RED, RED WINE.
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 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, 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 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 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