The afternoon drinkers on George Street here in Hove are a rum lot, a glorious mix of ages and gender, most seemingly down on their luck, others lost in their personal reverie. Makes me sieve the memories of my own life and my relationship with alcohol and other drugs ….. although I am certainly not ‘down on my luck’ and probably never have been!
At one point in my teenage days, I vowed not to drink ….. but that didn’t last long. After ‘prep’ at boarding school one evening, we went off on bikes to The Owl, probably the smallest, grottiest village pub imaginable. I should add here that ‘pubs’ were out of bounds! My chums suggested a half pint of the basic draught beer, probably Wadsworths from the local brewery. I remember lifting it to my lips; bitter, watery, my face wrinkles even now at the thought of it. Somehow I drank it, not relishing the taste. And then I was persuaded to have another! Didn’t take much for my vow to lie shattered on the straw-strewn floor. Besides, alcohol plays a huge part of the fabric of our Western society, a lubricant for work, love and play, so why not just do what’s expected?
And everyone smoked!! Silk Cut, Passing Cloud, Gauloise, B&H, Dunhill, Marlborough; you name it, I probably smoked it! My grandparents lived in Bath and on a day off school I would take the bus to see them. My grandfather smoked unfiltered cigarettes and the ash would drop onto his waistcoat; the butts went into the wastepaper basket and then Granny, before retiring for the night, poured in some water to ensure there were no live embers!!! Once, on my way back to school on the Sunday evening, I got off the bus in Devizes to stretch my legs, with a cigarette in my mouth. Down the steps, straight into one of the school prefects! Oops! That earned me 6 strokes of the cane and much street cred! We got rather blasé about it as we got more senior. Ray and I would have a cigarette after breakfast ……. and then go off to the Applied Maths lesson; it took Mr Hiscock the teacher to remind us that cigarette smoke sticks to both breath and clothing!
At home as a family, my parents, brother and I would watch Saturday night television – smoking; on some occasions you could hardly see the screen through all the smoke! And to think it was permissible to smoke on the London Underground, on aeroplanes and in the cinema; I think we’ve moved in the right direction here, banning it from all public places! You remember that wonderful Nina Simone song “Don’t smoke in bed!”? Well, I think I used to start and finish the day with a cigarette; such is the addiction, the craving for nicotine. There were long periods in my life when I didn’t smoke and long periods when I did, but I had my last cigarette in 1994, well on Tuesday 21st April at 9pm if you were wondering! Do I miss it? Sometimes, if I’m honest, yet smelling second-hand smoke is …. revolting!
Attitudes to alcohol and other drugs in the British Army simply reflected what was going on in civilian life, although thankfully the use of drugs other than nicotine, soft or hard, was rare. We smoked and we drank, both often to excess. My step-father gave me a silver cigarette case when I graduated from The Royal Military Academy; I still have it ……. and his father’s pewter hip flask circa 1890. I was posted to Germany, to a small town called Lippstadt, to help deter the Russians, for the Cold War was at its height. The hip flask came into its own filled with ‘ferrets’, a 50/50 mix of brandy and cherry brandy, on the bare-arsed live-firing ranges of Bergen-Hohne when the temperature dropped to minus 10 deg C.
We drank at lunchtime and in the evening. We ate in dinner jackets once a week and had formal ‘dinner nights’ once a month; we drank, often to excess! In the old Luftwaffe Officers Mess where we single officers lived, there was an interesting addition to the fittings in the ‘Gentlemen’s’. Made of good quality porcelain were two objects which looked like urinals, but were in fact receptacles for …… vomit! Yes! Truly; complete with long vertical side bars, brass and polished daily, to grip on to. Can you imagine? Even today I think how simply awful …… but so practical if alcohol had got the better of you! By the way, I don’t want to give the impression that we were always pissed! When we were out of barracks training, often for weeks on end, we were dry! We simply worked hard and played hard!
When I first started giving blood, the National Blood Transfusion service offered tea & biscuits afterwards; and still does I guess. But men were also asked whether they would like a bottle of Guinness, on the basis that this famous Irish stout would replace some of the iron that was contained in your donated pint of blood. Seemed madness to say ‘no’! So The State encouraged you to drink!
Not a great fan of beer, I developed a taste for wine, which when I was growing up was still a bit of a celebratory drink. The white wines were dominated by Liebfraumilch and Black Tower, cheap German imports – about the only good thing about them, in my opinion, was the name! I loved red wine, the gutsier the better. In my youth it was generally French although you could get decent German reds if you happened to be in that country. Gradually wine from the Antipodes made its way to England and Shiraz and Grenache became a favourite tipple. It was fine to drink as the advice at the time was “Red wine is good for you!”
Sailing and drinking seemed to go together too. There was one occasion when my hired yacht was tied up alongside a German one in the port of Soenderborg in Denmark; the crew had gone ashore – probably for a drink! The skipper of the German one asked whether I wanted to join him for a gin; my mind immediately imagined good gin, lovely tonic, a slice of lemon and lots of ice. Belong decks he opened a bottle of Gordon’s, and poured a generous amount into a glass …… and that was it; after a while neat gin isn’t that bad, but it does give you a headache!
I won’t recount how we felt the following morning after a few of us tried every drink on the bar list of the local teachers’ mess; or tell you at what time I had a first beer at the start of a yacht race in The Baltic. I will however offer my rather untutored observation after a Wine/Food Tasting event ……. that dessert wine will go with any type of food and I’ll advise you against drinking too much Pimms, with little lemonade and in strong sunshine.
Twelve years ago, I completed an ordinary detox of food and drink for the month of January; you know the sort of thing, no red meat, chicken, coffee, alcohol, wheat etc. Being quite an obsessive character, for me it’s often all or nothing. I couldn’t, for instance, just have one cigarette a day or a week, as some people can; it’s nothing or 20. I recognised that this was almost the case with alcohol. Was there a day in the week when I didn’t have a glass of wine with supper? Or could I not really remember??!! Ha! Ha! So whilst I happily went back to drinking coffee and eating red meat, I sort of delayed drinking alcohol again. And that’s where I am today, looking for good non-alcoholic beers, and there are some, and coping in a society where it’s normal to drink. “Still not drinking then?” the husband of a friend asks. “No!” “Oh! Go on, just one won’t hurt!” For some drinkers it’s impossible to see that you can survive without alcohol, for it makes us more relaxed, less inhibited, so surely you would, wouldn’t you?
There was a discussion on the radio about alcohol some time ago and someone suggested that 99.9% of all human relationships in our Western culture generally started over a bottle of wine or a pint of beer. Celina and I had our first supper almost three years ago; she had some wine, I had some water. Someone said one drinks alcohol to make other people more interesting!! If this is the case, I leave you to draw your own conclusions!
Richard Yates – email@example.com