Heavy drinkers and idiots are masters of invention and self-deception - Life and Style - The Independent

Heavy drinkers and idiots are masters of invention and self-deception

A well-known definition of an alcoholic is somebody who drinks more than you do. Certainly, if you ask any heavy drinkers of your acquaintance for a definition of an alcoholic, you will find that they always manage to structure their definition so as to exclude themselves.

For instance, the landlord of a village pub I used to go to was tipsy at opening time in the morning, staggering by about 1pm and, frankly, incapable after 2pm. Whatever you were drinking, he would join you in having just the one. The only liquid in the pub that was safe from his attention was the barley wine.

You might remember this drink, it is still available but is out of fashion. It was a sort of prototype of today's strong lagers - a kind of Ur Special Brew. It comes in small bottles and is comparatively high in alcohol. For some reason he had taken against this one form of alcohol and, in fact, the only person who used to drink the stuff in the village was an old lady who used to come in after lunch at 1.30pm sharp and have a bottle before going back home for her afternoon nap. She looked like something out of John Major's idealised vision of village Britain in her tweedy suit, shapeless hat and sturdy English gentlewoman's brogues, but as she walked past the village green or waved at people in the shop she was gazed at with awe and scandalised whispered conversations would start as she passed, people would run out of their cottages to scoop children up out of her path and dogs would dive into ditches. You see, the most notorious drunk in the county - the landlord of the village pub - had told everyone that she was an alcoholic. Obviously, he was hard pushed to come up with a definition of an alcoholic that would not include himself - in his eyes he was a mere social drinker - so, in a triumph of self-deception, he had decided that an alcoholic was somebody who drank barley wine.

Another friend I have who really does drink a lot had a trickier problem with his definition, as nothing - not barley wine, not Malibu, not even Advocaat, for God's sake - was safe from his attentions. He is somebody who goes on long binges and over the years has built up an impressive knowledge of out-of-hours drinking clubs that enables him to drink around the clock when necessary (and it seems to be imperative surprisingly often). I was interested to hear his definition of an alcoholic: it turned out that, in his view, this was somebody who was unable to get back home in the morning before his wife had got out of bed to go to work.

The human capacity for self-deception is very impressive, often showing breath-taking flights of creativity. For instance, even the most screaming bores think they have a great sense of humour, and I have never met anyone who has admitted to being a pig ignorant, feeble-minded, dim-witted stupid idiot. Not even the people who came to my house on three separate occasions to fix my front doorbell and entry phone. Each time I waited in for them. Each time they came, then rang the doorbell and went away when they got no answer.

I've got better things to do with my time, you know, than ponder the Zen-like sound of no bell ringing. For instance, I am shortly off to Australia to do a stand-up comedy tour and this will be my last column for the Independent.

I am currently spending most of my time trying to force references in jokes originally written about Guildford into making sense and being screamingly funny when adapted for use in Fremantle. In fact, the pressures of contorting my act to fit the audiences of a continent 12,000 miles away are filling my every waking moment. Every night faxes fly between my office and that of the Australian tour promoter in Sydney, full of arcane questions on which the success of my routine hinges. "Dear H Jarley, just a few more question," the faxes read. "Do bookmakers in Australia have those little biros in? Is Australian bread delivered to the shops in plastic trays and do dogs piss on it? Do Australians know who the Pope is and does he shit in the woods?" And the next morning the replies are waiting for me when I get up. "Dear Alexei, Yes, bookies do have those little pens, dogs do not piss on bread trays, but they are sometimes chewed by wallabies. Does this affect the gag? And yes, Australians do know who the Pope is, but they don't know who you are - which could be a problem."

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