It feels kind of embarrassing to say, ‘yes, I enjoy drinking, actually’. To state it as a fact, no qualifications or caveats. It feels a bit dirty, a tiny bit shameful. We’re not supposed to just straight-up like it. We’re supposed to water down our desires like whisky, put limits on our appetites.
Drinking seems to be written into our national psyche – witness the Prime Minister calling it our ‘patriotic duty’ to go to the pub only yesterday – and it’s hardly going out on a limb to say the British relationship with alcohol can be fairly dysfunctional. It almost feels remiss to write about alcohol without acknowledging how harmful it can be. Sometimes I consider my own relationship with it – I don’t think it’s any worse than that of the average drinker, I can very easily not drink. (And yet even typing that feels a bit defensive – I don’t have a problem, I’m sober right now! Yes, I know I’m typing this at 12:58pm!) It’s never about being drunk; I simply like drinking in the same way I like eating – it’s nice to try different things, to have options.
The image of the alcoholic writer/artist – the shambolic genius, hopeless at life away from his keyboard, and it is usually ‘his’ keyboard – lingers in our collective imagination, I think because that contradiction is so fascinating. One of my all-time favourite books is The Trip To Echo Spring, in which Olivia Laing examines how the careers of Hemingway, Carver, Berryman and a few others interacted with their dependence on alcohol. Addiction is messy, sad, complex, infuriating if you don’t understand it, and heartbreaking – and when people in the grip of it manage to create beautiful work, it’s a riddle we want to solve.
You have to look harder to find the stories of female writers with drinking problems, even though they are arguably more interesting than the men, given how the burden of care-giving has historically fallen on women. It’s more shameful if you’re a woman, apparently. You’re supposed to be capable, competent, always in control – how dare you demonstrably not cope?! I think about the women who’ve turned to alcohol – professionally brilliant, personally troubled – from Dorothy Parker to Jean Rhys to Marie Colvin. ‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad she at it she was’, wrote Diana Athill in her memoir Stet, and honestly, I think there’s a certain boldness in being a woman who’s bad at life. In her own memoir, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison writes: ‘Addiction doesn’t surprise me. It seems more surprising that some people aren’t addicted to anything’ and I know exactly where she’s coming from.
But drinking can just be fun. Its sweet spots are many and varied – the first sip of a fridge-cold beer on a hot day, the pop of a champagne cork on special occasions, the velvety red wine with a Sunday roast, the sweet-sharp-sour hit of an exquisitely-made cocktail. Some of the very worst moments of my life have involved alcohol, undoubtedly, but some of my most preciously-held and treasured memories have too.
I learnt to drink in village pubs; I had a Saturday job at a farm and adventure park, and most of my colleagues were a similar age. We had a choice of two pubs: one at one end of the lane, which was old-mannish but its staff rarely checked IDs, and one at the other, which was nicer, but sadly more conscious of the law. At 17, my drink of choice was vodka and Diet Coke, because it tasted mainly of Diet Coke. Often, our nights would end with shots, always Sambuca, which you’d have to serve with a fifty-pound note to get me to drink now. But I remain someone who, in the right circumstances – you know, when the ringleader of your drinking party gets that glint in their eye – will joyfully neck a shot. Ideally tequila – I like the ritual of it: the salt, the burn, the lime.
I think the next thing I drank was white wine – my grandmother was pragmatic, taking the view that teenagers should be allowed to have half a glass of something now and again to take the mystery out of it. But I fell out of love with it a few years ago, having drunk too much cheap Pinot Grigio. And I read an interview with Felicity Kendal in which she said she avoided it because it made her face puffy, and well, I look like a Cabbage Patch Kid as it is. But it’s crept back into my evenings in the last year or so, as has its slightly better-behaved sister, the spritzer. But both white wine and spritzers spell mischief; you can never have just one. It’s always three minimum, and if you’re not careful, your night ends on someone’s front steps, smoking, and exorcising demons. And by exorcising demons, I mean sharing stories of the careless things done to you by others’ clumsy hearts and hands. In my early twenties, when I’d made fewer mistakes, the worst thing about white wine was the hangover. Now the worst thing about it is the way it’s a liquid confessional.
Even worse than white wine is Prosecco. Yes, the first acidic mouthful of bubbles tastes like pure distilled delight, but really it’s your first step into a chaotic descent. If your night is set to include more than one glass of the stuff, here’s what you should do. Throw your keys down a drain, chuck your purse and bag into the nearest hedge, and lie down on your bathroom floor. It will save you time later. Prosecco hangovers feel terminal. If you must drink cheap fizz (and you must, because life is short and we deserve fun things that don’t cost the earth), buy crémant.
Beer is one of the less ruinous drinks, as a rule. It’s the true social lubricant, beer – easy to drink with slow-creeping effects. Wine bashes down the door and cackles, ‘you’re drunk and stupid now, I’ve sent your dignity home’ while beer just gently blurs you into silliness. Unless of course you haven’t eaten dinner, in which case, you come to on your sofa at 2.30am, make-up a smeary memory, ash-mouthed, your pockets full of crisps.
If you’re drinking with someone who says they’re ‘into craft beer’ there is only one thing you need to say: ‘ooh, this is nice. Quite hoppy, but very drinkable’.
Gin and tonic will always be Granny’s drink, though she wasn’t much of a drinker, really. The occasional glass of white wine with lunch or supper, maybe a small shandy in the summer. But it’s the memory of the Gordon’s bottle in the Welsh dresser in the kitchen that endures. Sometimes it was Bombay Sapphire, and I remember hoping the gin itself would be blue. Always Schweppes tonic water, always. Granny would get me to make her a drink: ‘this much gin, and this much tonic, and two ice cubes’. I’d sip it before I passed it to her, and reliably found it utterly unspeakable. And then one day I liked the taste and started making them for myself, but she wasn’t around to tell.
At Christmas, her younger brother would come down from Norfolk and at the end of Christmas Day, when the rest of us had exhausted ourselves on roast potatoes and Scrabble and Quality Street, they’d be in the kitchen arguing about politics over G&Ts and cold turkey sandwiches. No, if I learnt to drink anywhere, actually, it was there at that table, long before I actually drank anything stronger than squash.
I’m learning to like whisky, and succeeding. ‘Are you doing this to impress a boy?’ asked a friend, not unreasonably. But no, I’m not; I simply got bored of what I was drinking last autumn and wanted to try something new. A project of a drink. Prior to this, however, the only time I’ve touched the stuff has been to impress a boy. One night, years ago, in Belfast, I drank it on the steps of an abandoned house with someone I’d met only hours earlier and never saw again after that night. He could recite Shakespeare like times tables, but looking back, I was lucky to make it home alive. What a vignette though.
Back here in 2020, I now know there’s something satisfying in having to learn to like a thing, in waiting for it to reveal its sweetness, its secrets. But I can’t pretend it’s not entertaining – feeling like you’re jumping the fence into a space where men have declared themselves the gatekeepers. Beware the man who makes a show of being impressed when you order a whisky; they will be insufferable in other ways too.
There’s danger in romanticising alcohol, but we should also be realistic. There are delicious moments to be had: clinking glasses when you and a friend reunite after months apart, the words ‘oh, let’s just get a bottle’, the kisses that wouldn’t have happened sober, explaining your pet crackpot theories in a beer garden as the daylight fades, telling your worst secret after the third glass of wine and hearing ‘oh yeah, babe, me too’. Here’s to those times.
The morning after requires: sparkling water, paracetamol, Radio 4, and toast when you can face it.