Saturday, September 30, 2006


One of the all-time great bards of the bottle is, of course, Tom Waits. Indeed, in my opinion, he is quite clearly the pre-eminent singer-songwriter of the past few decades, and just about the only one whose work really does often stand up without the music as poetry. (Please, let's not get started on a debate on that. If you give me Dylan, I might at least listen to the argument.... before dismissing it. If you give me Cohen or Morrison or any of the rest, I'm afraid I will just scoff and jeer.)

Many years ago, just as I was starting to write - and, coincidentally, just as I was starting to get into Tom in a big way (that's what University is for!) - I knocked off this little piece in emulation of the master. I recently rediscovered it, and find that I still quite like it.

Livin' in a Vodka Bottle

Well, I've been livin' in a vodka bottle for these past few weeks.
Goin' back there now, I guess, to get away from all you freaks.
It makes a cosy little pad, it's all that I could ask;
At least, a little roomier than my dented old hipflask.

You can come and join me, if you like; I'll make some room for you.
We could spend the evening in, and maybe share a thought or two.
Oh, it's a little like a goldfish bowl, but a decent place to hide:
Just pretend that they can't see you, 'cos you know...'s safer on the inside.

Company I can take or leave, but now all my money's spent...
I just gotta find somebody to help me meet the rent.

The unsuitable role model again

My hard-drinking literary icon, Brian O'Nolan, (unconfident of his ability to support himself by his writing alone, and no doubt under pressure from his parents to 'make his way in the world') condemned himself to a lifetime of misery by taking a 'straight' job with the Irish Civil Service soon after leaving University.

In those far-off days before the advent of the Internet, there was little to divert you at your desk when work was neither interesting nor urgent, and O'Nolan and many of his colleagues would indulge in frequent and sometimes extended visits to nearby hostelries during working hours. The favourite haunt was a pub called 'The Scotch House' - still there, I believe.

O'Nolan was not by any means the only offender, but probably the worst. His masters certainly didn't approve, but because of the modest celebrity he enjoyed through his regular column in The Irish Times (published anonymously, but his identity was fairly well-known in educated circles in Dublin), he seems to have survived with only intermittent, mild censure.

On one occasion, his manager summoned him for a dressing down: "Really, Brian! I hear you were seen going into 'The Scotch House' at 11am yesterday!"

To which O'Nolan, guessing who the informant might have been, pointedly replied: "Oh no. I think you'll find that I was seen coming into 'The Scotch House'."

This anecdote, and many others, can be found in a very funny and very sad account of his life, one of the best literary biographies I've read: 'No Laughing Matter' by Anthony Cronin.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Unsuitable role models

One of my favourite comic writers, the Irishman Brian O'Nolan (who published a number of comic novels under the pen-name Flann O'Brien, but whose major contribution to the world's stock of life-enhancing silliness was his Irish Times column 'The Cruiskeen Lawn', which he wrote almost daily throughout the middle decades of the last century, under the alias Myles na Gopaleen), enjoyed the same dangerous love-love relationship with drink that I do. Alas, with him it got rather out of control, and it had completely ruined his health by his fifties.

He once observed of his student days at University College, Dublin: "The only return my father ever got for his considerable investment in my education was the assurance that I had infallibly laid the foundations for a career of heavy drinking, and could be relied upon always to make a break of at least 50 [at billiards], even with a bad cue."

My sporting 'vice' was snooker rather than billiards, and I never got quite that good. In general, though, the similarity is striking, alarming.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Two Kinds Of Drunk

People are apt to be censorious of the unashamed drinker such as myself. They tut-tut, not so unreasonably, at the bad consequences for the health of the individual and for society at large which result from excessive consumption of alcohol.

I am largely in sympathy. (Does that make me a hypocrite?) I abhor people who can't hold their drink. I abhor the noisy, selfish, loutish, uncontrolled behaviour which so often results from drunkenness. I particularly abhor violence.

But I've always believed the Roman maxim, In vino veritas - your true nature comes out when you're in your cups; drunkenness merely exposes or exaggerates traits of personality that are in you all the time, it doesn't make you into a completely different person. Some people are yobbish, insecure, loud-mouthed. They should never be allowed to drink. I, on the other hand, am highly introspective and a manic depressive - I am scarcely tolerable company except when I'm drunk.

I have often said that there are essentially two kinds of drunk: fighting drunks and poetry-quoting drunks. I am definitely the latter. As are almost all of my friends. (I recall with particular fondness the moment a dozen years ago when I bonded with a complete stranger in a smalltown bar on the outskirts of Philadelphia, a blue-collar guy who happened to love books and had just done a Master's on Yeats. He was used to moving in fairly philistine, uneducated circles where the name of the Irish bard almost invariably went unrecognised. When this skinny drunk English boy with the wedding party suddenly started swapping quotes with him, he was in Seventh Heaven, he could scarcely believe it - "You know Yeats?!" A year or two later I made a pilgrimage to one of Yeats's houses in London's Primrose Hill to take photographs for him.)

Sometimes, sometimes I even become a poetry-writing drunk. Perhaps it all began many years ago back at University when I wandered into a favourite bar with my Drinking Companion and observed simply, "The pub is full tonight." "The air is smoky," he returned tersely. After a couple of drinks, we had improvised an extended pastiche of Arnold's 'Dover Beach'. Ah, great days.

I have come to think of my current favourite drinking haunt as The Haiku Bar, because, a year or so ago, I was trying forlornly to woo a woman who was only intermittently aware of my existence, and, on the evenings when I couldn't see her and was drowning my sorrows, I fell into the habit of composing a frivolous or flirtatious (or, I admit it, occasionally maudlin) haiku to send to her by SMS. Although the woman has now gone the way of all Lost Loves, the habit of composition persists.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Wedding To End All Weddings

I have recently returned from the wedding of one of my best, oldest friends - my most regular Drinking Companion for the past 20-odd years.

I was the first person he met at University, when, mistakenly arriving a few days ahead of the other Freshmen, he set off wandering around the near-deserted accommodation block randomly knocking on doors in search of companionship..... and found ME: a mad-eyed 2nd Year with a drinking problem! We were virtually inseparable for the next several years, and have remained in regular contact ever afterwards. He was always a dependable nostalgia fix, a ready conduit back to that carefree hedonism of our student days in the 80s..... because he never left. The most impressively unambitious man I've ever met (I am a very poor second to him in this), his career plan has essentially been to permanently omit to resign from his student summer job as a shop assistant in a secondhand book store. He is still hanging out in the same kind of bars, with the same kind of people, having the same kind of life that he was 20 years ago. Me, I wouldn't want to be doing that all the time; but it is nice to be able to revisit the past on occasion, and The Bookseller has always given me that option.

Of course, some people might view such a lifestyle as rather sad. I recently saw an American film called 'Kicking & Screaming', a cult favourite from the mid-90s on just this theme - a bunch of college friends who can't face the real world upon graduation and drift aimlessly into another year of hanging around campus. The ringleader, an insouciant depressive called Max (Chris Eigeman), at one point chides himself that, "What I used to be able to dismiss as just a bad summer is now in danger of becoming a bad life."
Indeed, I have often heard such criticisms of The Bookseller from others of his friends - usually along the lines that he has "wasted his genius" in such an undemanding, unfulfilling job. I counter on two fronts. First, that notions of his genius are greatly exaggerated (chiefly by The Bookseller himself, who does not count intellectual modesty among his virtues): he's pretty smart, but no Einstein; his talents lie in the synthesis of large bodies of fact rather than in original interpretation and analysis. Second, that the job should not be disparaged: it has given him security and purpose and an adequate living all these years; more importantly, it has given him the opportunity to be paid for indulging his two favourite hobbies all day long - reading and being rude to American tourists (though he does this in a sufficiently veiled, is-that-disdain-or-just-the-famous-British-reserve kind of way that he rarely actualy causes offence). From other perspectives, it might seem a limited life, but The Bookseller has got the trick of contentment that most of us miss.

The Bookseller, alas, is so apathetic, so incompetent in such domestic matters as the keeping of up-to-date address books that he has fallen out of touch with all of our other friends of 'our generation'. I half suspect that I was only on the wedding guest-list because I made a point of inviting myself. The wedding was populated almost entirely by his new drinking buddies, people who have come up to University - and then failed to leave - in the 90s or the 00s. Most of them still live in the University town, or sufficiently nearby that they can and do visit at will. This meant that - although both a 'traditional' eve-of-wedding stag night drinking session and an untraditional weekend-before stag party (on this occasion, the two were pretty much identical - no road trips, no afternoon 'activities', no fancy dinners, no strippers or hookers or giant cakes, just a good old-fashioned pub crawl) were on the agenda - the pre-wedding celebrations in fact spread themselves over about 10 days of continuous drinking. I put on nearly 14lbs - which is refusing to come off again (a torpid metabolism being one of the most depressing features of incipient middle age, I find).

High old times - but when shall we see their like again? Although The Bookseller's bride is a cheerful and tolerant young woman, I imagine she will enforce some curtailment of her husband's former excesses. This 10-day party was probably the end of an era for me. Sigh.

Ah, well, perhaps it's better to move on. I can't afford to drink in English pubs any more. And the drinking scene - the bars, the drinks, the prices, the company - is generally far more amenable in my new adopted home in a far-flung corner of the globe.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The All-Nighter

These days, I have a 'local' - a bar that has become special to me not just for its convenient proximity to my home, but also for its atmosphere, its people (the head barman is one of my oldest friends in these parts), the fact that I will always be recognised and welcomed there (even if I haven't been in for months). "Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in." Robert Frost

I haven't been in much recently - short of cash, trying to lose weight, turning over a new leaf (ha!). But then on Monday, I got the call, or rather the text message, from my buddy Tennessee Tom, inviting me to join him there. I hadn't seen him since we got back from our respective summer breaks a week or two ago, so I couldn't very well say no - not on the flimsy basis that the next day I had an interview for a potentially life-saving job with a major IT company.

I should perhaps have made more of an effort to be 'sensible', 'responsible' (and all of those other things that I'm not - "tried it once, didn't like it"). 

The problem (no, the beauty) of this environment I find myself in is that all-night drinking is commonplace, almost, you might say, de rigueur: there are no legally-enforced opening hours for bars (they may occasionally kick you out when the staff get too tired to continue, but more often they'll keep serving you as long as you want to stay there, even until dawn); and most of us foreigners here are happy-go-lucky freelancers who frequently have no pressing reason to be out of bed before the middle of the following afternoon. It's a dangerous combination of circumstances.

Monday night evolved into an all-nighter, or very nearly so. My mostly dormant sense of self-preservation eventually kicked in, and I made my excuses around 4am, getting home shortly before dawn, and managing 5hrs or so of booze-befuddled sleep before my interview. Tom and his pals showed no immediate sign of quitting when I left them.

What a fine evening it was, though - hitching a ride on someone else's nostalgia trip, as Tom swapped reminiscences with a pair of visiting high school classmates, giving me a glimpse of a world known previously only through TV and films (it did in fact sound exactly like Richard Linklater's 'Dazed & Confused'). And the drawl came out of hiding. Tom's laidback Southern slur is one of the most engaging accents I've ever heard; but usually it's in the background, just adding a few traces of colour around the edges of the middle-of-the-road 'business voice' he affects most of the time. On Monday night (Tuesday morning!) we were transported to the backwoods and hollows, the secret swimming holes, lazy summer evenings with an illicit keg, moonshine stills in dry counties, TP attacks on unpopular teachers. With the native Tennesseeans holding a 3-2 numerical advantage, the accents grew thick and slow as molasses - and it was a delight.

I'm sorry I went home so early.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Time Warp

Another of the great, dark bars that have a special place in my heart - a bar that perhaps had an especially potent formative influence on me in that it was, I think, the first bar I ever drank in on my own, rather than accompanied by my dad or my older brother - was a place called 'The Nag's Head', in my old home town of Monmouth on the Welsh border.

Back in my schooldays, it had the reputation of the being the town's leading pub for underage drinkers. Indeed, it was pretty much the exclusive preserve of underage drinkers; even older teens were often reluctant to hang out amid such proliferations of 15 and 16-year-olds, and the only people older than their mid-20s were usually the bar staff. It's amazing that the landlord got away with it so cheerfully, for so long. Then again, it was a very small town, with probably only one or two policemen permanently stationed there; and they, no doubt, could find better things to do with their time than fret about how strictly local hostelries were observing the drinking laws.

Nowadays, it seems, all that has changed. Today The Nag's is enjoying a period of comparative respectability, even trendiness; it is the favoured hangout for most of the regular drinkers of my brother's generation (although this crowd is constantly shifting in its composition, and in its tastes and allegiances, and no one pub seems to hold sway with them for more than a few years). Changed, yes, in its clientele; but in its decor and atmosphere, time has stood stock still. It is very nearly identical to the gloomy little rabbit-warren of a bar that I remember having my first illicit drinks in, long, long ago.

I went in there on one of my last trips home, a couple of years ago; my first drink in that pub in perhaps twenty years. It wasn't long before nostalgia was washing over me, and my eyes were prickling with emotion - partly the gratitude at finding a fragment of my childhood so perfectly preserved, partly a sharp regret at the sudden realisation of the passing of so many years, and partly a surfeit of strong Welsh beer (I suspect, although my memory grows shaky on such details, that it was the rather fine Felinfoel - always jocularly but unfairly referred to in those parts as 'Feeling Foul').

The only detail (apart from the prices - oh god, the prices!) that didn't conform to my childhood recollections of the place was the barmaid: I don't think there was ever such a devastating beauty behind the pumps in my young days. And perhaps just as well too, or I might have spent even more time in there than I did, and completely ruined my life. The loveliness of this girl no doubt accentuated the strain of melancholy in my surging emotions that night. It was not just the recognition of the fact that I was far too old for her to fancy, or that she was far too young for me to fancy, or that I had very little chance of even gaining her attention when there were half a dozen smitten 20-somethings buzzing around her. The frustrations of being attracted to a woman who is, for one reason or another, "out of my league" are all too commonplace, and most of the time I can dismiss them quite easily. No, the problem was that on this occasion the disparity in our ages served to effect a sudden, whooshing shift in my perspective, a vertiginous readjustment of self-perception. For many years now, I feel as though my life has been standing still; and, luckily for me, the physical processes of aging seem to have been biding their time as well: on a good day ("in the dusk with the light behind me") I can usually pass for at least 5, if not 10 or more years younger than I really am. And, most of the time, that is how old I feel. I genuinely struggle to remember my true age, since I hardly ever think of it (never a big fan of birthdays!); in fact, if pressed on the issue, I usually have to go through the laborious rigmarole of recalling my year of birth (thinking back, sometimes with difficulty, to the last time I had to fill in a form for something) and then doing the maths. But on that evening, in one instant, one giddying instant, I came to recognise how ancient I have become - in the instant when I carelessly thought to myself, "Hell, this girl probably wasn't even born the last time you drank in here. She certainly wasn't born the first time you drank in here." And with that uncharacteristic acknowledgement of the size of the gap between my childhood and now, the floor (metaphorically) opened beneath me and I gazed momentarily into the abyss of my mortality.


That will teach me to go revisiting my childhood home. Speculating on a girl's age is probably a bad idea too.

I'll know better in future.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Down to the 'Doctors'

The writer Keith Waterhouse used to say his favourite pubs were situated conveniently near a theatre, thus allowing a playwright such as himself to drown his anxieties while waiting for the response of the first-night crowd to his latest work; and hence he always thought of such places by the generic nickname, The Skulking Dramatist. To the best of my knowledge, no bar in the UK actually bears that name, but I feel that one should. Perhaps that could be a retirement project for me.

On my regular-ish jaunts up to Edinburgh in August to take in the summer arts festivals there, I am invariably faced with a quest to find The Skulking Theatre-Goer - a bar which will provide the best prospect of rest and refreshment in the fleeting intervals between the various Fringe Festival shows, sometimes five or six in one day, that I am attempting to see.

This year, it happened to be a place called 'Doctors'. One of those names that makes you fret as to whether there is an apostrophe missing somewhere. (It's a celebrated piece of trivia that 'Rovers Return', the name of the pub in Britain's longest-running TV soap, 'Coronation Street', is only a general statement because of a signwriter's mistake.) And I have my suspicions that this may be a recent renaming. I've certainly been there in years gone by, and don't recall it being 'Doctors' then, although I have no recollection either of what its former name might have been.

It has nothing particular to recommend it, except that it is unmodernised, still fairly traditional and 'old world' (something that can be said for depressingly few bars south of the border these days, as they are converting in droves to the airy wine bar model: Scotland, thank heavens, is still largely holding out against this unlovely trend): dark wood, comforting gloom, silvered mirrors, small windows, the distinctive smell of spilt beer and dog and furniture polish. Oh yes, and it sells Stella Artois 20p a pint cheaper than anywhere else in town - always a key consideration for the budget drinker.

Many a happy half-hour or hour was spent there last month digesting the work I'd just seen and planning out my next little cultural snack (while the main event of Edinburgh's frenetic August, the International Arts Festival, can be seen as a banquet of haute cuisine, the majority of the shows in the Fringe - mostly by tiny amateur or semi-pro companies, often by schools or University theatre groups - are more like Pot Noodle: welcome sustenance at the time, but unlikely to linger long in the memory).

Although I was mostly there on my own, from time to time, briefly, there was a Drinking Companion. The greatest of all the Drinking Companions I have known, as it happens: a lovely, sad, funny, wise man who is likely to appear often in these rambling anecdotes of mine. Like me, he is a long-time EdFest aficionado; unlike me, he has found a way to make a living out of his private passion, and is now promoting international theatre exchanges. If I make it to Edinburgh, I can always rely on him being there. I can't rely on him being available to meet up very much, because he's such a busy chap these days. But there will always be a few hastily convened alcoholic rendezvous (usually in The Skulking Tour Guide - whichever pub is nearest to the theatre where he has abandoned his American charges [cultural tourism for wealthy Americans is another of his bowstrings] at the half-time interval).

And yes, the shadow of the Lost Love passed through at one point as well. It was the darnedest thing. I had been on an extended holiday, away from the city, the country where we both live, and had been in a completely different mindset - revisiting the friends, reliving the life I had before I went overseas. I had scarcely thought about Her in a couple of months. But then, but then..... a song came on the jukebox by the band Garbage. From their second album, I think. A release from several years ago. This was an odd musical selection (randomly generated from the machine, I'm sure; I never saw anyone put any money into it while I was there - the Scots are quite properly too thrifty for such nonsense!): I never heard Garbage play on any of the many other occasions I hung out there in those two weeks; indeed, I don't think I ever heard another song that was more than 4 or 5 years old. A somewhat mysterious oddity, then. And a song with resonances. 'Our song', you might say. She played it on the one and only occasion she stayed at my apartment (usually we stayed at hers). Subsequently we both quoted lines from it at each other in our barrage of SMS flirting ("You look so fine. I want to break your heart, and give you mine."). After The Fall, for some weeks I would perversely torture myself with the memories by playing it over and over again.

But that was six months or more before. I thought I was over it. Until Dame Coincidence smacked me in the ear with that song, and unleashed a stampede of regrets to trample my heart anew.

I thought I was over it! Perhaps you never completely get over an affair like that. And there's something about bars, especially traditional, old-fashioned, dark bars that teases wistfulness out of you when you least expect it. I put myself in harm's way whenever I step through the door, I know I do.

But this is who I am -
"I could no more change the colour of my eyes."

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Introduction

Every bar is a memory.

And all the memories huddle together for company, so that in my mind it often seems as though every bar I've ever been in is on the same street, or at least in the same neighbourhood; every great drinking session I fondly recall happened on one night, or over the course of one weekend; and everyone I've ever drunk with fuses into a single person, the idealised Drinking Companion.

Sometimes it seems to me also that the melancholy that infuses so many of these memories had but a single cause, an idealised Lost Love.

Some of these memories I will now try to share with the enormous, faceless, blog-munching world at large.

These, then, are the mental voyages of the boozehound Froog; his many-year mission to seek out new drinks and new places to drink them in, to write The Meaning Of Life on a napkin.... and not lose it on the way home.