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.”