Does a real man have to have a hangover?

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The Independent Culture
I HAD always intended to write about alcohol this week, and this morning, coincidentally, I have a hangover. Last night I had too much to drink. Already I have taken two aspirins, and it is not yet 10am.

What bothers me more than the headache, however, is that it is quite impossible to convey this information neutrally; I know from past experience that it is scarcely less difficult to receive it neutrally. I may, for example, have got a chuckle, or a smile, or a wry grimace, from the first sentence in this column, but I honestly didn't want one, and nor do I deserve one: imagine if I had written instead, 'I had always intended to write about minor illnesses this week, and this morning, coincidentally, I have a sore throat.' Funny or not? Not, I would say, on the whole.

But a man confessing to a hangover is a man trumpeting a life-style. If he is talking to a woman he is inviting censure - 'Go on, tut me, please, I'm a naughty boy'; if he is talking to a man, he is merely inviting questions about his social life. In masculine conversation, the correct response to a hangover victim is not 'Poor you' or 'Serves you right' or 'You must drink lots of water' but 'Where were you last night?'

Where was I last night? In the pub with a couple of friends. How much did I drink? Seventeen pints of . . . Nah, that was the night before, ha ha. Last night, it was three pints of Guinness and a small Jameson's. This page of the Sunday Review has had a confessional tone for a few years now, but has anyone ever owned up on it to anything as shaming as this? Three pints and a short and I'm hung over] What kind of man am I? A very tired man, actually, hence the hangover - babies and beer simply don't mix - but it is not my intention to excuse myself, even though I seem to have done just that. (You understand, don't you, lads? I can usually get through twice that amount, no problem, honest.)

Sometimes it seems that the defining masculine relationship is not between a man and his partner, or a man and his father, or his child, or his car, but between a man and his booze. Do you? Can you? In or out? Pub or club? Beer or wine? Or methylated spirits? We have to answer these questions sooner or later, directly or indirectly, when we meet someone for the first time, and only rarely do we manage to avoid the lad-traps carefully set for us. It is hard not to drink, even if you don't want to (although mercifully there is no excuse for drinking at lunchtimes any more): there is always somebody who will call you 'a girl', and although they invariably mean it ironically, and although of course I regard being called a girl as a compliment, the highest that can be paid to a chap, sometimes it seems easier just to join in.

And if you drink halves instead of pints there are problems, and if you've had one bottle of wine between two over dinner and your companion wants to order another one, there are problems, and if you're not drinking and everyone else is it's a nightmare . . . I know how feeble-minded this sounds, but I know also how feeble-minded I am. I'm sheepish, swinish, lemming-like, cowed by the forcefulness of others - someone should lock me up in a zoo and throw away the key.

One might have thought that all this beer-boy stuff would have been sorted by now, that serious, unapologetic boozers would have gone the same way as smokers - through the front door and out on to the street. ('Do you mind if I have a drink?' 'I'm rather afraid we do, actually, yes.') But nothing has really changed since I started drinking in the Seventies, beyond the recent preference for lager over bitter, and the appearance of mineral water alongside the wine. Attitudes to women have changed, and to drugs, and to sex, but millions of Britons of all ages and classes are still emptying the contents of their stomachs outside pub and club doors every Friday night, just as they always have done.

And we don't just tolerate our drinkers - we venerate them. Please tell us, Jeffrey Bernard, oh wise old piss-artist, life's secrets] No one's laughing at him, as far as one can tell; we're all laughing with him. If we weren't so tied down by convention and fear and mortgages and all that other lily-livered (ha])

middle-class baggage, we too would be in the Coach and Horses in Soho, really we would, allowing ourselves to be abused by that hilariously eccentric landlord]

I don't get it. I'd rather have a mortgage in Surbiton and work in a bank than be forced to hang out every day with that sad, self-romanticising (and, predictably, totally incoherent) crowd. I know this is an obvious, and probably prissy, question, but how much talent do you need to sit in a pub all day and get hammered? Is it harder than it looks? I suppose it must be, or loads of people would be making a living from it.

I like a drink, and I certainly cannot imagine giving it up - the feeling it gives you when you've had just enough is too nice, and if you're partial to the occasional drunken shout - after a magnificent Cup Winners' Cup victory, for example - then, regrettably, drink is essential. But as one gets older, it becomes harder to get drunk in a way that differentiates one totally from the kind of man that the Princess of Wales fishes out of lakes. And it is certainly becoming harder to smile indulgently as people total up the previous evening's every fluid ounce; one begins to get the feeling that one has heard the same, or something similar, before.

There are no jokes left to be made about drink and drunks, and I defy anyone to regale us with heroic drinking tales without sounding like a pathetic, fibbing braggart. (You are welcome, however, to talk about vintages and specific gravities and single malts - then you'll just sound like a snob or a nerd. The choice is yours.) Maybe men should get together and find new ways of talking about alcohol, work out a new vocabulary and a new, late-20th-century way of thinking about it.

Either that, or we could just shut up about it altogether. I prefer the second option, on the whole.-