Profile: A nation that loves a drop too much: The British drunk

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The Independent Online
OH OH] Here they come again, like gremlins in a Steven Spielberg nightmare, except that their breath is worse. We have already seen them reeling from Italian trattorias after lunches that have stretched into twilight. We have seen them in dark corners at office parties, running their hands up and down one another like friskers at Heathrow. We have seen them in Underground carriages, clinging together and uttering cries of delirious mirth each time the train stops or starts. Now they're back with their dilated eyes, their damp Stilton faces, their whistles and catcalls, their hoarse songs, their meaningless Mafia hugs and slobbery kisses. On New Year's Eve, we shall once more be overrun by a rampaging, roaring, reeking plague of people as drunk as skunks.

Britain might seem to have more urgent imperatives than to shut down all serious business and embark on a two- week bender. But whatever the effect of this recession, it cannot be called sobering. Stores and shops may be sepulchral, restaurants half-empty, yet the pubs and wine bars are still jam- packed. Police, emergency services and hospitals brace themselves as ever to deal with the seasonal bonanza.

Even without New Year's Eve as an excuse, the nation seems to be growing more sozzled by the second. In 1984 Alcohol Concern estimated that 25 per cent of men habitually exceeded their 'safe' weekly alcohol intake of 21 units (10.5 pints of beer or 21 shorts). Today that figure is close to 30 per cent.

The number of women exceeding their safe weekly consumption (seven pints or 14 shorts) rose during the same period from 9 to more than 11 per cent. While court convictions for drink-related offences remain constant at about 37,000 each year, the annual number of police cautions - for non-criminal, merely objectionable, drunken behaviour - has risen from 29,154 in 1986 to 48,554 in 1990.

By now even the most ignorant of us knows that alcohol is a poison which, taken to excess, can cause cirrhosis of the liver, ulcers, pancreatitis, bladder disorders, stomach and throat cancer, and pickle the living brain as thoroughly as if it already floated in a pathologist's specimen jar. We see the by- products all around us: in statistics for domestic violence; in horrendous accidents on road and rail; in almost any headline about a career destroyed, a fortune dissipated, a family torn apart or a child wantonly mown down. If we were blind to all else, a daily lesson is unwittingly taught by those ragged figures with their brown cider bottles, dreadful caricatures of conviviality slumped in the doorways of almost every main metropolitan street.

THE TROUBLE is that the British have always found the notion of drunkenness funny. From Chaucer through Falstaff to Mrs Gamp, the merest mention of a purple nose, unsteady gait or slurred speech has been guaranteed to produce gales of appreciative laughter.

Those who grew up between the Thirties and the Fifties will especially remember what a mainstay of stage and film comedy was the alcoholic haze - Jimmy Wheeler, the 'drunk' comedian, pursuing his cigarette with his mouth; James Stewart and Harvey his hallucinatory rabbit; Kay Kendall in Genevieve slurring 'I'll show them I can play the plumpet'. Every movie character who drank too much was sympathetic just as every teetotaller was desiccated and dull. Whether in John Ford westerns or Ealing comedies, friends cemented their comradeship by marathon drinking bouts. Enemies buried their antagonism by getting drunk together. When you wanted to show that some stiff bureaucrat or disapproving spinster was only human underneath, you showed them getting legless, with a jolly music soundtrack.

Today alcohol remains just as much the measure of human warmth and approachability. Consider two popular television characters: John Mortimer's Rumpole, a figure harking back to 18th-century overindulgence in claret and port; and Inspector Morse, reaching for another pint of real ale with visibly trembling hand. Our fondness for the Queen Mother is mainly founded on the belief that she likes a drop.

How revealing are even the cosy words with which we camouflage the condition - 'tipsy', 'tiddly', 'squiffy', 'blotto'. The British genius for understatement was never better employed. People are always 'a bit' tiddly after having 'a drop' too much. In this Beatrix Potterish lexicon only 'pissed' conveys any truthful impression. (Why not, then, 'puked', 'fouled', or 'guttered'?) The recent usage 'arseholed' is an improvement, containing as it does an often accurate character description of the sufferer.

MY FEELINGS about drunks are inevitably coloured by having grown up in their company. Throughout my childhood my father kept various pubs and bars, as did both my uncles. From the age of 13 I spent my summer holidays in a white jacket, pulling pints and pouring Babycham for holidaymakers on Ryde Pier. There is no sector of the piss-artist's dreary landscape with which I am not intimately acquainted.

I could write a scientific paper on manifestations of drunkenness: the staring, dirty-whited eyes; the quivering hands; the complexions cross-hatched like road maps with red and blue veins; the hacking laughs that turn into hacking coughs; the interminable jokes; the short-lived lusts; the lapses into sentimentality, piety or patriotism; the unpredictable rages; the petty matrimonial cruelties; the urges to shoot poker dice, form human pyramids or drink a glass of water with no hands; the compulsion to talk in a rotund 18th- century manner. 'Ho, Landlord] A pot of your good ale for each of my confreres here and I shall with all due speed pay for same . . .' Woe betide you in that culture if you should resist having another or seek to spoil the party by retiring to bed.

Failure to match the company drink for drink suggested priggishness or even effeminacy. Some mumbled words of my father's on one such occasion puzzled me until, long after his death, I saw the film version of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. What my father had called me was the worst insult known to Pinkie and his Forties gangster friends: 'You're just milky]'

Not that I failed to get drunk myself, the teenager's inevitable rite of passage. One day in 1962 I got falling- down drunk on gin, just before travelling back from Ryde to my local newspaper job in Huntingdon. I still remember the sensation of being cocooned in some woolly substance equally impervious to cold and shame. I remember pouring gin into someone's Sunday vegetables as they cooked; throwing up in the rear of my grandmother's sweets kiosk; then sitting, happily dribbling vomit down myself in the refreshment saloon of a Portsmouth-bound ferry. Later, I found myself lying face down on the open deck. A crewman bent over me, showing the extraordinary tolerance most people do towards public drunks. 'Been on the beer, mate?' he asked mildly, helping me to my feet like a solicitous boxing second.

A career in journalism might have been expected to continue this downhill trend. But journalists do not drink nearly as much as is popularly supposed. The first requirement of newspaper life is a clear head, to anticipate the next stab in the back or the guts. Infinitely more prone to drunkenness is the long-distance author, fretting alone in his self-created prison cell for years on end. The beautiful talents thus destroyed are only too well known: Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Patrick Hamilton. At least Hamilton had the satisfaction of making art from his boozer's twilight. His novels, The Midnight Bell or Hangover Square, should be read aloud at every AA meeting.

My present alcohol intake - about one glass a fortnight - does not represent virtue so much as value judgement. For me the flavour of even the finest wine lasts only to the bottom of the first glass. Everything after that is just unpleasant symptoms. No tipple - not even champagne - ever gave other than the most fleeting lift to my spirits. I find I can be just as convivial, or obstreperous, on a bottle of fizzy water.

I remain as nonplussed as ever when required to communicate with a drunk. What you have is a sick person, with not only their limbs but also their emotions in a state of temporary autism. Ordinary conversational subtleties are useless; indeed, you are better off pretending that you too have gone through the looking-glass. I remember once staying at a hotel kept by a proprietress who was always paralytic by 6pm. If you told her how wonderful lunch had been, she would say: 'What the f--- do you mean by that?' Kind words and compliments seem to make drunk people truculent. But call them poxy, four-eyed twerps and they fling their arms round your neck.

The cult that has been manufactured around Jeffrey Bernard strikes me as especially sick. Despite his appalling lifestyle, Bernard remains a sympathetic character, battling to write well against huge odds. Nor is he one of those people who tediously boast how drunk they have been or intend to be. I remember him once telling an interviewer that getting drunk was an awful accident that he found happening to him every day of his life. If his Soho coterie truly care for him, as they maintain, might they not make more serious efforts to prevent his suicidal dives off the wagon?

Yet, I must confess, I was among those who used to relish the antics of the restaurateur Peter Langan - as long as I was safely out of the vomiting line. He was as much a performing bear to me as Jeffrey Bernard is to the adolescent snobs of the Spectator. 'Did you know he was once even thrown out of a jail? . . . He called Michael Caine 'a mediocrity with halitosis' . . . You should have seen the woman's face when she looked down and saw Langan's chin resting in her avocado.'

In the summer of 1988, Langan called me over to his brasserie. Slumped there in the bar, he presented me with two outsize Portmeirion breakfast cups and saucers as a thank you gift for something I'd written. I hurried off with them gleefully, preparing dining-out puns about Langan 'in his cups'. A month or so later, in goodness knows what kind of alcoholic frenzy, he set fire to his Essex house and suffered burns from which he later died. Big laugh, no?

(Photograph omitted)