Whiskey, gin and brandy
With a glass I'm pretty handy,
I'm trying to walk a straight line
On sour mash and cheap wine
There has always been a romance about it. Anticipation and aspiration. From my earliest
years, a shadowy, mysterious world waiting to embrace me. The trepidation of one's
first faltering illegal steps. The anxiety. The strain of endeavouring to age years
in just a few moments written clear on the tense features of a callow teenage complexion.
When those doors were first thrown open it was like rushing into the arms of a lover.
And when they close behind you, you are safe, for a time, from the pains of the world.
All hail: The pub.
A large part of my working life has been spent drinking and a small part of my drinking
life has been interrupted by work. In truth it wouldn't be too misleading to say
that I often judged the success (or otherwise) of my career by inclusion in the exclusive
club whose members are characterised by knowledge of any number of backwater boozers.
Name a metropolitan concert hall or a provincial theatre and I'll show you a man
who can name the dingy old pub nearest the Stage Door. The man, of whom it was said,
the only time he answered “No” to a drink misunderstood the question. Or at least
I can show you his grave. There's no denying the romantic association between musicians
and alcohol in the eyes of the world. No denying also the romance of a talent lost
to the iniquities of drink. Unless that talent belongs to you. A fact that most of
us have to at least glance at if not look squarely in the face and confront at some
time or another. However the prospect of even the merest glance is so terrifying
that one tends to avert one's gaze altogether and rush in the opposite direction
– usually to the nearest pub.
With a little more time at my disposal (and less fear) I try to be somewhat more
discerning in my choice of establishment. The pubs of my youth have become few and
far between. Where once was the soft glow of carriage lamps reaching seductively
through the Stygian gloom is now the brittle-brite gaudiness of halogen bulbs and
neon signs. Where once intriguing silhouettes; glimpsed outlines softened by the
frosted glass, now the forms of the “modern” drinker. Features clear. Sharp lines
defined through the plate glass window. Where once the comforting hum of a hundred
whispered conversations, now the braying of harsh voices above a backdrop of MTV.
Where once you were tempted by the promise of contented moments and a relaxing drink,
now you are grabbed by the lapels and hauled into a world of oxymoronic happy hours
and alcopops. And of course, they're not fussy who they grab. Just get that wallet
and its owner into the pub and watch it spend up. It's Friday night, the weekend
begins here: See the amateur drinker at play.
Though fewer in number, the traditional boozer has an unexpected ally in these tough
times. Wetherspoons. If you can make just that little bit of effort and with just
a little bit of luck – you will find your reward, dimly lit and unprepossessing.
Meanwhile – on the main thoroughfare Wetherspoons comes into its own, performing
a valuable service as the kitchen roll of the licensing trade. Always on hand to
soak up any of the nasty social stains and spillages that might otherwise contaminate
the more civilised boozer. Customers so discerning that, as I once overheard when
hopelessly lost and far from home, they ordered their drinks by price not name...
“A pint of 99, please....” But time and inflation moves on. “99” is a thing of the
past (even the ones with flakes cost more than that) but it is in some small way
commemorated by such lovely promotions as the Wetherspoons Monday club where the
lucky drinkers are afforded the pleasure of purchasing their refreshment at an altogether
more favourable rate – that is, of course, if they've got anything left from the
giro cheque they picked up the preceding Thursday. In this way Wetherspoons is seeking
to promote an element of fiscal if not exactly social and libational responsibility
among its most valued clientele.
Still, at least in theory, Wetherspoons convert other disused commercial premises
into pubs. Under the All Bar One effect, previously pleasant boozers are turned into
potential death traps. Laminated to within an inch of their lives; All Bar Ones are
populated by customers as bland and shiny as the floor on which they tread. Beware
the crackle of those cheap suits. All those man made fibres rubbing together in close
proximity – it's like a tinderbox. The whole place could go up any minute.
After the years of gradual relaxation to the Licensing Laws the Government and the
Industry are a bit worried. Can they possibly induce an end to the carnage on streets
up and down the country at chucking out time? There seems no going back now. No more
lunchtime closing. So instead we are exhorted to “Please drink responsibly” - advice
that I always aim to adhere to... if only I could work out exactly what they mean:
If you're going to drink and drive, make sure you have enough for the whole journey?
Customers are reminded - as that final vodka makes its presence known to your constitution
and equilibrium – to pass out near to and incline towards the wall so as not to take
up any unnecessary floor space to the inconvenience of other patrons? Well that one
shouldn't be so tricky: we've all practised that innumerable times. The urinal stance.
As you pinball your way down the corridor to the Gents a small quiet voice in your
head says.... “Oh dear....” After that less than encouraging start however it gathers
itself and more practical advice follows. “Don't panic... Nearly there... The door
says “Push”.... OK... You're in... good.... Choose your urinal, don't deviate...
that's it.... straight ahead.... just a little further... ooh, not too far.... back
a bit.... perfect. Feet shoulder width apart.... knees locked.... and..... TILT.....
the cool touch of the enamelled tiles spreads from your forehead through your body,
soothing and lending strength... you're safe. And there, with that vital third anchoring
point achieved, you could rest secure and immovable till morning.
I have always enjoyed drinking. But even a man of my experience has to be wary of
the myriad and mood dependent effects of that delicious and dangerous drug. Michael
Moorcock once wrote that far too many people mistake self pity for inspiration. Not
me – I know self pity when I feel it. Alcohol inspired error however – now that's
a very different matter. Too many times I have mistaken an alcoholic haze for the
blinding light of revelatory thought. The next light I am aware of generally tends
to be the cold light of day and in that harsh reality not only have the words escaped
me but I have subsequently lost hours, and a small fortune, trying to drink myself
back into a similar state, in the futile endeavour of recapturing the inspiration
of the night before. Alcohol feeds my creativity but in order for any of it to be
retained my brain would have to be hard wired to an extremely tolerant computer equipped
with an industrial strength spell checker and considerable imagination. By the time
I am capable of lifting a pen the lucidity has gone. The task of recalling the syntax
of an inspired bon mot is quite beyond hope when the whole evening is now filed irretrievably
under the heading of Missing, presumed Lost. Experience should tell me that there
probably were no great thoughts. But when the mind is so addled that the only evidence
I have of the previous evening is the space in the diary between my last remembered
action and my currently endured hangover, experience is the one thing I do not have.
There is always a degree of wisdom after the event. But the event itself has become
the subject of dimly remembered supposition and conjecture.
When one examines the realities: the hangovers; the dry cleaning bills; the cost
to health as well as wallet it all begins to look a bit foolish and tawdry... and
yet somehow the romanticism endures. There is always the fascination of a life lived
just outside the accepted constraints of society. A darker world where one fears
to tread but looks with a kind of admiration on those who cross that line. The nursery
slopes of the occasional late night that all too readily becomes early morning is
a quiet thrill for many a harmless reveller and most have the sense to get out before
the gentle incline becomes a sheer drop. Just one word of advice: If your dissolute
lifestyle seems a sin, make sure you enjoy it. A sin must carry with it that feeling
of illicit pleasure otherwise there is no point. Don't squander the sin and compound
the “error” with guilt and misery.
Fortunately, for the most part I have managed to remain a happy, affable, inoffensive
drunk. Less fortunately it's the soberer moments I tend to struggle with...