Binge drinking. How that phrase brings back memories! The cabbagey smell of dodgy cooking coming from the kitchen. Puke on the floor in the Gents. Three naked policemen doing the hokey-cokey with candles up their bottoms. Stripping vicars, sex under the tables, the man who urinated on a guitarist because he wouldn't play "Feelings".
As it happens, I was not the guitarist in question (although it was my guitar), but I was familiar with the scene, since I played once or twice a week at the same restaurant, which was to binge drinking what Wembley is to football. The food was cheap, the music loud (but great), and the candlelit basement where most action took place was so dark that virtually any excess was achievable. Bewildered foreign tourists who happened upon the place before the parties got underway discovered more about "the English way of life" than they may have wished to know.
Providing a thumping soundtrack for the orgy, the musicians were in the thick of the fray. Punters, even when slightly sober, tend to ignore you, confiding the most grisly intimacies between numbers as if the man, resting on his guitar a few feet away, is simply a music machine, a live juke- box. If the Health Education Council booze specialists want to know the truth about the English and drink, they should grab a Gibson and start learning "The Boxer" right now.
Any musician, waiter or strippagram operative who worked at this joint quickly learnt that every party (hen, stag, Christmas, office or, most feared of all, a celebratory outing from the Chelsea Police Station) followed an identical pattern. Within moments of arrival, to the gorgeous, lilting sounds of "Waterloo Sunset", "Take It Easy" and "I'm on Fire", the punters would go about the business of forgetting who they were as quickly as possible, downing liquor, mixing their drinks with self-conscious bonhomie.
By Phase Two ("Love Minus Zero", "Lay Down Sally", "Handyman"), the volume of conversation will have increased exponentially. One solitary drinker will have already drifted off into a melancholy, alcoholic haze; "Country Roads", he shouts now and then. The office randies are making their move. Someone tells an eye-wateringly filthy joke. There's some exploratory bun-throwing, after which bonding takes place with guests at neighbouring tables. (The foreign tourists quite often leave at this stage).
By the end of the meal, chairs have been kicked over, some couples are dancing wildly, while the drinkers start to thump the tables and sing along to the usual Phase Three songs ("I Saw Her Standing There", "Johnny B Goode", "Hi-Ho Silver Lining").
The manic period rarely lasts long, giving way to swaying, anthemic, tearful Phase Four ("Wonderful Tonight", "You've Got a Friend" and, oh, all right, "Country Roads"). It is at this point when various para-sexual activities may take place. A stripper might arrive, colleagues grind and grope on the dancefloor. The more adventurous find a dark corner to achieve some sort of ghastly, furtive release. The policemen take their clothes off. One by one, the drinkers go quiet. Someone's in the lavatory being sick.
Then, wham. It might be someone going too far, or someone else saying what he has been wanting to say all year. The bill might have arrived. In a matter of seconds, the atmosphere changes. There's a bleary squabble over who ate what. By the time the revellers have staggered off into the night, a terrible air of resentment, futility and self-hatred has descended upon them, a spiritual hangover having its say before its muscular older brother kicks in.
Part of the English way of life: yes, that seems about right. Binge drinking to obliterate, to forget your Englishness, to force yourself to be fun, outgoing and uninhibited at whatever the price.
Come to think of it, the only punters not to go into this miserable end- of-evening decline were the policemen. Coincidentally, it is the Association of Chief Police Officers who will be arguing this week for "sensible drinking". Presumably, these are not the same rozzers who danced the hokey-cokey with candles up their bottoms.Reuse content