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 a tea. When you want a cup a 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
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
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
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
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
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, Raef and Sissy - 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. The adverts read: Saucy Sissy will season your steaks. Raef, 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 Sissy's wretched turkey sandwiches, avoiding the stilton swimming
in port; 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 Sissy 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 wimmin 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
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
Raef, the AmDram skinflint, I will never drink these and somebody
else may enjoy them; the difference between Raef and I is that I
wouldn't mind that in the least.
mr ishmael's essay and his chums' comments were
I mind the coming and talking of wise men from towers
Where they had thought away their youth. And I, listening,
Found not the salt of the whispers of my girl,
Murmur of confused colours, as we lay near sleep;
Little wise words and little witty words
Wanton as water, honeyed with eagerness.
Chauraspanchasika: Black Marigolds (an extract)
E. Powys Mathers