Sunday, 9 December 2012


Alcohol...  It's a topic very much on our minds in December, as the Binge Season approaches.  Even the abstemious will have cause to notice, stepping round frosted pools of vomit on a winter's morning, or evading erratic and agressive drunks at night.  For those of us in Northern Europe, a relationship with strong drink is very much part of our heritage.

In English, the verb "to drink", unqualified, means "to drink alcohol".  You may be an obsessive tea or coffee drinker, you may imbibe gallons of fruit juice or mineral water, but "to drink" or to be "a drinker" means only one thing.  When Father Jack Hackett (in Father Ted, surely the funniest TV series ever) shouts "Drrink!!", we know it's not Ribena that's on his mind.

I drink very little, nowadays.  Much as I like beer, wine, and spirits, I now find the after-effects too unpleasant, even if drunk in moderation and in the correct order.*  My doctor raises a skeptical eyebrow when I tell him that, on average, I drink rather less than three "units" a week, but it's the truth.  I look like a street-person because of my genes, Doc.

Cat?  What cat?

This wasn't always the case, it's true.  It is a time-honoured rite of passage that a young person must learn to love drink, and one's education used to start early.  Back in the 1970s ID checks were unknown, and I and my school-friends became regulars at certain trainer-pubs around age 16 or 17.  This was normal, traditional, even.  By my 20s, a day without at least one visit to a bar was incomplete.  Again, totally unexceptional.

Of course, rather than the unpleasant industrial gin-palaces they have become, pubs used to be cosy social spaces where folk of all ages could nurse a pint or two through the evening.  The Prof and I used to drink in a hostelry called The Phoenix where the elderly regulars would spontaneously start communal singing as the drink took hold.  I doubt there is a pub left in the land, today, where 10 or more voices are raised together to sing "Delilah" or "The Lambeth Walk".  In fact, I doubt whether two people could be found in the same bar who both knew all the words to the same song.

I am not the only one whose drinking has reduced dramatically.  Not so long ago, work and drink overlapped in ways that are inconceivable now.  Journalists were famously bibulous, with long, liquid lunches that shaded far into the afternoon.  But to be able to hold one's drink and continue working was a badge of honour for men born before WWII in most occupations.  My first boss kept a bottle or two of sherry in his office, and wasn't slow to bring them out. Now, however, the workplace is far more puritanical, and I suspect that to be found drunk in charge of a flipchart would be followed by summary dismissal.

My nanna C., Hemsby, 1956

There's still an awful lot of drinking going on, however. With few opportunities to drink at work, and with more and more pubs closing or becoming effective no-go areas for anyone over 30, the supermarkets are pushing a wide choice of cheap booze to an ever-expanding domestic drinking market. I am sometimes amazed by the number of bottles of cheap spirits going onto the checkout belt from pensioners' trolleys.  But recently concern has been voiced by the medical profession about the drinking habits of -- gasp! -- the middle classes.

Apparently, it is not uncommon for middle-aged, middle-class couples to polish off a whole bottle of wine most nights -- if not every night -- with an evening meal.  Not in our abstemious house, of course, where to open a bottle is an event in itself and will keep us going for several days (and where guests have been known to express disappointment at the paucity of alcoholic refreshment), but this is certainly the case in quite a lot of households.  It seems the good doctors are starting to think half a bottle or more a night is rather a lot.**

Be warned, though, medics: it's one thing to stigmatize the White Lightning drinkers, quite another to take on the posh piss-artists.

* One of the most useful things I learned on a school German exchange was "Bier auf Wein, das lasse sein!  Wein auf Bier, das rat ich dir!"  i.e. Putting beer on top of wine is an ill-starred practice; putting wine on top of beer is the way to go.

**And that is why it is for your own good, AW, that there is never enough wine with a meal at our table.  Same reason you have to smoke in the rain...


Martin said...

I spent a few hectic teenage years in New Forest pubs, mainly, and Southampton pubs, manly. I also worked for nine years as a drayman with a Cornish brewery (without doubt, the best job I ever had).

These days, a fine pint of HSB with lunch at my favourite New Forest pub suits me just fine. Oh, and your photo reminds me, I must invest in a new tea cosy, now that the frosts have arrived!

Mike C. said...


I like the idea of some manly years in Soton pubs: certainly necessary in some of them.

Here's a tip: now winter's here, make your tea indoors...


Dave Leeke said...

I guess, Mike, that you've taken the Road Less Travelled.

Having grown up with my mother a life-long barmaid and many weeks spent living in The White Hart looking after it every year whilst the landlord was on holiday, drink seems to have stayed with me for life.

There are still some pubs that somehow manage to remain hubs of their community but they are certainly on the run. Because of the sheer cost of drinking in such establishments, though, it has necessitated the move to more familiar (homelier) surroundings.

Interestingly, today's "Observer" features an article about how the "yoof" are rebelling against their parents and their drinking culture.

Ever been to Cardiff on a Thursday night? Saturday? I'm sure some of the yoof have embraced drinking even more warmly than even I ever did.

Mike C. said...


I don't see the Observer, but I can guess. The "straight edge" punk thing is big round here, I think.

Seen Cardiff? I live in Southampton, night-life capital of the South Coast Conurbation...


eeyorn said...

I've learnt to forswear drink for the most part these days. Not because I don't enjoy good beers, wines and malts, but because I tend to overindulge once I start, with often embarassing consequences.

I too mourn the loss of the'social' pubs, but am glad to report that we still manage to get a music session/sing song going at the end of a Stevenage Sword Dance tour,our most recent at the 'Pig and Whistle' at Aston which I'm sure you remember with fond memories.

The Morris dance side where I first started to sing regularly included 'Delilah' as one of their party pieces, while another member of the side was very knowledgeable on all of the old Cockney songs.

However, 'Daisy, Daisy/I'm forever blowing bubbles' and 'The day the Old Dun Cow caught fire' were our popular choices on any given session.

Mike C. said...

Good grief... So how long have you been ... a morris dancer, eeyorn??


Gavin McL said...

I remember being alarmed for the health of a family friend when I overheard my parents discussing how he had "given up drinking" I had just learnt at school that you could only survive for a few days without liquids. My parents then explained what they really meant - not of course that I really understood.
I was an enthusiastic drinker for many years but after a year off the booze as a result of ill health (not related to alcohol, the drugs didn't mix well with alcohol) I found, like you Mike, that the after effects, even after a pint, became so unpleasant as to render it no pleasure at all. So after 20 years or so I called it quits.
I still go to pubs, buy drinks for others, serve it at home but I really can't face it anymore. I do miss the taste, a well brewed beer is one of Britain's better gifts to the world and a whiff of a good red wine or a fine whiskey does tempt me occasionally but the thought of crashing hangover is enough to put me off.
One thing that did surprise me though was the reaction of the medical profession. I have to have a medical every two years because of my work and when I tell the quack that I'm teetotal, rather than "well done old chap". The eyebrows rise and the response is "oh and why's that"
You can never keep them happy.
Oh and if you want to know what Cardiff is like, Try this

Off for a nice cuppa


eeyorn said...

Mike, I no longer dance the morris as my knee ligaments got shot, but did it for about 25 years.The sword dance side performs dances that come from the coal mining villages around Newcastle and I've been a member for 35 years and counting.

Mike C. said...


I find a good single malt still does me no great damage, but unfortunately lack a sense of smell, so don't get the full benefit. However, two glasses of red wine means a week off work (and black teeth)...

I was only being a bit ironic about Soton -- many of those Cardiff pictures could easily have been made here. It's mayhem in the early hours of weekend nights (the owner of my favourite camera shop was complaining about the dents in the bonnet, roof and boot of his car from people running over it and jumping from car to car).

Interestingly, most of my son's more party-oriented friends chose to go to Cardiff Uni...


Mike C. said...


I used to work at Bristol Uni with Paul Woods, longtime Bagman of the Bristol Morrismen -- did you ever encounter Paul? He was an acquired taste... Now I look him up, I discover he died last year. Darn.


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

" a well brewed beer is one of Britain's better gifts to the world"

Thank you, Britain!

eeyorn said...

Only just caught up with this thread. Yes I knew Paul Woods very well as a cyber-friend and met him a couple of times out dancing. He seemed a really nice guy. Was apparently very good friends with Shirley Collins, as well as being an avid RT fan.