard measures. It wasn’t because I preferred my own company, but simply because sometimes it was easier that way. I didn’t need to impatiently wait for someone else to finish their drink and get a round in, or be bought a drink by me so that I wasn’t at the bar just for myself.

At the time I lived with my then-girlfriend, but we were never permanently entwined. She had a tendency to work into the early hours of the morning leaving me to my own devices. It wasn’t that hard to sneak the additional recycling out the flat and pretend to have had less than I had.

I started to take whisky to bed with me. Not every night, but often enough. A large glass of scotch balanced on my chest as I lay and read words in books I wouldn’t be able to remember the next day and when I’d finished, I would hide the glass somewhere underneath the bed. Down amongst the sleeping bags and the places she wouldn’t go.

Friends began to cut back, to be able to enjoy a couple of drinks and then call it a night. They claimed that any more and they would be incapacitated the following day. I nodded and pretended to be the same, but really I couldn’t understand it. If anything my tolerance appeared to be growing stronger and stronger. For a while my whisky habit became something like a bottle a week. Plus beer and wine and other assorted spirits. I would deliberately arrive early to meet friends and nip into a different pub around the corner for a solitary pint. I would try to find a late night bar still open on the way home and miss the last train in favour of the night bus. Failing that I’d acquire a can for the journey somewhere and still take a nightcap once finally home.

At some point I started drinking things I’d never touched before. Cider and vodka, for example. Not necessarily the nice stuff either. The cheap and the strong, those that typically have little purpose beyond being lost. I stopped buying single malt scotch and switched to blends, partially out of sheer financial necessity, but also because it felt wrong to drink and without true appreciation.

And in the mornings, I’d awaken in the chair, in a bathtub, on a sofa, somewhere across town from home, somewhere I had to quietly slip out from letting the door close on the people I just met. Locking away the night for another day.
Somewhere around this time I stopped getting hang-overs. Which seems somewhat weird, but it’s true. No matter how much I drank, I would feel, if not fantastic, then at least okay the morning after. A bit tired, somewhat irritable, but nothing a walk in the fresh air and several strong coffees wouldn’t fix. I tended to sag slightly in the mid-afternoon, but if there was no debilitating, gut wrenching God-awful pain then what was to stop me?

Is any of this true? Or am I self-mythologising too? Was it habit, boredom or frustration? Maybe all three, maybe none. Maybe I’m picking out infrequent incidents in a ten year period.

It was all such a long time ago, why am I even telling you all this? Who am I confessing my sins to? Who am I saying sorry to?

Ray didn’t need to open his eyes. He could smell where he was. Again. The stench of cleanliness burned. He’d hoped for a moment, it that brief pause between the disturbed sober slumber and being fully awake, that he had dreamt the two previous days.

But that was a pointless wish, for Ray hadn’t dreamt in years. His sleep, when it finally came, was deep and black and undisturbed except by the aches.

He really was back in hospital. His stomach lining had loosened again and as he’d vomited there’d been blood and a slight stink of faeces. Someone more coherent had decided to call for help and so there he was again. On the ward. The fourth time in under a year. They didn’t want him there. They weren’t interested in those who wouldn’t try. He didn’t want to be there either. He just wanted to be left alone.

He was stuck. They all were. Ray, the failing writer, and all his drinking chums with nowhere to go. The guy to his right rolled under the sheets and scratched at his bare flesh as though something wriggled under the skin. The man diagonally opposite had drunk a bottle of vodka every day for twelve years and had given up too late to save his liver. It had stopped functioning leaving him prone to swelling with fluid; unable to process waste his gut had ballooned out to the size of a beer barrel with his belly button sharply protruding like a the tap to draw off a beautifully golden fizzing beer, all hoppy and bliss. The man down the far end of the ward needed an operation to remove a weeping abscess on his bladder and who liked to drink thirteen bottles of cooking sherry a day. The bed to Ray’s left was empty, the occupant from the day before was barely an indent in the sheets as though he’d never been there.

They were all part of the club; everyone had a drink of choice and sometimes they even had a reason to drink. But more often they didn’t. More often to drink was their reason. No excuse was offered. Telling the truth, for once, they would shrug and admit that it was just because. Because there was no choice.

Ray closed his eyes again. The problem with hospital was that there was so little to do. At least at the rehab out clinic there was structure, meals to be made, tasks to be done, games of cards and chess to be played, a routine to exist by. In the hospital there was just boredom. Boredom made Ray want.

No. That was a lie.

Life made Ray want.

He tried to think of a single line, a phrase to cut to the heart of where he was. Something that described the futility and resigned acceptance of hospital stays as a part of the drinker’s life. He would have been able to do so once. Once when he wrote. He missed writing, but he’d had to give it up. It took up too much time. It got in the way of his fulltime drinking.

One of the men eeked his way past Ray’s bed, his hospital gown flapping open at the back to reveal his wart covered behind. Every few steps he giggled and raised the front to expose his shrunken and wrinkled genitals. His movements were slow and ached, fragile as though he might shatter. Not that he would have cared. Yet sufficient force to self-shatter was clearly beyond his wasted muscle. He looked as though he’d been collecting his pension for ten years. The nurse had said he was forty-three.

The bed to Ray’s left was still empty.

Ray’s stories had been collected the year before. Written in the gaps between various blue collar jobs in hospitals and stores and wherever to get by and the teaching of writing to others and the far more serious business of getting wasted, Ray had been pleased that it had been released. And yet it wasn’t enough. He could do better; he just needed the right amount of whisky to find the sweet spot between drunkenness and sobriety to have the courage to reveal life.

He sighed quietly to himself and craved a cigarette. A cigarette and a drink. He wished the pretty nurse would come round and arrange his pillows, just to give him a wink and a reason for hope, just to break the monotonous repetition of nothing.
He felt hollow. His insides could have vanished, been pulled out and cast aside as the useless addled dead weight they’d soon become. He was hooked up to a drip that intravenously feeding him all the stuff whisky lacked. His wrist throbbed slightly but nothing hurt so he guessed he must be on morphine. It gave a distanting sensation, so different to alcohol which pulled the world in tight and then slammed the door in its face.

Ray closed his eyes and tried not to think about his wife and kids. About the mistakes he’d made. About the wrongs it was too late to make right. About the world and words he couldn’t write.

The bed to his left was still empty. Ray knew that the man who’d slept in it fitfully the day before, Ralph or Jimmy or Frank or Mike or whatever his name was with his poison of choice had died. That was the quickest way out of the hospital. Ray didn’t want to die. He wanted to write. He wanted to not want to drink. He wanted to be free of the drag to get drunk, the urge that demanded to be fed. He wanted to tell the world some truths. He knew how to do it, he knew what change he had to make, but it was so easy to say and so impossibly hard to think of doing.

'No other word will do. For that's what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. "Don't weep for me,"
he said to his friends. "I'm a lucky man.
I've had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don't forget it."'
-Gravy by Raymond Carver.

This week’s David Marston Writes dramatises scenes from the lives of Dylan Thomas and Raymond Carver. They are not intended to be strictly accurate representations nor are they intended to cause any offence or distress to the estates of either man.

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) wrote numerous poems, short stories and scripted short films for the BBC during the Second World War. He was arguably Wales’ finest poetic voice. His most famous work, Under the Milkwood, was due for release when he died suddenly of pneumonia complicated by alcohol abuse in New York. Caitlin Thomas was his wife.

Raymond Carver (1938-1988) gave up drinking in 1978 and went on to write two short story collections, Cathedral and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as well as numerous poems, before he died of cancer. He is frequently acclaimed as the greatest exponent of the short story form in the twentieth century. The term Carverish tends to refer to a bleakly minimalist style.

Much of the inspiration for the hospital ward came from Christopher Palling’s 2009 Guardian article.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011


It could be argued that when the young drink, when they are drunk, they are at their most beautiful. Or that they feel beautiful at least. Free and light. The old, the survivors, those who keep on drinking, they know that they’re the damned. The beautiful and the damned. One becomes the other.

Spirits are found the world over. By spirits I don’t mean derivatives of other alcoholic drinks, like brandy is a boosted version of wine, but the stuff that started off as cheap and nasty and from necessity. Spirits, just life’s ghosts. Vodka, whisky, gin, rum, tequila, and absinthe the sole purpose for the existence of these is drive the day’s demons out into the night.

Vodka, the proper stuff not the sickly flavoured spew designed to be disguised as sweets for oversized children, was invented during the ninth century somewhere in the so-called vodka-belt countries, those at one time or another under the domination of Moscow or St Petersburg, but in a significantly weaker state than what we’re used to. The full on version we know today came from Russia in the early fifteenth century and, like so many other drinks, was cultivated by monks. What was it about monks that they had so much time to be dosing about producing exciting and different drinks for people? Never mind. Vodka, the word, is derived from the Slavic for water. Kind of apt for a drink that is supposed to keep you alive in the depths of the harshest snow.

Vodka shouldn’t be fucked around with. Modern brands flavour it with cherry or bacon or chocolate, but at worst it should be infused with lemongrass or ginger, stuff that grows naturally, and ideally just leave it alone. It’s supposed to kick your eyeballs out. Just be grateful you’re not knocking back the homebrew stuff out a jam-jar somewhere on a post-Soviet farming collective in the Siberian steppes. And that’s how it should be drunk: hard and neat. There are rituals around vodka. It should be cold, which does dull the burn somewhat, and served in small shot glasses, toasted and necked in one before chatter continues and sometime later another will be poured. Get it over with, don’t linger. Enjoy it.

By the time I reached University I was an accomplished beer drinker. I knew my limits, knew my comfort zones. I felt that I was done with getting inadvertently legless, throwing up, waking up on a traffic roundabout, staggering around incoherently, setting shit on fire and bumping into the Police. I’d finished, or so I thought, experimenting with alcohol. I knew what I liked and what I liked was about a dozen pints of ale or Guinness and to go home. I liked pubs. Pubs like the one where I’d been born. Local pubs with wooden bars and no aluminium; music was an acceptable addition, but it didn’t need to be overbearing, did it?

Sheffield is a city. And whilst, to an extent, I had grown up in a bigger city (or at least adjacent to one) it was very much in a suburban outcast fashion and suddenly I found myself at the heart of something with a wider range of distractions. My friends wanted to go to nightclubs, which contrary to my previous experiences, were not either mildly threatening or pap filled dross pits, but venues packed with other students playing music I actually liked for once. They also wanted, occasionally, to go to large city centre pubs or shiny tiny bars, or even cocktail lounges of crappy hotels. When they had a happy hour. Not too often, usually because we couldn’t afford it, but, you know, sometimes. For a change. For something different.

At eighteen, I wasn’t too keen on change or diversity. I enjoyed routine, the same repeated again and again.

Ssh, whisper it: I was afraid of the unknown.

Gin is a particularly English drink. Made from the re-distilled neutral spirits of agriculture (in other words the excess grain mash that produces a highly alcoholic flammable liquid) and flavoured with juniper berries, its main attraction was its cheapness. It offered an affordable intoxication for all to lie in swills of the stuff.

Despite its popularity in seventeenth century England, or notoriety if not popularity with Hogarth’s gin alley being a fairly accurate portrayal of people who had nothing else to do all day except get fuck-eyed, it was a Dutch drink originally. William of Orange bought it over in the Glorious Revolution, but the Dutch had been enthusiastically using it for many years before, distributing it to soldiers during the eighty years war before battle to give them courage. Dutch courage. The Dutch version was a weaker one, and the English toughened it up, often mixing it with turpentine for a real kick.

It was also frequently used as a tonic. Firstly as an ineffective cure for the bubonic plague and then, as the empire expanded, the juniper flavour was found as an adequate way to disguise the potency of quinine, the anti-malaria, drug. All it really did was take a taste of home around the world.

Deep in the basement resturant, underneath the old streets of Soho where a few too many nights have been lost, both Stu and my girlfriend decided to swirl glasses of red wine under my nose.

‘Mmmm,’ they cooed. I pretended not to care, tried to act aloof as though it didn’t matter. And maybe, just maybe, it didn’t as much as it might have done.
Meanwhile, fourteen years earlier and two hundred miles further north my confidence, and some might say my sarcasm, increased. I became more prepared to branch out and try new experiences. Hell, I even began to enjoy myself.

So I started to occasionally drink spirits, either neat as shots or with mixers or in some fucking ridiculous multi-coloured combo with a stupid punning name and an umbrella sticking out the top.

But spirits aren’t controlled; I didn’t fully understand how to handle them properly. They’re volatile. After one particularly raucous first year party in the depressing bare brick corridors of Wolfson Flats I awoke about midday on the Sunday to find myself underneath the bed and stark naked. I had no idea what had been running through my mind to get myself there. The end of the evening was a blacked out mush filled with cans of Ward’s bitter and a potent vodka based punch that filled a vast red plastic trough (a container that until about two and a half years ago continued to be used as a receptacle for my recycling).

The thing was, though, I didn’t care. Drink and the oblivion, the unknown end to the night was starting to seem enticing. I was never one of those people who feels full on beer, yet in addition to discovering a particular penchant for red wine I embarked on the enthusiasm for pints of gin and tonic, seventy-six percent rum bought back from Spain and vodka and cokes for that sugary caffeine kick in the days before red bull. In short, anything and everything and bugger the consequences.

It was whilst at University that I started to get into whisky (although not yet seriously). At this time I took my scotch and Irish neat, taking pleasure in the searing sting at the back of the throat. Maybe it was a precocious drink for a twenty-year old to choose, but I enjoyed a short night cap or to work my way through a couple of healthy doses of Jameson’s whilst reading history text books with music blasting out. Finally, I felt like I was graduating to the serious drinking stuff.
No more messing about with beer and wine; this was the real deal. Whisky was what the real men drank, what anti-heroes in stories took to.

At the battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s broken and bloody body was stuffed into a barrel of rum to bring the hero back from the southern seas to the land of his birth. Upon docking in Britain, the lid of the cast was removed and pickled body extracted, but the barrel was also empty. Closer inspection revealed that the bottom had been tampered with and sailors had been sneakily stealing tots of rum, presumably unaware that it was also laced with the Admiral’s blood and gore.

Rum is made by distilling sugar-cane and then aging the product in oak barrels. Slightly different processes for different colours, but essentially the same stuff. White rum is smoother, deliberately so for mixing, whilst dark rum’s the real pirate stuff, the sort of drink that rots your gut with a yo-ho-ho. The Royal Navy used to mix it with beer to make grog and the infantry in world war one had a daily rum ration to keep their spirits up amongst the bodies and the rain filled craters and the mud drenched trenches of Flanders.

Saturday night and I found myself still walking after twelve hours, still putting one foot in front of the other, darkness sneaked around, coiling us in a chilled breath. Inside I felt empty. Almost forty miles done, I just needed to keep walking. To keep moving forwards, towards the end. My insides ached, as though floating in space, adrift from my consciousness. My shoulders and neck felt bolted through with iron as the head torches danced gently amongst the steamed breath. The pain, the frustration was inevitable and yet, knowing there was no real choice, we had gone and done it anyway.

Once, once I would have wanted a drink at the end of this. Once, once I would have craved a cold beer to flush down my gullet and to let my brain float off after my body. That evening I just want to lie down, close my eyes and wish it away.

‘I don’t think I have a morsel of energy left. I’m moving on stubbornness alone.’

‘Well that shouldn’t be a problem,’ replied Google-Steve implausibly chipper. ‘You’ve deep reserves of that.’

The consequences of drinking in the Yorkshire pubs and clubs with such abandon weren’t insignificant. Despite being told on more than one occasion that “it’s impossible to tell when you’re pissed; you’re just the same,” I knew when I’d passed the point because I’d have to concentrate harder on retaining any sort of physical coordination. I would need to cover one eye to reduce the double, triple, quadruple vision, my eyeballs would feel loose in their sockets, indulge in some petty theft of things like ashtrays, pint glasses and the odd sofa and sprained my ankle so many times that now the cartilage is all but worn away. Oh, and then the morning after would be hell. Perhaps I was just a slow learner, never really taking on board any of the hangover prevention techniques I heard about. A Nurofen or two before going to sleep worked for one person. Drinking a pint of water never seemed sufficient. Tactical vomiting somewhat distasteful. But when the sun finally barraged its way into my student bedroom it would frequently find me groaning miserably under the covers for, surprisingly given that I was so keen on getting drunk, I suffered greatly with hangovers.

My girlfriend recently referred to herself as “feeling quite hung-over”, which sounded out of character. Given that she only “had a couple of drinks” and went to bed at four, I suspected she was more tired than anything else. Being quite hung-over in Sheffield was something more dramatic. It frequently felt as though someone was trying to extract my brain from my skull with fish hooks stuffed up my nostrils. Every movement caused a pulse of agony to run along my bones from the top to my toes. My gut swirled and I would vomit until there wasn’t anything left and then my poisoned stomach would continue to convulse leaving me to retch weakly yet with noisy echoes in the toilet.

And yet, there was, I convinced myself, something coolly noble about all of this silliness.

Much like the bohemian artistes found absinthe, not something mystical but simply a drink based on wormwood plant and fennel. The French refer to the Green Fairy taking over, as the writer or artist succumbed to the effects, but aside from getting you royally pissed its effects have been exaggerated. It has a dangerous edge to it which is grounded more in fiction and convenience than anything else. For example, in 1905 Jean Lanfray murdered his wife and children in Switzerland after imbibing in absinthe and the authorities used it as justification to ban the spirit, helpfully forgetting to acknowledge that Lanfray was an alcoholic who started every day with two glasses of the stuff. Whilst it was banned across much of Europe, Britain never officially got around to it and in fact it simply went out of fashion.

Meanwhile, whilst I was fantasising I was growing up, failing to realise I wasn’t, I also became even more deeply obsessed with music and in particular with Shane MacGowan and the Pogues. MacGowan is commonly seen as a something of a lyrical genius wasted by booze. A talent ultimately destroyed by his own inability to slow down. His lyrics whilst at once emotionally sentimental and heart-warmingly romantic also recount an idyllic life of pubs and clubs and beer and hard spit. Lines like “I’ll walk into a bar and drink fifteen pints of beer” casually tossed into the Boys of the County Hell like it was an everyday occurrence. And it probably was. I played their records again and again, wallowing in the pathos of it all and singing, no doubt tunelessly, along much, I am sure, to the disdain of my housemates who must have wished I’d just shut the fuck up at two in the morning or whenever it was.

But it felt like an isolated moment in time. It felt like I was just being a student. After all, being into music too much and drinking too much and sleeping too much and eating badly and having to hold my arm by the wrist to stop the morning after shakes as I tried to drink my tea was what I supposed to do. When I graduated, after a final summer hurrah and some farewell boozing up and down the city, I found myself broke, living at home and working back in the pub where I was born.

The odd thing about working behind a bar with my clothes and hands permanently smelling slightly of beer was that I wasn’t so bothered about having a drink. I drove to the pub and worked most nights. A drink became something sporadic.
Sensibleness wasn’t to last though, more is the pity.

And as for whisky, well it’s just like the old song goes ‘whisky is the life of man.’
American, if you really, really must, or Irish, Jameson’s or Bushmill’s, Catholic or Irish, even Welsh, but, oh, for Scotch is where the lifeblood truly is.

Ernest Hemingway was a mammoth of a literary man, at least in his own imagination. Hemingway believed that life needed to be grappled to the death. He was a big bear rooted to the physical, arguably an unusual state of being for a writer, most of whom seem to prefer the quiet of a darkened room, but perhaps it suited his terse compact style where the words not being written were almost as important as those that were.

Hemingway took every physicality seriously. He hunted, fished, went to war more than twice, fucked and drank his way around the world. Drinking in a bawdy, hugging, male embracive way is Hemingway’s legend. It has even become fictionalised with, amongst others, Logan Mountstuart, the fictional author from William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, getting pissed up in bomb strewn Madrid with Hemingway paying the bill for gallons of red wine. Wine blood red like the streets around them.

But Hemingway found that the body fails no matter how much the myth wishes to prevail. A lifetime of gruelling challenges and excesses, shrapnel wounds, repetitive car and aircraft accidents, almost decapitating himself with a skylight in Paris, all took their toll. The voices in his head, telling him that he wasn’t as true and as real as he’d hoped started in the 1940s. He mocked and gloated over his friend, William Faulkner’s, decline; laughing at Faulkner for his inability to keep up with Hemingway’s prodigious intake, to write through the drunkenness, and all the while, in the secret dread of the night, Hemingway nervously looked up liver cirrhosis in library books.

The fear of failing, of falling, grew despite the Nobel Prize. Until, one cold morning in 1961, shortly after a bout of electro convulsive therapy for depression, Hemingway got out of bed and went out on to the porch of his wilderness home. The landscape would have crept around in the dull hours, tensing him for the day ahead. Unable to stomach the disappointment of age yet again he loaded both barrels of his favourite shotgun, placed it in his mouth and squeezed. In the end, his liver protruded from his gut like a long fat leech.

Hemingway, or maybe Gertrude Stein depending on whose estate you believe, coined the phrase The Lost Generation. It was intended to refer to a generation of Americans who came back from the first world war and its peripheral tragedies. Those who couldn’t understand the highlife of 1920s’ American boom. Alienated, they clustered in Paris and found their own hedonism, one ground in higher ascetics than share prices, but it also has its own sorrow. Lost, for they would never truly find themselves. Thanks to the war or just an inability to cope with the acceleration of the twentieth century, they were, in the main, pulled apart by their own fears and foibles. Lost, forever drifting on the edge until there was nothing left to hold onto. Hemingway wanted to be a hero, “show me a hero and I’ll show you a tragedy,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in his notebook.

Fitzgerald was Hemingway’s contemporary in that loose-knit group. The two shared a friend ship of hostility and jealousness, but genuine affection. Hemingway was never one to truly compliment anyone, but of Fitzgerald he said “his talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings.”

Fitzgerald coined his own phrase to describe the world he found himself in: The Jazz Age. A time of illegal highballs, flappers with shortish skirts and tightly bobbed hair, exhibitionism and the bebop free style of brass late at night. Unlike the rest of the Lost Generation, Fitzgerald tried to own the twenties, to define it as his age. But Fitzgerald was a slight ghost of a man who’d never seem combat and had been a fully-blown alcoholic since his college days. Hardly the shape of someone who could set a generation. He even had to pretend to suffer from tuberculosis to cover up his illness, to conceal the pickling of his insides.

In 1940, aged just forty-four, he suffered two heart attacks in quick succession. The second killed him instantly, bringing him first to his feet from a chair, and then crashing to the floor, the remnants of a candy bar on his lips.

Whilst his death was quick, his dying wasn’t. Fitzgerald wasn’t a fool he knew what was coming just as he knew he could do nothing to prevent it. He knew he lacked the will to stop to drinking, even if he’d wanted, and he could feel his internal organs breaking down. In 1937 Esquire magazine published his short story An Alcoholic Case which tells the shift of a nurse tending to an alcoholic cartoonist. It not only highlights his awareness of the inevitable, that he knew he would do anything for a drink and that it eventually it will kill him, but it also recognises how feeble and pathetic he believed the rest of the world saw him as. A waste. A life discarded.

“She stared at his handsome face, weak and defiant--afraid to turn even half-way because she knew that death was in that corner where he was looking. She knew death--she had heard it, smelt its unmistakable odour, but she had never seen it before it entered into anyone, and she knew this man saw it in the corner of his bathroom; that it was standing there looking at him while he spat from a feeble cough and rubbed the result into the braid of his trousers. It shone there crackling for a moment as evidence of the last gesture he ever made.”

The beautiful and the damned, indeed. Or, as he wrote for Jay Gatsby’s funeral in his masterpiece: “The poor son a bitch.”