21 March 2012

Said stand and deliver, for I am a bold deceiver.

Whiskey. Also, whisky. No bourbon, corn-based alcohol is an offence against nature.
Unkie Dave's Collection, Dublin, Friday 20th January
As I wandered the streets of Dublin on Sunday afternoon, picking my way gingerly through the pools of vomit and other human fluids in which sat forgotten and discarded a cornucopia of foam Guinness hats, green wigs, plastic Póg ma thoin buttocks and all the other flotsam and jetsam of our national day of celebration, the Padddetritus that future archaeologists will use to construct an image of a society on the verge of collapse going out in one last emerald-hued dionysian hurrah, I found myself wondering if there was any truth to the offensive racial stereotyping of the Irish as a people with a drinking problem.

That paragon of political papistry, John Waters, believes so and while I suffer from an unconscious reflex to automatically take the opposite position to whatever Waters advocates, even a broken conservative misogynistic racist homophobic clock is right twice a day (or so they say). Back in February he wrote that:
"When foreigners ask me to explain why the Irish people have not revolted against the incomprehensible and unjust burdens being placed on them, I tell them to look at the drinking statistics. Alcohol is functioning as a highly effective instrument of artificial social cohesion. It is the main reason why people are not marching in the streets or pulling the gates of Government Buildings off their hinges."
and after standing on Dame Street on many a cold Friday and Saturday night watching over the Camp as the pubs and clubs close and the kebab shops fill up, I am forced to admit that he may have a point.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships, C-Beams, tears in the rain, etc, etc, but mostly scenes of horrific drunkenness.

Of course this new found critique of our national sport admittedly coincides with my own medically enforced sobriety, going on thirteen months now. To be fair it has been a long while since I would have considered myself to be a drinker, once I passed over the biological speedbump laughingly referred to as "30" I discovered almost immediately that I could no longer handle hangovers, and not being able to do the time seriously hampered my willingness to do the crime.

There was something of a drinking culture in my office, after-hours only of course (unlike England, where I more than once I was astonished to see people having pints plural with lunch before retuning to the office), but beer was provided for semi-mandatory socialising and merriment each Friday afternoon, and in the early days the whole company went out to the pub once a month, then once a quarter, and finally twice a year as the numbers grew and the opportunities for a disastrous PR nightmare increased. With many company social events occurring mid-week I insisted that no matter how jovial an evening everyone had they still needed to be at their desk and able to carry out their job to a reasonable ability the next morning, and to lead by example I made sure that I was always the first in the office the morning after the night before. This was a stupid, stupid rule, as I would sit there hanging in bitter agony after three pints as folks ten years my junior would bound in fresh as a daisy after consuming twice their body weight in vodka the night before.

When struck down with my illness (The P-word which we have agreed to no longer mention) I estimated that my alcohol consumption was less than ten units a month, or roughly five pints. Quality had long since replaced quantity, bottle-conditioned cask ale supped slowly over a long evening my beer of choice, though my first love, without any shadow of doubt, was whiskey, and sadly by the time I was no longer permitted to drink I had amassed a rather substantial collection of fine bottles.

Giving up drinking was not a problem for me, it was never that big a part of my life. It has made going out an unusual experience though, particularly on long nights in the pub or at gigs. You quickly discover that it is physically impossible to drink any other liquid as much as you do alcohol without feeling bloated and ill, so matching folks drink-for-drink in a typical round situation when you are on tomato juice is a bad, bad idea (as caffeine and carbonated beverages are also largely out for me, the choice in a pub beyond water is very, very limited).

Talking with folks who are getting increasingly drunker is also a weird experience, a friend with much longer experience of sobriety than I said that he can handle folks at the start of the night, or at the end when they are plastered, but the in-between times as they transition from rational conversation to gibbering idiots is confusing and disorientating. Given that he hires out sound-systems to gigs and spends most weekends shuttling back and forth between multiple pubs and clubs each night, I sometimes wonder if he hasn't constructed his own personalised living hell.

Still, although giving up drink wasn't a problem for me I did feel a deep sadness every time I gazed upon my whiskey collection and realised that never again would I feel the smooth burning warmth trickling down my throat, and thus back at the start of the year I resolved to dispose of my collection in what can only be described as a vicarious bacchanalia worthy of the eschaton. "Come and drink my whiskey'" the invitation read, "Let me watch you and remember what fun is like".

A little bit creepy, I realise now in hindsight.

On offer on that cold evening in January were a wide range to suit all palates, from 12-year old Jameson and Powers through to 21-year old Glenfiddich and Midleton, with the rather more esoteric Penderyn (a remarkably good Welsh Whisky, one of my favourites), 18 year old Yamazaki, a single malt from Japan, and Downes No 9, the surprising hit of the evening, bottled and sold by the small Waterford pub of Henry Downes, one of the few pubs left in the country to still do so (as seen in this old Waterways clip). The thirty or so folks through whom I was drinking by proxy (plus or minus the odd pregnant person and/or other non-drinker) made a fair dent in the impromptu bar (assisted in part by a helpful flowchart shown above, click to embiggen), green jerseys were definitely worn all round and our national honour was upheld. If I couldn't enjoy their golden amber goodness I'm glad that other people did.

A fitting send-off to a once proud collection.

Eight hours and three litres later...
The Remnants of Unkie Dave's Collection, Dublin, Saturday 21st January
I am torn between these two images, the memory of many a great night in or out drinking with friends, and the reality of observing those nights from the outside, standing cold and sober on Dame Street at 3am on a Saturday morning as the fabric of society literally crumbles all around you in a stampede of dropped chips, puke-encrusted taxi-plates, paint-ball splattered mascara and formerly best mates wrestling on cobblestones amidst broken bottle shards and curry sauce over some imagined slight.

We have a huge problem with drink in this country. It's not the only reason we haven't been marching in the streets, but it is a major one, and it's not just on Paddy's night or Arthur's Day that this becomes obvious.

I find myself in agreement with some of Waters' argument, that it continues to be in the best interests of the Government to keep the populace intoxicated and docile. On Dame Street you would occasionally be harangued by passers-by getting into a lather over their pet conspiracy theories involving chemtrails or flouride in the water*, explaining how "They" (possibly the Government, possibly alien lizard people) were drugging us to keep us servile and pliant, and then off to the pub they would go. Recent budgets have hit everything from medical cards to prescription charges for Senior Citizens, but booze has been untouched. The last Government banned off-licence sales after 10pm, allegedly to combat alcohol abuse, but all this did was bolster pub sales (publicans as an industry being major financial contributors to Fianna Fail); if the Government was really interested in combatting alcoholism they could have stopped off-licence sales at 10am instead. The fact that #OccupyDameStreet was destroyed by the gardai so that the streets would be clear for hordes of drinkers, whose right to public intoxication was portrayed as an issue of national and international pride by our Minister for Tourism, tells you everything you need to know about the role of alcohol in our Government's program of social control.

If I was still drinking, would I have spent so much of the last five months on Dame Street? I can't honestly say, I would like to think so but I have a feeling that social "commitments" would have got in the way more often.

Do I miss drinking? Yes, only occasionally, but I definitely do.

Would I miss the effects of drink on our society? Not even for a minute.

* To be fair now to these haranguers-by, I feel compelled to point out that thanks to water-quality issues in our house, for the first three months of my non-servile and un-pliant stint with #OccupyDameStreet I was mostly drinking bottled water. Unflouridated bottled water. Once we got the problem sorted and I started back on Dublin's finest tap water, my time on Dame Street drastically decreased. Coincidence? I'll let you be the judge of that.

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