An almost unheard-of Friday update for us here at The London Bluebird but Tom Phillip’s definitive ranking of London tube lines drew a large Friday grin from us here at Bluebird Towers this morning. You can see it here:
Of all the months to go dry – and there are a dozen to choose from – only the perverse go for January. The reasons are made apparent by our climate and our own financial imperatives : tax bills, credit card bills filled with nonentities from Christmas, dreary rain splattered socks that clump into the front door at a dark and intolerant 6.35pm, clouds, frizzy hair and a lack of the green stuff characterise this most disgustingly Puritan of months. The only recourse to leisure that many of us can afford at this time of year is a very dry, very cold, crisp Gordons & Tonic sipped in the loveliest of hottest baths. Even this – dearest Londoners – the Puritan begrudgers wish to take away from us. Even this. If you want to select a 30 day period to drop the alcohol, select a kinder month. July is simply the best. September runs her a close, pretty-leafed second. But at this time of year we need all the props we can get. And London excels in the vintage art of getting mullered.
Now, let’s be clear : here at The London Bluebird we are not talking about out and out addiction, or serious ethanol abuse. We are talking about the invigorating effects of a aperatif or two. The way the parachute of the conscience gently floats down after a hard day’s graft with a heartening sip of Chablis, the fizz and buckle and spit of a giddy tonic water and the Nordic, slightly sweet tangy Gin flavour as it flows in dainty ripples over the tonsils and the gushy of lemony hope that is a mouthful of champagne. We are talking about this mood-enhancing drug as just that – an enhancer. However, to those of us who believe we actually live in a vibrantly multi-religious, sort of secular, sort of “well there might be something up there but I don’t know. All I know is I love a Christmas carol” nation, be wary : there a few things more illuminating to the English moral view than its tidy and sick making thoughts on tipsyness. Because the over-riding dominant culture of England is represented by an innate suspicion and a disapproval of anything associated with bodily pleasure.
Over at The Guardian, we’re getting conflicted articles about whether temporary “dry” lifestyles are counter-productive and dull as last January’s dishwater (see the wonderful Eva Wiseman’s column : http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jan/19/giving-up-dry-january-eva-wiseman) or whether we should be supportive of those pillars of Puritan abstinence (see Lea Emery’s somewhat tooth-sucking article about how Americans think we’re all half-bladdered, vodka imbibing maniacs : http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/21/giving-up-alcohol-for-year). Our society is embedded with drink and we are confused and exacerbated by the way we are meant to feel about it. If you Google the word “Alcohol” you don’t get chemical information on its various components, as you would if you Googled “quinine”, or “lemonade” or “leprechauns”. It assumes you have a massive problem. It assumes you don’t want to find out anything about alcohol, except possibly a way to stop imbibing it. It assumes we are all crying for help. “Stop drinking”, “What are you thinking when you’re drinking” “Don’t you know what a unit is you clump” and “I think you’re an alki” tend to be the top four websites. Like pregnancy, that great biological phenomenon which would hardly exist if people weren’t unrelentingly mashed off their faces to start with, when it comes to alcohol intake everyone’s an expert.
What has happened in our culture is odd. As we veer haphazardly through modern life, our ability to live in the moment becomes severely handicapped by the monstrous technical disturbances and social miseries of every day life. Off we go, hurtling through that dust ridden tunnel on the District Line, fiendishly tapping our Waitrose shopping lists for later into the “Notes” app on our iPhones like some desperate, sullen Morse code. This shift in failing to enjoy each moment seems to have gone hand in hand in Britain with a vast talent we have tapped in the last generation or so for caning it. Never before the 1990s did the gutters of England become quite so congested with medical secretaries thighs rippling and falling into them having got munted on Vodka Red Bulls and AfterShocks. But here’s the problem : in order to enjoy the physical and spiritual effects of ethanol, you have to live in the moment. You can’t get drunk if you are stressed about the morning hangover that will follow, as the object has been resoundingly defeated. Getting pissed / pixellated / tipsy / bladdered has been something we’ve done for approximately 10,000 years, ever since those first hunter gatherers returned from a hard day of animal slaying to be met by Wilma Flintstone standing at the cave entrance in a cardi made entirely from antelope’s testicles holding out a Slippery Nipple. And that doesn’t look likely to change.
Now, a distilled beverage are our spirits – our 40%-ers. Gin, vodka, whiskey, brandy and tequila being the main 5. A fermented beverage is produced either from grain mash (beers) or grapes (wine). With distilled beverages, the alcohol is concentrated and congeners are removed – and I believe that congeners is where the worst problems lie with the morning after. Some of you would have been subject to having to listen to the most appalling old wives tales since infancy “You can get AIDS from cats” or “Tuesday usually comes after Monday”. One of the silliest is “The darker the drink, the worse the hangover”. Clearly, this seems barmy. The more you drink the worse the hangover, should be more accurate. But this does come from a kernel of truth : Congeners are a collection of chemicals that can contain other alcohols, and include acetone, acetaldehyde, esters and propanol. Wine contains higher levels of them than spirits, and some believe that the hangover is worse if you down a bottle of something that contains higher levels of congeners. This goes some way to explain my own inner chemical workings, which operate around the simple truth that if I drink half a bottle of red wine I want to weep all the way through the following day, but I can have four spirit based drinks, guzzle them back, go to sleep and wake up nearly fresh as a daisy. In other words, spirits help you do what none of our hand-clenching, Protestant moral policeman wants. The spirits help. You. Get. Away. With. It. Not completely – but it does go a fair way. In short, you are allowed the euphoria without the misery which we feel, as guilty imbibers of the grain, that we need to experience for some sort of Victorian moral redemption.
In Plato’s Symposium the revellers placed their drinking firmly in a moral framework, conscious of the physical, spiritual and moral implications of alcohol, although it is key to remember that they did this specifically because they were hungover to start with. Their intentions did win through – moderate drinking characterised the following night for them (that and the lovely stripper brought in from Mykonos) but it smacks of the “oh, never again” sentiment that classifies those post-drunk mornings paved with good intentions. The intentions vanish when the hangover clears up. It is unfortunate that human nature is like that. But it seems we’ve been struggling to situate our drinking within a morally acceptable dimension ever since Plato. Herodotus suggested that the Persians hit on a magnificent system : each political debate had to take place twice, once whilst everyone was drunk and once again when they had all sobered up, therefore relying on a full expression of the self. The results were then collected and weighed up. The Roman historian Tacitus stated that the Germans always drank whilst holding councils as they didn’t believe anyone could lie effectively whilst being drunk. The Romans, of course, left us with our best known phrase about the 3am dark truth of the soul : “In vino veritas” (In wine, truth), and this is a very peculiar phenomenon. As if the sober mind cannot see the wood for the trees, alcohol distils not only the grain, but the perceptive muscle. We’ve all had that sneaky Chablis epiphany. It comes in waves, and it’s not altogether to be dismissed that it comes only late at night. But the truth, singed and tinged with old slices of lemon and found at the bottom of sticky glasses, will always come to you at some point. The most brilliant recent case in point of shards of truth and perception coming crashing through Gordons and tonics was Caitlin Moran’s drunken New Year’s Eve advice to women this year, all of which was bang on the nose, and which I have referred to several times : http://www.cosmopolitan.co.uk/_mobile/celebs/entertainment/caitlin-moran-advice-to-women
The glaringly efficient muscles of the day time consciousness don’t allow it to transcend oer your brain but if you’re slightly raddled and chemically compromised, it’s hardly surprising that the revelations come. It’s not just the Romans who told us this either. Take a gander at:
Russian : Что у трезвого на уме, то у пьяного на языке» (“What a sober man has in his mind, the drunk one has on his tongue”).
The Babylonian Talmud : “נכנס יין יצא סוד”, ( “Wine enters, secrets exit”).
Persian : مستی و راستی (“With drunkenness comes the truth”).
This, of course, all fails to take into account whether the truth is what anybody actually wants to hear, when it’s 3am, The Best of The Pet Shop Boys is bleating electronicially from someone’s iPad, the couple shouting in the kitchen have just agreed to a divorce in a very lively fashion and you are working out whether a minicab will, once you have located your other shoe, come out to collect you from Herne Hill.
I am not, dearest Londoners, all advocating we blindly career into the streets for a Dickensian Dog’s Nose (warm beer, cold beer and gin) nor that we should make January decidedly wet and hungover. I am simply questioning the purpose of absolute abstinence for your brain or your soul, and suggesting we shave off the edges of our evenings with a civil imbibing session – for, if this was your last month on the planet you wouldn’t seriously expect to spend it sipping rhubarb and dead man’s pants tea whilst being scared of the scales cowering under the bathroom sink, would you? Dear Londoners – eat, drink and make merry. And take this closing advice from Yeats:
The Freedom of the City of London is one of the oldest surviving ceremonies, dating back to 1237,. Among its privileges were the right to a walk the streets with a drawn sword or be hung with a silken rope. The list of recipients contains no unifying characteristic – William Booth has received this illustrious Freedom, but so has Jimmy Choo. Joseph Chamberlain received it, but so did Luciano Pavarotti, who I imagine was deeply comforted by such privileges as enjoying “the right to be drunk and disorderly in the Square Mile without fear of arrest” and an “exemption from being press ganged” although I consider it unlikely that anyone would have wanted him on their ship anyway because he’d sink it the minute he arrived on board. Someone, clearly drunk, saw fit to give it to Annie Lennox. Now it is the turn of Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, who stars in pantomime every year in Britain, and who has been granted this bizarre, outdated honour due to the work he has done with children with learning difficulties here in London.
However, the idea of being a Freeman (which rendered the person free from medieval serfdom) is not any longer imbibed with any meaning. Any medieval privileges that the title may have inferred are now obsolete. It is therefore nothing more than a symbolic “Freedom”. Not even the kind of Freedom that George Michael sung about. Not even the Freedom of the Road that Nelson Mandela’s life story was about. Nada. No longer can the Fonz drive his cattle and sheep over the bridge on his daily route to Smithfield Market. Nor can he any longer have the right to walk around with his naked sword drawn in the City of London. No longer is he, as a Freeman, in possession of the right to get married in St Paul’s Cathedral. So entrenched and restricted was UK democracy before the 1832 Reform Bill, that gaining “Freeman” status meant you reached the heady civic heights of actually having a right to vote, and be exempt from the tolls and charges that the City used to have over all its bridges. As the current Freeman status has no literal meaning, the UK did what it remains good at to reinstate the law as a symbolic one – it wasted time creating an Act of Parliament. The 1972 Local Government Act established honorary Freemen status to “persons of distinction and persons who have, in the opinion of the council, rendered eminent services” to the local area. This has not been adhered to by the City of Salford, however, as it gave The Freedom of the City to Ryan Giggs in 2010, as clearly the Aldermen of Salford are not aware that sexual incontinence is not considered an “eminent service” to the local community – or even to your own sister in law.
But what is the point of bestowing an archiac honour that is ripe with meaning but low on practicalities? Why does it mean anything to our civic lives? Well, the Freedom of the City is the only honour that a local authority can bestow. The only other authority who can bestow honours is The Queen. Although the Queen’s honour lists are highly policed (I imagine. I don’t know. My hotline to the Palace was closed down since I made those calls to Prince Andrew) by the civil service and a whole host of doers, and thinkers, and advisors and counsels, the Queen’s honours is not a democratic process. Bestowing The Freedom of The City onto the Fonz, however, would have been : council majority must be won by whatever local authority is proposing any contender for The Freedom of the City. The only obsolete privilege of a Freeman of the City which is occasionally resurrected for publicity or raising the profile of a charity has been driving sheep or lamb across London’s bridges. This has been done seven times in the last fifteen years by Freemen of the City who were keen to draw attention to a number of causes, from Help the Aged to publicising the start of London Architecture Week. The City Police are not keen on this, but yet they allow it as an occasional treat. In Millenium Year, Sir Clive Martin arranged for a professional sheep drive across London Bridge, subjecting the sheep to a high quality pamper first including blow drying their hair and polishing their hooves. The sheep were then dressed in bright yellow bibs prior to their moment of fame. Strangely enough, the certificate of Freedom of the City is still produced by the court calligrapher on sheepskin parchment. I can only hope the sheep was not a cast member from the 2000 sheep drive.
I’m going to stop bleating on about sheep. The only Freedom of the City for London that still exists is access to the Freemen School without a fee, and the right for the widow of a Freeman to live in the Freeman’s Almshouses, should she so desire. Of course, the Fonzie doesn’t have the right to vote, as he is not a UK resident, and I would suggest that annual appearances in Hampshire pantomimes may serve to keep him safe from the charitable almshouse door. Until 1996 you had to be a UK resident in order to have the Freedom of The City of London granted to you at all. But in the late 1990s they just went mental and opened it up to anyone Tom Dick or Harry that fancies his / her slice of our gay metropolitan freedoms. Fonzie is not real. He exists in the baby blue and pink coloured 1950s jukebox of our collective teenage imaginations. I for one am delighted that the City of London is open to him, as he had such a beneficial effect on all our childhoods. He was the Cool Man, atop his throne in Planet Cool. We as Londoners are proud as punch to have him.
Should the Freeman of the City be lucky enough to have his application accepted, he will be granted an audience with the Chamberlain’s Court Beadle. This is always a problem in England, because as soon as anyone hears the word “beadle” in London they feel compelled to sing the entire score of the musical “Oliver!” ending in a rousing rendition of Mr Bumble, the Beadle’s “Boy for Sale”. This is a song that is a bit like “Love for Sale” but it is about a boy. The Chamberlain’s Court Beadle then presents the happy recipient of the Freedom of the City to a terrifying man in tights who is called The Clerk of the Chamberlain’s Court. Then the applicant of the Freedom of The City must recite the following load of stuff. But wait! It isn’t about the City! It’s about the Queen!
I do solemnly declare that I will be good and true to our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second; that I will be obedient to the Mayor of this City; that I will maintain the franchises and customs thereof, and will keep this City harmless, in that which in me is; that I will also keep the Queen’s peace in my own person; that I will know no gatherings nor conspiracies made against the Queen’s peace, but I will warn the Mayor thereof, or hinder it to my power; and that all these points and articles I will well and truly keep, according to the laws and customs of this City, to my power.
Non British and British Commonwealth Citizens have the option to substitute “our Sovereign Lady” with “Her Majesty”.
I mean it’s a bit of a mouthful isn’t it? And it’s all about being obedient to Boris Johnson, and keeping tradition with our customs etc, but it’s a bit low to assume said applicant wants to blow the Queen up (“conspiracies made against the Queen’s peace) or start a war. Oh. Hang on. They actually gave The Freedom of The City to Lord Kitchener in 1898. Whoops. So, what does this mean? You are legally obliged to warn the Mayor if shit is going down to risk the Queen’s peace? This is not an empty symbolic role about sheep! This is someone playing an intricate part in the great court of our constitutional monarchy! The way I understand it is this: If stuff is happening that isn’t good and that is going to blow Parliament up it’s up to Henry “The Fonz” Winkler to detect it, with Annie Lennox as his second in command, arrange an audience with the Mayor and inform him of said plot against Queen in due course. Right. We can all rest easy then. Happy Days.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday January 23rd!