Thursday, 31 October 2013


I was pissed a lot in the late 'seventies, never really got on top of booze until I was in my forties and realised that there was no law said I had to get inebriated as often as possible.  I remember the moment that I just thought I don't have to do this, I don't even like it;  beer, I fucking hate it, it tastes like piss, worse than piss, all of it, the real stuff and the other stuff, it's all piss.  And the whisky, fuck me, being intoxicated means being poisoned, who'd wanna do that? Who'd wannna poison themselves and stagger around the place being clumsy and stupid and rude and then, the next morning, feeling like guilty Death and cracking-on about what a great night it was, Fuck, did I tie one on, last night.

Anyway, I just stopped.  Really pissed people off.  My late friend, Dick, I'd go to his house, just like normal, for dinner.  I'd still take him a bottle of Scotch or a bottle or two of that pissredwine that he liked and he'd bound up to me and say Ishma-a-ael, what can I get you?  You got a cup a tea, Dick? Cup a tea? Course, right away, I'll put the kettle on.  You can't beat a cup a tea, Dick, there's nothing like it, I'd say;  y'know, one pint of beer is much like another, a gin and tonic is, especially after a couple, much the same as a scotch and ginger or a brandy and soda.  But a cup a tea,  there is nothing like a cup of tea. When you want a cup of tea a cup of Horlicks just won't do, will it?  But if you've got no whisky, then a brandy'll do fine, right? Kettle's boiling, Ish, I'll go and make your tea.

Just stopping booze was easy, same as the fags, there's nothing to give up, you don't need fagplasters on your skin, not if you want to stop.  You just stop.  You just say Oh, fuck that, I'm not doing that anymore;  it's fucking killing me  and I don't even like it, why would I carry on doing this;  am I a fucking lunatic or something?

One of the things, you see, about being a boozer or a smoker is that you're always - fucking always - running out of booze and fags, especially fags.  When we used to be drinkers we always had to get in the car, go down Spar or even further, to the Offy, buy a bottle of gin or something and drink it, generally all of it, more or less at once. You wa' ishe an' lemon? naah,  no worry, ash it comesh, make a double, eh? Ish already double.  Okay, mekkit quadruple double, eh?

 And then there'd be no booze in the house again and, if you weren't drunk enough, after the bottle of gin, you'd have to get in the car a second time and drive, pissed as a rat, down to Spar again.  And if it was too late for that you'd have to crack open some three-week old bottle of Home-Brew-From-Hell Rhubarb wine which we'd optimistically if incompetently made ourselves and which was  a substance whose only purpose on Earth was to give the drinker ruinous, crippling, blinding and agonising diarrhoea -  endlessly recurring  explosions of high-temperature, jet-propelled, bowl-splattering  liquid shit. Le posterieur flambe.  Christ almighty,  the stuff I've drunk, it's a fucking miracle 'swhat it is, that I'm alive in any form at all.

I was invited to a party one night, in Earlsdon, Coventry.  It was two neighbourhood  Jack-the-Lads, doing their understanding  of hospitality.  When I got there, there was one bottle of dry Martini and about six blokes, all already pissed from the pub. What  sorta party is this?  No worries, Ishmael, we're going out for some booze.  A few minutes later I heard an odd, metallic rumbling in the distance and going out for a look I saw these two rolling a metal beer barrel down the middle of the fucking street.  They'd liberated a ten-gallon barrel of Guinness from the backyard of the local British Legion.

How we gonna drink that? I said, back inside;  you need a tap and some gas to pressurise it, either that or an oxy-acetylene tin-opener.  We can shake it.  Waddayamean, shake it? Shake it. You know. Up and down. How's that gonna help? Well, if we shake it and you stick something in the valve, a fork maybe,  and some fucker stands over there with a bucket, it'll spray out, into the bucket.  But it's fucking Guinness, who drinks Guinness? 'Sall we could get at this time of night.

And that's what we did.  Took turns shaking the barrel and drinking the Guinness from the bucket.  Best party I ever went to. 

I was in hospital within twenty four hours, though.  Renal colic.  Renal colic is the worst thing that can happen to you.  You could have your legs blown off and it wouldn't feel as bad as renal colic.  Kidney stones, in case you don't know, are nasty, sharp-edged  little deposits of calcium which build up in the tubes around the kidney.  They're fine as long as you don't get dehydrated - like you do after drinking  Guinness from a bucket - because when you get dehydrated those tubes contract and the stones start to move, inside you, scraping and slicing along.  Renal colic, they call it. It's fucking murder.  Nurses say it's worse than childbirth.  They gave me morphine in the hospital.  And I've never drunk Guinness since.

But when I was properly on the piss, in about '78, I was hanging out with an  Irish waiter, Billy.  Billy was the most accomplished drinker I have ever met.  It was his life, drinking. Oh, he had a wife, Joy and a son,  William - my wee William - whom he loved but who had left him because of his drinking and this only made him drink more.  We were on the piss morning, noon and night, living in that hazy netherworld where you can drink yourself sober, or so it seems.  

One day, anyway, in 1978, I read in the Sunday Times about a wine that was particularly good at that moment and fetching £25 a bottle, a fiver a glass;  this was when a pint was about thirty-five pence;  Chateau Cheval Blanc, Saint Emilion 1968,  it was.

This wine snobs' article  rang a bell. Billy, I said, you've got a case of red wine stashed upstairs.........No, fuck off, you're not.......Is it Saint Emilion 1968.......It might be, I stole it years ago from the Highlands Hotel and it's for me and my wee William to drink when he's old enough....But you'll be dead by the time he's old enough to drink, you're bound to be, look at you,  and that fucking witch of yours'll only pour it down the sink, fucking Presbyterian cow, how could anyone call her Joy, miserable, sourfaced bitch like that, Grief is more like it........'Sno use Mr Ishmael, we're not drinking it.....Can we just have a look, see if it is the sixty-eight?    

It was.  And it took me about an hour, to talk Billy into opening a  Just one, mind you bottle.  I had made him read the article and the thought of five pounds a glass wine just sitting there, in a box, and the pubs being closed and everything, was just too much for him.  He'd been a wine waiter and he knew a little bit, more than I, and he carefully opened a bottle, insisting that we leave it to breathe, Oh, for a good fifteen seconds.

The late Douglas Adams in his HItchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series  used to have a lovely turn of phrase, once describing the effects of drinking a Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster as akin to being struck over the head by a gold bar wrapped in finest silk.  This first glass of Saint Emilion '68 was nothing like that. It was like Mother's milk, laced with opium, marijuana, chocolate, LSD and the tears of Christ;   all the doors of perception were flung  open wide, revealing a scintillating, luxurious universe, warm, comfortable, safe, every breath I took wasn't just a breath, it was a sublime inhalation of pure divinity.  I was flabbergasted.  At a fiver a glass, this shit was for nothing.  At that moment - and ever since - I beseeched God to make me rich, let me drink this stuff every day of my life;  let me clean my teeth in Saint Emilion '68, let me pour it on my cereal, just don't let me go back, Lord, to Brew Eleven, Trophy Bitter or Harp Lager, deliver me from Breakers and Carlsberg Specials.

I have never had that wine since and short of a lottery win, I never will;  it now sells for £550 a bottle,  a hundred and ten pounds a glass.  But I'm really glad that just one time, I drank a case of it.  I don't know what happened to Billy or to the Guinness-heisters.  All those people we used to know are an illusion to me now.

I do know, I understand, I empathise, I resonate with pissheads.  I know about waking up at five in the morning and needing a drink just to open my eyes, and there not being one,  looking at the clock, knowing that the Asian shop half a mile down the road will be open in three hours and I can then buy a bottle of sweet sherry, keep me going until the pubs open.  God loves a drunk and as long as they don't start fighting I can put up with them. I've been a drunk, my brother was a drunk and my sister was a drunk, God loves a drunk and so do I.

The Saint Emilion episode  really did have an impact upon me.  Later, much later, I was in Brittany with Dick and I discovered nice Cognac - Armagnac, actually - and I thought, again, fuck me but the rich know how to live, this stuff is beautiful.

But with one thing and another, these days I hardly drink at all. Instead, I buy booze and keep it in the cupboard.  I just keep it. I'll open something at the drop of a hat if somebody wants it but I rarely touch it just for myself. What I do say is, Go and pick a whisky, open it up and we'll see what it's like.  Doesn't happen often but it does happen.

And it happens because we were invited, a few years ago, to a post-Christmas supper with some ghastly, hideous, misbegotten sonsafuckingbitches that Mrs Ishmael knew from work; fuckpigs, both of them, claiming that they were deeply involved in the Higher Arts - amateur dramatics, another word for wife-swapping and bondage parties if you ask me, Am-Dram, but why any of them would wanna swap with any of the other ones is a mystery upon which I dare not dwell.  They had briefly, Robin and Diana - and disastrously - owned a wee hotel on one of the outer isles, one of those places that look, from the air, as though they were floating dog turds.  Robin, anyway, had retained a collection of, I dunno,  three or four hundred single malts, most of them more than half-drunk, some of them just dregs.  And he bored me shitless with phoney arsehole talk about peatiness and smokiness and heatheriness and notes of this and that, holding forth like he was Polonius lecturing Laertes,  the cunt.  And he did this for half an hour whilst I was chewing on Diana's wretched turkey sandwiches and he never  even offered me one.  

I heard, years later, that he fell victim to some rare illness, probably one brought on by miserliness and I laughed out loud.  Hope he dies, hope that Diana takes-up with some other Am-Drammer and that he drinks all the malts.

And talking of malts, it was the malts that got me into buying booze.  Like most people of a certain age the single malt Scotch has been part of my popular culture;  drunk by fictional  heroes and movie-screen action men;  the single malt has denoted discernment, wealth and power, man of the world stuff. I was always more than happy to have a bottle of blended Scotch in the house.  I always remembered my Dad, at Christmas 1960, proud as punch that he had, on the mantelpiece, a half bottle of White Horse whisky and a silver-foil layered box of a hundred Players cigarettes,  it sat there, for a day or two,  the box of fags, like a glistening Faberge egg for poor people.  And he died, at sixty, from all those fags.

The possession of a  full bottle of Bells, therefore, was, for a long time, quite an achievement for me - one of those, y'know, those vile consumerist yardsticks whereby everything's cool just as long as we are doing better than our parents.  Didn't matter what it tasted like, Bells or Grants,  I just poured dry ginger on it, anyway. And then a few years back I was in Ullapool on the Scottish West Coast.  Me and Mrs Ishmael were there with Mr and Mrs Dick who were visiting our home in Inverness.

The wimmen went fat-quartering. No, it's not what it sounds like, fat-quarters are pieces of fabric used for quilting at which Mrs Ishmael is a dab hand and while they went to one of those twee wee shops Dick and I headed for a hotel.  Shall we try one of these single malt whiskies? Yeah, OK, if you want, beats sitting beside you while you're drinking tea.

I had a look behind the bar and a bottle of Dalwhinnie took my fancy, it was just a nice bottle.  We'll have two of them, please and a couple of halves of Belhaven.  When the barmaid told me the price I nearly fell off my stool,  I can't remember now but I think it was getting on for fourteen quid.  You could buy a bottle of blended Scotch for what I paid for these two drinks.  Funny thing was that after we'd been sipping these single malts for a few minutes dear old Dick said to me, Whaddayathink, should we try another one? And so we did.

Before he went back to Birmingham, Dick bought me a bottle of Dalwhinnie.  And I've been buying them and things like them ever since.  As I said, I rarely drink but the single malt, the decent cognac and the decent  red wine, they're nice things to have, nice things to give to people.  I don't have a bottle of wine that cost more than twenty quid, a brandy that cost more than fifty and the malts are about the same. 

 The really good malts, however, or so I understand, we never see in the shops, for the very good reason that no-one could afford them,  they are hundreds of pounds and they go to our new masters, in Russia and China. 
I hope I never get to taste them.

It's funny, I don't need it, but drink remains part of the furniture of my being; 
just having it is enough.
It may well be that, just as I wish on Robin, the AmDram skinflint,  I will never drink these and  somebody else may enjoy them;  the difference between Robin and I is that I wouldn't mind that in the slightest.


Anonymous said...

I could never have that amount of booze in the house. I would be lagging drunk for 2 months and then go out in a blaze of glory. Probably.

Either that, or my son and his drug addict friend would nick it.


call me ishmael said...

There's beer, too, mr vincent, and white wines and bubbly, probably take you three months. And yet all of it probably wouldn't add up to the cost of a season ticket at a premiershits club.

Alphons said...

That is a very interesting piece of writing Mr Ishmael. It sheds a lot of light into nooks and corners that have often puzzled me.It has shed new light on to some of my own behaviour, and that of friends, that I had never really understood.
I still think there is only one place to drink Guiness and only one place to drink Konigsbrau.

call me ishmael said...

Me, too, mr alphons - light, puzzles, corners. I can only figure stuff out by writing it down.

That bit below the photo, about even though I barely drank, drink was still part of the furniture of my being, I added that after I first posted the piece and then re-read it. Took me all those words, just to get to that one sentence.

The above, of course, being another damned mortality metaphor.

Verge said...

Hope all those reds are screw-tops, Mr Ish. Corks'll dry out over time standing up, leads to much fucking about with strainers and muslin.

Your '68 claret story echoes one told by Bruce Robinson, author of Withnail & I. He & a mate were in rep in the 60's, and used to mooch through provincial antique shops for stuff they could schlepp back to London and sell at a mark-up to the Kings Road ponce-shops. Thwarted one day by the sheer down-at-heel dead-endery of wherever they were working, they went for a drink in the remains of a hotel, soon to close. Fell into chat with the barman, who said there were several cases of wine he was meant to get rid of, but he doubted anyone would want because they were so fucking can guess the rest. Robinson and his mate scraped the money together to buy the lot, planning to make a small fortune selling them to West End restaurants...drank the lot in a couple of weeks in a North London squat, takeaways washed down with '45 Lafites. (Robinson's "Thomas Penman" novel is fucking good, too.)


call me ishmael said...

Cork is a moot point, the noo, mr verge. I have, I think once in my life, had a corked bottle of wine and so it's not something I worry about - although I am hoping soon to make a place in which to lie my bottles down - and so I have been trying to concentrate on buying old, so-called played-out French vineyards' wines which still use corks. I like corks, they're organic.

These new world wines, with their screwtops, are made by fucking barbarians, Australians and fucking South Africans, these fuckers still live in the Slave Age and they come over here flogging invented pisswines like chardonnay to fucking hairdressers. Fuck them and fuck their screwtops. And fuck the hairdressers, too.

If I'd a been in charge of the Falklands War I'd have loaded up a couple of Concordes with tins of Fray fucking Bentos and blitzed Buenos Aires with tins of corned beef travelling at the speed of sound, that'd soon shift the fuckers Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon, what the fuck is that?

DtP said...

I probably drink too much and it has made me realise what a chore being a total pisshead must be, serious effort - full time job almost, put your back into it laddie. Now that we've got 17 bins for the binmen to empty into one bin van I wander down the street and see all these glass recycling tubs and think, 'fuck me - Mrs Miggins must have had O'Toole and Harris round for a fucking fortnight or else that Lush is semi-professional' and wonder if my gallon a night 4 nights a week is fucking me up, which it is, how the fuck are these folks managing?

Also, saw an interview with Gavin Stringer I think, Labour MP for Fuckknowswhere and the only thing I took from it, even though on HS2, was crikey, this man's not been sober for years, he's pissed now but so totally used to it that he's fully functioning, as coherent as he'll ever be but completely wasted - fuck that. Christopher Hitchens, and Damien McBride for that matter, used to say they work better when pissed and when I was a barman old blokes who saw drink driving laws as a modern invention used to say they drove better pissed and then, as now, I think 'well no, no you don't, that's bollox is that, you don't work better or drive better - you just think you do coz yer pissed' but none of my business, really, none of my business at all. Just another bit of harmless bullshit I guess.

The cider apple quickstep - that sprint to the bog in the morning for detonation of arse dynamite; nice little turn of phrase. Also, just a thing, have you noticed that blokes walk differently when they're going to the pub? Their gait changes, you can spot them on arterial roads - a bit strange but i'm sure you can.

Caratacus said...

It is a little disconcerting, Mr. I, to see one's own life history mirrored quite so similarly in another's.

I've had an illicit liaison with whisky for these last fifty years and we now rub along together like old lovers who, having gone past the initial heady excitement of carnal pleasure, have now settled into a comfortable co-existence ... I have been known, however, to betray even that relationship by straying into the arms of Pusser's finest, or even the Hellenic charms of Metaxa brandy. God, I'm a fickle bastard :-)

call me ishmael said...

I think it's Blokeism, prompts the swagger to the 'pub, mr dtp, that there remains a vestige of exclusive, separate maleness in some public houses. Not that there are too many public houses left. When I visit the Midlands I see that all those fine, large 'twenties and 'thirties 'pubs with oak wainscotting, bars, longes, snugs, off sales and beer gardens are all either demolished and built over or taken over by chinks, laughing at us as we stampede towards their All-You-Can-Eat-For-A-Tenner-Buffets. I was in one a year or two back, on the Wolverhampton Road, Just east of Warley Woods and I nearly cried. A big old Ansells 'pub, formerly home to generations of generally well-behaved workingmen and women, drinking quietly in a place which was brighter and more comfortable, more exciting than their own homes; now it's one of globalisation's shitholes, paper dragons hanging from its original art-deco wall lamps, its patrons tweting and fuckwitting noisily and manically, as though their lives depended on the continuation of an imaginary, digitised existence.

We are all fickle bastards, mr caratacus, especially you Anglo-Saxon kings.

lilith said...

Hmmm have to agree about the kidney stones...far, far worse than childbirth. With childbirth there are breaks in the pain, the pain is working towards something good and it is slightly trippy. With kidney stones you writhe around thinking you will pass out any minute, hoping someone will give you some morphine NOW!

Funny thing about childbirth though, it made me a total lightweight ref: booze. No more flat special brew for breakfast, no more Guinness to get going. As for blended whisky...that just leads to morbid insomnia.

I recognise your St Emillion 68 experience, or at least am some way there...A bottle of Penfolds Grange can do that to me. A deeper understanding of life, the universe and everything in just a sip. Weirdly Sainsbury's was selling it by the half case for @£500 9 years ago, when I had some money. We still have a couple left.

Caratacus said...

Fickle I may be, Mr. I, but Sasunnach never! Predate them buggers by at least 400 years ...

Verge said...

You'll be kicking me up & down the interweb superhighway for a pedant Mr Ish but the risk to cork from storing your wine upright is that it'll dry out and crumble at the first touch of screw. Corked-as-in-tainted wine is another thing entirely and pretty vile when you get it - just bad luck I think.

Good for you Ms Lilith, that stuff is a fine memory of mine from when the local Oddbins had it for £25 a bottle. Mid 80's I'd guess.

(There's a tremendous wine-shop in Monmouth that specialises in red burgundy, and not the wallet-fucking plutocrat shit either.)

call me ishmael said...

OK, that's me told. As soon as I can stand-up a bit longer I'll dig a fucking cellar and lay the wine down. There's one already here, somewhere, under one of the staircases, I think.

I think, too, that they live differently down in the West Country and Ms Lilith has more fun than the rest of us.