Snatches of sherry and heady stinks
I took my first drink at the age of five. We’d gone for lunch to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday. Desperate to leave, and perhaps get rid of the cloying film of asparagus soup in my mouth, I eyed the matriarch’s schooner of sweet sherry speculatively before scooping it from the table and downing it. I’d hoped this would speed our departure. It prompted horror and hilarity in equal measure, receiving some affirmation from my grandmother along the lines of “I didn’t want it anyway.”
My relationship with alcohol was naturally enough formed by my parents. It would be fair to say they liked a drop now and again, although I never saw them drunk. My mother would return from the works Christmas lunch slightly dishevelled, retiring to bed for a couple of hours before rising and preparing dinner.
The kitchen was the hub of a booze project. Huge blackened cauldrons would surface from the cupboard under the stairs and various crops from my father’s allotment or the fruits of his foraging would succumb to his tender ministrations, or be boiled into submission, before being transformed into a wine that some weeks later would pucker the mouth and strip the teeth of enamel with its astringency.
Winemaking was an activity for the harvest months, but beer was a year-round enterprise. The house would be permeated by a wonderful, malty, heady stink, undercut with the reassuring not-quite-bleachy pong of sterilising fluid. The barrel would sit in a warm place (there weren’t many in that house) and I would be transfixed by the bubbles working their way through the airlock that curiously resembled my grandmother’s hearing-aid. A beering-aid, perhaps. Bottling occurred on a Saturday night and was a joyous occasion, despite my childish disbelief that it couldn’t be drunk immediately.
My father would return from the Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors Club—think Boodle’s or the Garrick, but with polystyrene ceiling tiles, strip lights, a Friday meat draw, two milds on draught, and no women members—and begin the process, sucking the syphon to begin the flow of amber fluid into the ranks of bottles he’d already set out. These were then stowed under the stairs, a place of wonder and terror, spidery and shadow-hung. The many bottles of wine and beer competed for space with antique fishing tackle, WWI gas-masks, a bandolier or two of shotgun cartridges, coats that someone might wear again, a hoover, and a toboggan; the cool, dry air redolent of times past.
I would be allowed an occasional sip, but bridled at its bitter otherness. Grown-ups can keep it, I thought. As I grew older, certain allowances were made. At Christmas my sisters and I would be given Babycham or a Snowball, the cute bottles topped with gaily coloured foil, the labels not promising sophistication but a carefree good time with their cartoon deer.
Booze continued to permeate my life in unexpected ways. My eldest sister knitted a jumper bearing the logo of De Kuyper’s cherry brandy, a favourite tipple from the Christmas cabinet. A colleague of my mother made me a bedside lamp from a bottle of Mateus Rosé, incongruously topped with a paper Everton Football Club lampshade. Why such a choice for a young boy? It’s pretty heinous stuff, as evinced by its two biggest fans, Saddam Hussein* and Elton John**.
I suppose its curiously flattened bottle (one hesitates to call it iconic) may have provoked comment at the dinner table; we were no great fans of Elton. Or Saddam, for that matter. Elton was prescient with his song title, Social Disease, however. This was a time of war on the terraces. Approaching Goodison Park in a Ford Capri one cold day in late November 1980, we passed hordes of football fans on opposite pavements marshalled by police as a constant hail of half-bricks, bottles, and cans rained onto the car’s vinyl roof. So this is the secret and terrible power of alcohol (now with added tribal fealty and aggression). Inspired by this, and a nascent interest in punk, I wrote a song called Drunk March, which envisaged a zombie cohort of drunkards exiting the pub at kicking-out time (3 pm) and wreaking havoc on passers by, street furniture, and a chip-shop. See, my parents drank but were never drunk. Only colossal and inappropriate consumption could lead to this kind of behaviour. Stick to the rosé, lads.
I didn’t listen
My parents held in mild disdain anyone who could not hold their drink. They were tartled-up, kaleyed, that sort of thing; much of their vocabulary, formed when our bit of Cumbria was still the ancient county of Westmorland, has since disappeared, even from my memory. One of my father’s colleagues would regularly get smashed and finish up brawling with the police on a Saturday night (thanks again, Elton). He was a figure of fun, and some pity, and should’ve taken more water with it.
Unfortunately, my parents’ sensible relationship with alcohol didn’t quite take with me. I have a regrettable stock of shamings, scrapes and near-death experiences to my name, being inclined by nature to get tartled up. I recall walking into an off-licence the day after a particularly heavy session. The myriad bottles of spirits looked at me and I looked at them as I waited at the counter. Through a ruinous fug I thought, here’s enough booze to kill me several times over. A cheering realisation that made the hangover fly by.
Waking naked and covered in mud, my belt missing, as a result of a night of cocktails, four hours late for work, seemed a small price to pay, although I suspect that the nature of my blackout may have been abetted by the introduction of a cousin of Rohypnol to my Manhattan. Falling from a wall after a day-long session that included around twenty pints of Theakston’s Best Bitter interspersed with the occasional Queen Mother—all hail gin and Dubonnet. I visited the wall the next day. How I survived without serious injury is a wonder and a caution. A slight tear in the crotch of my jeans was the only mark after a 15 foot tumble in the pitch dark, somehow avoiding sharp and rusting agricultural equipment below. Tetanus can be such a bore, as can the fracture clinic. And the undertaker’s.
It wasn’t all lost, though. One legacy of my early introduction to homemade liquor is my endeavour with the produce from my garden. The apples go to a friend who has made an approachable cider and tart wine, and the plums get a steeping in spirits. This year, however, I forgot to ameliorate the natural sweetness of the dessert fruit by adding less sugar, resulting in a sickly concoction that needs to be cut with lime juice and drowned in ice before becoming near potable. On bottling I sampled three large measures and turned in. I lay in bed vibrating with glucose as behind my closed lids a shifting panoply of colours and shapes played out a nightmarish fantasia. I could hear my pancreas creaking as it laboured to prevent a diabetic coma, and my teeth! Why did they itch so? Some lessons go unlearned.
Disdained by a giraffe
My children are well aware of their parents’ propensity for alcohol in its myriad forms. Witness the collective cry of anguish at every shopping trip, “Oh, no, not the booze aisle”. They are also kept up to date with the new and potential harms associated with drink by regular visits to their school by Harold, the Health and Safety giraffe. Like a plush horror from a bout of delirium tremens, Harold arrives in a battle-bus to deliver his homilies and approbations, mirroring the medicalisation of morality that society at large appears to suffer from. I preferred Tufty. I may be carrying on an ersatz family tradition by never allowing the boys to see their parents in their cups, but I’m fairly sure that the day will come when I’m covered by projectile vomit due to youthful indiscretion and over-imbibation, as I vomited on my father before me. Into his cupped hands. After drinking a black bin-bag full of booze and smoking his last Cohiba. Everyone has to make a start somewhere, although there may be some dispute over what, exactly, it is you’re starting.