A Winding, Wine-Soaked Ramble on Alcohol

Guernsey Rum and Navy Rum

Driving my Grandad AKA Grandshag AKA Harry Shaggas about on our hedge veg run, we passed some derelict greenhouses.

“It’s a shame”, Grandshag says, looking at the overgrown vegetation filling out the glassless skeletons, himself a grower of tomatoes in such enclosures many moons ago.

“Well”, I reply. “There’s a local business called the Juggling King Rum Company that’s been growing sugarcane in Guernsey greenhouses and making rum out of it.”

I add, “Probably not as strong as the stuff you drank in the navy, though!”

“The rum we were rationed was 60%”, Grandshag tells me.

“We would get a tot of rum a day, but most of us kept it until the weekend, then we would have half a litre of the stuff. I took the wheel coming out of port once, and I couldn’t see anything. We were blind drunk!”

It’s kind of unimaginable, to we of this generation, that men would put these massive merchant naval ships to sail, all the while getting sloshed off state-provided rum, and smoking state-provided tobacco for that matter.

Drinking: Different Corporate Cultures

A former employer of mine informed its staff that we were not allowed alcohol on lunch. Not even a pint!

This privilege may have been provoked pursuant to the drinking bouts a colleague and I would engage in at 4pm on Fridays, when the company courteously provided beers to the office for “one at the desk”.

My colleague and I would email precise times to each other. “4.12pm?”

And the second the clock hit that time, we would swivel round on our desk-chairs, make eye-contact with our brimming pints in hand, and chug them in one go, swivelling back to our screens without a word uttered, trying to burp silently.

So a pint was forbidden on lunch, and perhaps for good reason.

Though when I went to the British colonial outpost of Gibraltar on business, I am sure having lunch without a pint was forbidden.

My first day in the office, after working a poxy couple of hours, I was invited “for lunch” in the miniature pub round the corner, where we drank and smoked and gambled until the afternoon, returning to work for a symbolic and stupendously unproductive hour or so afterwards.

Drinking: Different National Cultures

The British have booze in their blood, drinking it by the bucketload for centuries past.

And not like the cultured quaffs of the Mediterranean, temperately drinking moderate amounts of red wine, and only with food.

My Italian friend informed me that being “drunk” has a negative connotation in his culture.

Drunkenness is unbecoming, and although he and his friends may be “tipsy” when eating and drinking together, it is a minor side-effect of socialising, rather than the sought-after effect of drinking.

After my friends and I attempted a civilised meal last week, I sent a video of the ensuing pandemonium to this Italian Stallion, who replied, “That’s what we Italians call the United Kingdom, Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories”.

I must add that the Italian Stallion can and does drink prodigious quantities of all alcohols, though. He once woke me up at dawn by singing a Muslim call to prayer, before promptly pouring us two shots of firewater. I am honoured to have earned alongside him the title, Balsampoiki, the Balsam Boys.

Anglo-Saxons: Age-Old Soaks

Brits will guzzle and swill often undrinkable alcoholic drinks more proudly and more coarsely than these romantic Romans, with the explicit or heavily-implied intention of getting drunk, plastered, twatted, trolleyed, sloshed, smashed.

Yet for most of the last millennium, drunkenness would have mostly been considered a side-effect for the British, too, and for quite necessary reasons.

Potable water wasn’t widely available, beer being one of few beverages one could drink without fear of falling terribly ill, and promptly expelling far more fluids than one had dared to drink.

In all seriousness, with all things considered: back in the day, beer was a health drink. It was drunk by everyone – peasants, priests, men, women, children – and was the unquestioned norm. The only involuntary expulsions that occurred were when someone drank immoderate amounts beer, and unlike cholera were mostly non-fatal, requiring fresh sheets rather than last rites.

Brits drank beer with breakfast, a trend my Dad tells me was retained by some of our Anglo-Saxon cousins in South Germany in the 1970s. The first thing to address upon opening a building site was, of course, the fridge.

This historic dedication to beer is partly the reason why we humans of a certain European ancestry have the ignoble ability to drink in amounts that would stun humans from other less sodden parts of the globe.

Muslims: “Strictly” Sober

I visited Morocco some years ago, an astonishing beautiful country, and also a “dry” country, being predominantly Muslim.

I did try the ‘Moroccan whiskey’, indeed I drank it every morning, noon and night. It was made with fresh mint leaves, brewed in boiled water, to which is added a bloody iceberg of white sugar.

Moroccan whiskey always left me markedly sober, and with a thick, sticky film on my teeth from the sugar. As you sip the sweet tea you realise why the Moroccan men smoke so much hashish, and why they rarely have any front teeth.

An amiable and wonderfully hospitable Moroccan man, Abdelatif, took me to meet his in-laws, an hour’s drive from Marrakech, just a few miles south of the arse-end of nowhere, a tiny desert village of a few families, surrounded by rocky mountains, from whose peaks one can glimpse other such tiny villages in the distance.

Once evening, in a tiny room in this tiny village, filled with flies and several portly Moroccan gentlemen, each exhaling hash smoke in their turn, Abdelatif excitedly tells me that So-and-So across the room, “Likes to drink beer”. The solemn, knowing nod was cute, telling me that it was not only forbidden and frowned upon, but kind of dangerous and cool.

And to think, my ancestor’s children were probably told at breakfast time, “You are not allowed out to play until you have finished your beer!”

Abdelatif, bless his toothless heart, did drink one day of my visit. He was upset by some bad news about his terminally ill sister, and he took to drinking moonshine vodka.

Offered, I politely and gladly had a tipple with him. It sent me sideways, I think partly due to the questionable quality of the booze and partly due to the merciless heat of Morocco.

Having had but one beer in ten days in Morocco, I asked if I misinterpreted that the country was “dry”.

Abdelatif told me, if he was caught drinking, “I would be beaten in the streets!” He was prone to exaggeration, but I believe him.

Though some Muslims drink only by cover of night, ‘when Allah isn’t looking’, it seems the threat of other Muslims looking poses a bigger problem. And Abdelatif was a devout believer. He even asking me to send him some Christian prayers, such was his devotion to and belief in something bigger and more important than himself, he just wanted another credible angle from which to worship It.

Fighting the Spirit of Alcohol or Demon Drink

The word alcohol itself is derived from the Arabic al-ghawl (think ghoul, as in ghost), meaning a spirit or demon that induces intoxication.

Hence, alcohol; hence, spirits; hence, the demon drink.

On the whole, it is understandable that the Muslims admonish alcohol.

I cannot bear to imagine Abdelatif’s reaction if he could bear witness to St Peter Port on a Friday or Saturday evening, still less for him to know how often I participated in the melee. To a person from any culture seeing that sight, the idea of an intoxicating spirit taking possession of people sounds less woo-woo and looks more believable.

The British have not remained drunkenly unaware of the fact that alcohol can possess and derange people en masse. Indeed, 400 years ago this was legally acknowledged in the enactment of the 1606 ‘The Act to Repress the Odious and Loathsome Sin of Drunkenness’. Yet, with kids quaffing beer at breakfast, laws can only outlaw the spirit of alcohol, not the alcohol itself.

In this period, the first temperance societies were formed in Britain and Anglo-Saxondom, attempting to make the drinking of oneself into stupor both unfashionable and impious. Sinful, even.

In one stupendous pact of near-abstinence, the members of a 17th century temperance society in Hesse, Germany, courageously swore to limit themselves to a meagre 7 glasses of wine per meal, and still further, limit themselves to only two such sessions a day.

One can only imagine the consumption considered normal before these restrictions.

The effects of beer and wine paled in comparison to those made in the following century. With the advent of distillation came the widespread distribution of super-strong spirits, the real demon drink.

For 18th century Britain, gin was the spirit of the times, leading to an ignoble period of British history known as The Gin Craze.

Prohibition: Exorcising the Evil of Alcohol and Cannabis

Predictably, and with good reason, the powers that be tried to legislate the nation’s alcoholism out of existence, with not one, not two, but five Gin Acts. These worked – as you can infer from their number – about as well as prohibition did for the United States.

Gin has had somewhat of a revival lately. At a local restaurant, I was given three menus: a food menu, a wine menu, and a gin menu. The gin menu listed many a gin, many locally made, of many a flavour, all desperately vying with pretty names and sugary fruit flavourings to disguise the centuries-old reality of a putrid, wretch-worthy drink.

Sloe gin. Now, here we have a drink. A 21st century Guernsey-led Sloe Gin Craze is one I would gladly put my money and mouth behind. And liver.

It’s fairly common knowledge that our American cousins’ attempt to prohibit everything alcohol – its production and consumption and import and export and transport – did not end well for populace or government.

Making vices illegal lends them more vice, attracts it, even. It diverts production and distribution into the hands of organised criminality, inevitably pushing strength and prices up whilst bringing quality down.

Would the natural cannabis plants of the mid-twentieth century not be preferable to their nasty, genetically modified, chemically infused counterparts, now zombifying kids and putting money into the pockets of criminals?

People in Guernsey pay unsavoury types upwards of £40 for undercut grams of low-quality “hashish”, filled out by plastics and God-only-knows what else.

And the kicker, if caught in possession, one is invariably meted out punishments more severe than those given to proven paedophiles. What amorally perverse time in which we live.

Now, I digress from booze, but digress not from the point in hand: prohibition of vices being a messy enterprise.

In Soviet Russia, You Do Not Legislate Alcohol, Alcohol Legislates You

I will give you another less-known and more recent example of alcohol prohibition in the 20th century. This time, Slavic style.

The Russians had reason to be miserable and drink themselves to death during the Soviet era, and they did, en masse.

Consequently, Mikhail Gorbachev instituted ‘The Dry Law’ of 1985, hiking the price of alcohol, restricting the time and quantity in which it could be sold, and prosecuting workplace drunkenness.

Like all dictatorial bureaucracies, they blundered through with the law without regard for its other consequences or predecessors, as amply demonstrated during the American effort just a few decades prior.

Out went government regulated alcohol production, and with it a large proportion of its income. Gorbachev is quoted as saying his colleague was ‘shedding tears’, such was the loss of money.

In came the low quality super-strength moonshine. So rife was the practice of illegal distillation that sugar, the main star of moonshine production, all but disappeared from the already poorly stocked Soviet stores.

Christianity was mercilessly persecuted and widely derided by the Soviets, and with faith not to be found in the spiritless Soviet propaganda, solace was sought at the bottom of a vodka bottle for many Russian men.

Illegal alcohol distillation in former Soviet republics is still very much alive and kicking. The stuff kicks like a mule! In Latvia, I drank the local moonshine, kandža, cheap as chips and strong as an ox.

Though the Slavs are sensible insofar as they actually eat something when they drink – none of the perverse British ‘eating is cheating’ nonsense – they balance out this sensible behaviour by endlessly refilling and emptying their shot glasses of spirits at a rate of knots. Nostrovia!

I had the worst hangover of my life after drinking kandža. I was paralysed by a throbbing pain centred right in the middle of my skull. After sleeping off the worst of it, I was offered a shot for my sins. The Slavs take the “hair of the dog” mentality to the next level. I woke up to champagne after one particularly heavy session.

Another time I breakfasted with a Russian gentleman, who knocked back two generous servings of vodka before going to work. He told me he was a bus driver.

Anyhow, Gorbachev did not see prohibition through, his government immiserated by the loss of its alcohol income, and Russian men directing their pent-up resentment towards him. During the era of prohibition, Gorbachev said, “I traveled around the country, and I noticed women supported me everywhere, but men did the opposite.”

There was a marked decline in alcohol consumption during the few short years of The Dry Law, and a subsequent spike once it was reversed – and a concomitant spike in deaths.

Sadly, 7 people died drinking hand sanitiser last year, and even more sadly, this was not the first time and is unlikely to be the last. Russia was recently crowned by the OECD as Tsar of Alcohol-Related Deaths.

Wine: Antidote to the Will to Drunkenness?

Spirits, like hand sanitisers, are hazardous in small and easily drinkable doses.

It takes a sustained stupidity to drink enough beer, or even wine, to do anywhere near the damage a half-bottle of vodka or gin will do.

I reckon the British are so often blind-drunk due to the presence of this wanton will to drunkenness, and it could probably be changed for future generations with mature exposure to alcohol in childhood, as seems to work fine for the oh-so-cultured Mediterraneans.

The late, great philosopher Roger Scruton wrote a delightful little book on the philosophy of wine called, I Drink Therefore I Am. It is addressed “to every thinking person in whom the joy of meditation has not extinguished the pleasures of embodiment.” This is merely a lah-dee-dah way to say: any person who likes a good book and getting pissed on occasion.

Scruton warns us against blaming the unashamed, public and peculiarly British drunkenness on alcohol in general. “It was not wine,” reckons Scruton, “but its absence that caused the gin-sodden drunkenness of eighteenth-century London, and Thomas Jefferson was surely right to argue that, in the American context, ‘wine is the only antidote to whiskey’.”

To this day, I am grateful to a certain Carménère grape grown in a certain Chilean valley for assisting me in achieving first-class honours in my dissertation. Wine is civilised in way that whiskey and beer are not. Wine can break barriers to thought and conversation, which in moderation – that ever-elusive moderation – can only be a good thing. Much as I love them, I cannot say I owe to whiskey or beer anything remotely akin to academic honours.

Wine and Religious Ecstasy

Chugging pints and knocking backs shots is for the heathen who drink beer and spirits, not wine.

One swirls wine, and sips it, from a glass (and sometimes from a the massive plastic goblets they sell at Waitrose).

This almost inherent moderation and civility to wine is partly carried along by its religious significance, and ancient strictures concerning its consumption.

Thousands of years before Jesus turned water into wine, and his followers began drinking his blood on Sundays, wine was part and parcel of a similarly mysterious but somewhat more primal pagan religious ritual.

In present-day Greece and Turkey, revellers would gather to honour the god of wine, fertility and madness by drinking wine, singing hymns “calling upon the loud-roaring and revelling Dionysus, primeval, double-natured, thrice-born, Bacchic lord, wild, ineffable”, beating drums, dancing themselves further and further into drunken ecstasy. All of this was very seriously seen as meaningful and supernatural communion with the divine.

At least vaguely recognisable in the British piss-up, eh?

One glaringly absent aspect is the absolute reverence with which wine was once treated, identified with a god whose essence one can imbibe and enjoy from a goblet containing wine and your next-door neighbour’s backwash.

Another missing aspect would be moderation, which I guess would follow naturally from the religious strictures surrounding consumption – what with being a gateway to divine revelation and all.

Bertrand Russell reckoned that in this ritual “intoxication, physical or spiritual, the initiate recovers an intensity of feeling”, an intensity of feeling that one cannot in polity society express and enjoy and thereby exorcise, an intensity in which “one finds the world full of delight and beauty… liberated from the prison of everyday preoccupations. The ritual produced what was called ‘enthusiasm’, which means having the god enter the worshipper, who believed that they became one with the god.”

As a drinker of ‘enthusiasm’ myself, I endorse this highfalutin way of saying a slurp of the red stuff with friends and music is restorative, and can give more than it takes from you. Wine’s apparent health benefits are, I reckon, a case of conflating correlation and causation: the cause of healthfulness is time with friends and food and music and fun and games, the wine a minor but still pretty-much-necessary correlative.

And to that, I say, on this St. Patrick’s Day, “Cheers!”

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