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: