The other day, I tried to write an intelligent, sensible, universally relevant article about why alcohol is a great and good thing that no sensible human should exclude from his or her life. This isn’t it. Because I’ve never tried to write something that wasn’t entirely about myself before, I’d never had cause to discover that I’m incredibly crap at it – my incisive foray into the heart of boozing turned into a cross between an Oddbins catalogue and a misery memoir. So, with apologies for my utter, utter self-obsession, have this instead – the ten drinks that, collectively, have shaped my life. Your recommended accompaniment for this article is a bottle of Henry Weston vintage cider, well chilled.
Who am I kidding? Your recommended accompaniment is five such bottles.
1 – Red Wine (provenance unknown), Ferry, April 1990
I had my first drink aged ten months, on a container ferry full of truckers, in a bar that was screening hardcore porn on four separate televisions. My parents had somehow ended up on this testosterone- and-petrol-fuelled plague ship instead of their normal ferry to France, and having found themselves surrounded by eighteen-wheelers and men with engine grease in their stubble they decided to make the best of it.
For my father, who was the cleverest and most glorious of men, ‘making the best of it’ meant finding somewhere to drink. Having made their way to the bar and ordered – something red and French for Dad, I am told, and probably half a Guinness for Mum – my parents unexpectedly found their infant, nestled in his father’s lap, clutching at the glass of (presumably ghastly) wine that was floating back and forth in front of him. My mum intervened, as mums do, but I had backup – momentarily distracted from the weird early-nineties thrusting and fisting and God knows what else that constituted their main entertainment, an entire bar’s worth of truckers rose up in righteous indignation along the lines of “let the poor little sod have a sip”. Faced with an entire room of alpha males demanding to see a baby get pissed, my mum acquiesced. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
2 – Ghastly French lager in a tiny bottle, Normandy, 1999-2002
I have an enduring love for weak French lager in tiny bottles – I think they’re 25cl, and 2.5%, and generally shit – because they remind me of childhood. I realise that this doesn’t cast my parents in the very best light, but when you’re a fat ten year old who’s already five foot six there’s not a lot of danger to be found in a miniature beer with all the alcoholic clout of a wine gum. Most of my happiest memories from the ages of about eight to twelve played out in Normandy, where we occasionally rented a house off someone my dad knew from the Lodge, and those memories are punctuated by three constants – the statue of a paratrooper hanging from the church spire, the Barbara Dickson tape that was for some reason the only music in the whole house, and tiny beers, to be drunk while playing pétanque and, realistically, humming ‘January February’. At home, I was allowed a dribble of watered wine with important dinners – it was in France that I learnt how to enhance an already genial afternoon with booze.
3 – The Johntini, Guildford, New Year 2004/5
I got into so much trouble over the Johntini. After seeing through fifteen years of ‘nobody else celebrates it’ bullshit from my parents, I’d recently started attending my cousins’ annual New Year’s Eve party in Guildford. It remains the only immovably regular event in my calendar – last year I flew back from the Alps to make it down in time. Anyway, in 2004 I’d quietly nicked a hip flask off my dad, and after much messing around with the liquor cabinet, I invented the atrociously named ‘Johntini’, a sub-Martini concoction of sloe gin, red vermouth and, regrettably, lemonade. I prepped a flaskful of the active ingredients, ready to adulterate with fizzy pop, and gamely lugged it to Surrey, where my twelve year old cousin promptly necked the lot and got so hammered I had to carry her up four flights of stairs to bed without arousing her parents’ suspicions. It was like something from Assassin’s Creed, except I didn’t get to stab any Templars – but it was also my first foray into inventing my own drinks. Things would only go downhill from here.
4 – John Smith’s, the New Forest, early 2005
If you invited me to drink John Smith’s bitter nowadays, I would (quite rightly) tell you to “fuck off” on account of it being “fucking horrible”. But in 2005, when I launched into the first of the diets that have periodically and fruitlessly defined the last eight years of my life, my greatest pleasure was a can of this inestimably horrible beer and a packet of crisps on a Tuesday night, after another solid week of dieting and not managing to talk to girls. I would, eventually, manage to talk to a girl, probably because I’d lost a lot of weight – it was so exciting that I ignored her passion for trampolining and unfortunately wonky eye. I subsequently stayed with her through another two weight loss/gain cycles without any discernable reaction on her part, until I finally left her for being so boring that my toes curl at the thought of one more conversation with her. I could tell you about trampolining until you were eighty and not cover everything that girl imparted to me, and there wouldn’t be one thing you’d want to retain. If this blog had any sort of sensible narrative thrust, it would have been in this period that I developed a taste for absinthe or bleach. I didn’t, I just got on with it because I didn’t think anyone else would ever like me.
5 – Ouzo and OJ, Bournemouth, August 2005
The place: my ‘friend’ Luke’s house. Luke is a tosser – we’re all agreed that he’s a tosser, but his mum is notoriously undisciplined and it doesn’t matter what happens in her house (or, if the rumours are true, in her person). Thus, Luke is retained for his ability to provide a consequence-free party space, and it is to his house that we head after getting our GCSE results. My GCSE results weren’t bad, but I’d fallen short of my targets by a substantial margin and was scared of going home. So I went to my first house party, and upon arriving at 6:30pm promptly changed into my pyjamas – nobody had told me it wasn’t like the sleepovers I was used to.
I don’t really remember what I drank, although I know Lambrini was involved to the extent that it subsequently became my nickname, but I do remember the morning after. We had to go back to school to return our textbooks, and I was so hungover I couldn’t really see. Luke’s mum gave me a mug of milky coffee spiked with Jack Daniel’s, because she was a dreadful twat, but I kept on foraging in her (dirty, OBVIOUSLY) kitchen and, eventually, found the single best breakfast I’ve ever had. Pour 200ml of Ouzo into a pint glass, top it up with orange juice, and down the lot – you’ll never be scared of presenting a dog-eared History textbook to your obviously bent head of department again.