Drunk at age 15 months, making wine at age 13. Dry January has given me space to resist and reflect on an old acquaintance.
My induction to alcohol happened when I was aged 15 months. Yes, it took that long for an opportunity to come knocking.
That evening my parents were seeing off guests in the hallway, and, unsupervised, I climbed the dinner table to polish off the leftover wine. Carpe diem. Seize the dregs. My folks returned just in time to see me rolling down the stairs, ending face upwards. The reward, a sip of a drink that wasn’t milk. Perhaps it was several sips for they saw me in a detached, gurgling and happy state. From that moment on, my parents no longer asked themselves, would their son fulfil his potential, growing up happy, find love and get married. Instead they asked themselves would he grow to be a toothless man drinking super strength lager on park benches.
Some might say I had peaked too early for, after such a promising start, my consumption of alcohol as a child was disappointingly low – a monthly brief encounter, over a Saturday night TV meal when my dad would pour us small shot glasses filled with cider. He would pour it clinically, as if it was a test-tube experiment with liquid gold, not spilling a drop, and I could make the small dose last all of Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game as we put cider inside our insides.
It was never a forbidden fruit to me, it held no mystery or taboo, but it just didn’t taste as good as Vimto or Dr Pepper and was marginally better than Lucozade.
But, and here’s the thing, it made me feel oh so grown up, like when I pretended to do the crossword in a newspaper (it was a charade, I was actually penning fangs, specs and moustaches on every face in the sports section).
During my teens I cultivated a more meaningful relationship with alcohol via un unlikley route. I joined the the school’s Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, which aimed “to make a “positive impact on young people’s lives”. In my case the positive impact was the ability to make high strength alcoholic drinks.
I had thumbed through the scheme’s handbook looking for a new hobby but none seemed to grab me. There was crochet/ cross stitch (too girlie), egg decorating/ dough craft (too odd) and snack pimping (not what I thought it was, which was making oversized cakes that look like everyday snacks).
I needed boy’s activities. On my shortlist were:
- Rocket making
- Wine making
- Growing Carnivorous plants
- Bullet Appreciation ( It soon left the shortlist. A misprint. It was Ballet Appreciation)
I would have gone for birdwatching had it not been for a classroom incident that left me feeling embarrassed because of my naive inability to understand innuendo:
When I was 13 I had a great teacher, the bespectacled and bearded Mr Cope who wanted to make his pupils as well-rounded as the well-rounded pupils in his face. We had general knowledge quizzes and we were encouraged to talk about our lives and interests outside school. One day he called us up one by one up to read out loud our essays on our hobbies. The other kids had cool hobbies like “Duran Duran”, “BMX” or “Mecanno”. When it was my turn I stood up and said to the class:
– my hobby is birds.
There were some sniggers from the back of the class.(For the benefit of non-UK English speakers, “birds” is a colloquial term for women. I wouldn’t use it nowadays though).
At around this time I was quite a studious child, interested in conservation and a member of the Panda Club, the youth part of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) before it expanded to add wrestling to its concerns. I continued:
– Birds come in all shapes and sizes
The giggling got louder.
– birds come in all shapes and sizes and colours. I enjoy looking at at them with my binoculars.
There I stood talking about ornithology, unbeknown to me the innuendo. Mr Cope was trying to hold back a laugh and making it sound like a muffled cough.
As I ended he said, “and by ‘birds’ you mean the feathered type of birds don’t you?” Unbridled laughter resonated through the classroom. I was puzzled. Was there any other type of bird? I sat down disconsolate, bereft of clues, only my best friend John Eagles later explained to me what had happened.
(As a side note, today the hobby in the handbook is listed as “Looking After Birds (ie BUDGIES AND CANARIES)” as if the bracketed captalised words are there to taunt me so many years after the event.)
I became a winemaker at the age of 13 and was making gallons of the stuff from anything I could find, elderflowers, peaches, pears and apples, I had rows of glass gallon jars all bubbling away in the warmth of the airing cupboard. I became an expert in using fining gels, yeasts, yeast nutrients, camden tablets and potassium metabisulphite. I got a hydrometer float to measure alcohol, mastering the ability to add just enough sugar to get the wines to a sweet and strong 14% without killing the yeast. At the end of the process I learned how to put a cork in a bottle and use a shrink-wrap to seal the top in a plastic cover and write my own labels. I was a regular cottage industry. A career in illicit moonshine beckoned. I could have been rich or in jail.
The Award Scheme made it clear that I would not be allowed to drink any of it and my parents were to supervise me at all times to guard against the evil that is underage drinking.
One of the processes in winemaking is to siphon the wine from dead yeast that settles in the bottom of the gallon jar and this starts by sucking a plastic pipe. You’re supposed to remove it from your mouth as soon as the wine starts to flow. Operative words: you’re supposed to. I guess my reactions were a little slow.
Although I had the brains, my liver was ill-prepared for university life, where, after text books, sports and lectures, pressure to drink was a central part.
Clubs, especially sports clubs, had drinking initiation ceremonies such as necking a yard of ale, or worse, with an onion in it (or a shallot for women). There was the infamous “boat race” where two teams sat in a row and each person would race their opposite to the bottom of the jar when the next in line could start theirs. Societies had welcome drinks. Port was served at formal hall meals.
There was a Happy Club who guaranteed if you paid them five pounds for an annual fee at the welcome drinks you would be happy for a year. No one ever heard from them again.
Worst of all the initiation ceremonies was the football team’s “Burning Ring Piece”. This involved the newbie downing a pint while his colleagues stuffed a roll of newspaper up his backside which was promptly lit – if he could run round the pitch in one go before the newspaper burned through, he was in. If not, he got a burned sphincter and although he could still sit his exams, he wouldn’t be able to sit while sitting them.
I’d love to say my entry in to the drink culture took place in a social setting of college bonding, where the collective inebriation would foster life-long ties, a sense of teamwork, imbued with mutual trust. At a moonlit garden party dressed in a tux with Debussy playing or nursing a 12 year old single malt over a late-night smokey poker session. Sadly it happened on my own, with a cheap bottle of Blue Nun bought from a 24 hour petrol station, sat on the end of my bed, downed in a few gos. Just like that, just to see what it would feel like.
The years of restraint, the years of making the stuff and not drinking found their redemption in a very substantial self-experiment with every gulp I took.
I woke at 3 am, self-initiated in to the world of drink, spilling my guts. It was a rite of passage but the passage I stared down at was a toilet bowl.
How I’ve matured. I haven’t thrown up in years. Sure I’ve missed you, wine, but only for the first five days, then we grew apart. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder but out of sight is also out of mind.
In your absence, 31 days, mornings are chattier, my head clearer and there’s a bit more spare money left over at the end of the money.
Wine you’re mischievous – you can lead people on – chatty conversations that lead to inability to speak, the truth turns to hyperbole.
You make bad decisions seem good at the time. You know that time I slept on my doorstep in the snow after losing my keys, thinking the metro starts in 3 hours? Then there were Tom’s midnight-shots that should have been declined.
I don’t quite trust you. Or perhaps it’s myself with you I don’t totally trust but you’re certainly easier to predict than cocktails, all poseurs, colourful and faux tropical, which can range from a zingy, fruity liquid to a five sip knockout with stomach after-burn.
In the last 31 days I’ve been unfaithful to my tryst, unable to resist three times. I don’t think I could ever be without you, as Fat Boy Slim once said, we’ve come a long long way together, and with you I’ve forged friendships, you’ve lubricated conversation, brought forth candidness and nurtured joy when controlled and in the right measure.
I don’t have a problem with you, just a rule that says you’re best as a social lubricant not a fuel. But like an old acquaintance I know we’ll meet again. One day.