I see The Beijinger magazine has started a new feature this month called 'A Drink With...', quizzing some notable on their personal drinking history. (Well, OK, I just noticed it for the first time this month. But I've been away for a while. And I don't read The Beijinger very often any more. Maybe it's been going a while.) This month's subject was Matthew Niederhauser, a young photographer noted for his portraits of Beijing's rock musicians.
I don't suppose they're ever likely to ask me (since I've spent the last ten years assiduously protecting my anonymity!), so I thought I'd borrow the format for a quick post of my own here.
A Drink With... Froog
Who would you most like to get drunk with?
Well, my friends, naturally. The Choirboy, foremost amongst those available to me in Beijing; and my old teaching buddy The Arts Entrepreneur, the most dearly missed of my drinking companions back in the UK.
However, the question is angling for a celebrity nomination (living or dead), so..... I did once have a drink with seminal 'Unsuitable Role Model' Jeffrey Bernard - so I don't think I can cite him for this. If I had a time machine, I think the drinker who has most fascinated me, and was most likely to be erudite and witty company, would be the Irish writer Brian O'Nolan. Amongst folks still with us, I'd like to say Tom Waits, but he renounced booze a couple of decades ago. I believe the Irish musician Jem Finer still tipples, though, and I bet he'd be excellent company on a wee bar crawl. I'd be interested to meet Paul Auster too, one of the few contemporary writers I really admire (not sure if or how much he drinks, but it seems likely he's not averse to the occasional snifter).
If you could only imbibe one drink for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I am reminded of a very wise joke I heard in early childhood: A group of newly deceased souls are given a choice on admission into the afterlife to nominate the food they'd most like to be able to eat for all eternity. Thinking they are about to enter Heaven, they all eagerly pick their favourite things... only to discover that having to eat the same thing all the time soon becomes HELL.
It would be a big mistake here to choose the drink you like most (probably, for me, single malt Scotch). Things you enjoy most powerfully tend also to pall the soonest, if you have no change from them. And spirits and cocktails are too scouring to the throat (and the liver!), too dehydrating to drink all the time. You have to pick something you're not going to tire of. That, for me, would be a beer of some kind - probably Guinness.
How old were you when you started drinking?
Well, I didn't start going into bars on my own that often until my last year of high school, when I was 17; but I had been doing so intermittently for a year or two prior to that. My parents had allowed me to drink with them in pubs (in a very modest way: shandy, rum'n'coke), and at home during the Christmas fortnight, from about the age of 11 or 12. The first time I was sick from drink, I think I was in fact only about 10 (accompanying my Dad on his Skittles Night, and being allowed a couple of bottles of Stella - far too much for my untrained tolerance!). However, the first time I was drunk - though happily so, and without being too seriously ill - was a little earlier even than that. My eccentric German grandmother got in the habit of giving me a flagon (2.5 litres, I think) of cider as a birthday present every year from the time I was about 8. Usually it was consumed as very weak cider shandy over the course of a few weeks. But in the second or third year she made this gift, my parents left me in the care of my elder brother for an evening, he was delinquent in his supervisory duties, and I quaffed most of the jug - well, whatever was left in it - in just a few hours. I was high as a kite, but, as far as I remember, I was not actually sick. That might have been a dangerously positive early experience of booze for me!!
Tell us about the first time you got drunk.
See answer above.
Tell us about the last time you were drunk.
The last time I was really drunk - in a doing embarrassing things and then forgetting them kind of way - was on my birthday last year. When I was a student, I used to get that drunk 3 or 4 times a week. In my mature years, it has lapsed to a few times a year, at most.
What's the dumbest thing you've done while drunk?
During my student years, I was walking home alone one night, very drunk (after a free tasting of port, sherry and madeira; I was on the Wines & Spirits Committee of the Oxford Union, and we'd just introduced a new range of fortified wines to be sold under the Union's own label, so this had been a small private party to commemorate the event - with unlimited supply), and I paused to collect an abandoned shopping trolley. I protest that I was motivated by public-spiritedness, since the Sainsbury's it came from was only a few hundred yards up the road and I was intending to return it. However, I started racing with it (against myself, just for the thrill of speed!), ran it against a kerb when I was running flat out, and was launched over the top of it - flying for a good 10ft or 15ft before landing face-first on a cement paving stone. It was only the softening effect of so much drink that prevented me from suffering a serious injury, although I suspect I gave myself quite a bad concussion.
What's your golden rule of drinking?
Know your limits. It's supposed to be fun, not self-harming.
Where's the dumbest place you've gone drinking?
Probably a rather dingy back alley in a small town in Fiji. I was drinking kava, the local 'herbal tea' (very mildly narcotic), rather than booze. I'd developed a taste for it, but was frustrated that there were few opportunities to indulge (it's an almost nightly ritual out in the villages, but it doesn't happen so much in the towns; or, if it does, it's rather hidden). I'd got chatting with this gaggle of local ne'er-do-wells in a bar about this, and they had invited me to join them for an impromptu kava session out on the street. Three of them were harmless old soaks, but there was a younger hanger-on who had a disturbing psychotic intensity about him. When I noticed that he was carrying a monkey-wrench wrapped up in a plastic carrier bag, I decided to bug out of there before I got myself mugged.
Could you organise a piss-up in a brewery?
Ah, that's a rather unfair idiom. In fact, organising a piss-up in a brewery is HARD, because it's a place of work; and although there's beer all around you, very often there's nary a drop of it available to drink. The Yanjing Brewery in Beijing has a very comfortably appointed bar (a bit too comfy for my taste: rather like the UK's dreaded 'saloon bars' - all beige carpet and upholstered seats) at the end of its visitors' tour. I have often thought of dragging the lads out there for a session.... Hmm, now there's an idea.
What's your favourite place to go drinking?
In Beijing, of course, it is well documented that I spend most of my leisure hours in the most excellent 12 Square Metres bar... and/or at (my older, and rather deeper love) The Pool Bar. However, my absolute favourite place to drink in Beijing is any grotty streetside restaurant where you can keep ordering chuanr and 3-kuai beers until 3am or 4am.