30 July, 2006

Glasses, please

Chasing time from hour to hour,
I pour the drinks and crush the flowers

During another compulsory after-work social "event" the other week, I was asked on no less than four separate times as to why I didn't drink. The same thing happened during the away day to the south coast last month, and indeed came up as a topic of conversation back in March during the very first week of my new job.

I'd no idea this subject would prove to be such a source of interest to people. It certainly wasn't in Liverpool, but then thankfully there were never any compulsory after-work social events in Liverpool (there were never any voluntary ones either).

It's not, I try to explain, due to some cathartic break with the past, some personal epiphany or some terrible breakdown in my younger days. It's just that I never really liked the stuff, and as I got older I thought, well, why bother with the pretence of simulating enjoyment in something that doesn't really figure in my life that much anymore and doesn't demand such mass, all-pervasive populist participation. Both of which were true during the years when I drank the most, between the ages of 18-21, when I was at university.

I say drank "the most", but by most other people's standards I hardly drank at all. I think the most I ever consumed in one night was around four and a half pints. This, in a culture where upwards of eight or nine were considered par for the course, and that was before retiring back to your abode for a few more cans to round off the evening.

For some reason I never cottoned on to the idea you could just as legitimately drink bottles of beer at the same rate others drank pints, but that was probably because nobody I knew drank bottles of beer at university, such was the crowd into which it was my luck to fall.

So I always ended up stumbling hopelessly through the first couple of pints keeping up with the others, then meekly giving way to my lacklustre constitution (beer makes me feel horribly bloated), passing on the offers of another round, and quietly battling with the business of merely finishing what was left in the glass in front of me. And often, when backs were turned, pouring it away on the floor.

Yes, I know that sounds fucking pathetic, but what started out as our Liverpool local, the Dovedale Towers, was initially fitted out with the most rank set of carpets I'd ever seen in my life, and one more beer stain made no discernable difference whatsoever. Neither did a dozen, for that matter. But that was the culture in which I was living. I felt compelled to do what I could, in a modest way, to fit in.

It was a hell of a shock to the system. I hadn't really drunk anything much at all before I was 17. From the few sips I'd curiously sampled from the occasional bottle in the family cupboard, I already knew I hated the taste of wine and spirits. Not that my mum and dad drank much either. Throughout my entire childhood I never saw a can of lager in the house.

I never knew, and still don't, whether this was through choice (they didn't like it either) or design (they couldn't afford it). Suffice to say there was rarely a bottle of anything doing the rounds, and I was never inclined, or allowed for that matter, to be mingling with friends who were already frequenting pubs at the age of 15.

Anyway, all this meant that when I was exposed to the full-on pub culture of university, my body took a real battering in the practice of being able to take, and being seen to be able to take, my beer.

I wonder on how many of the times I pretended to still be sharp and focused and fully awake and aware after just two pints, when in reality I was well on the way to feeling pissed, people could see right through me. For what it's worth nobody ever said anything. But I'm sure they knew I was a lightweight, and a bit of phoney.

The first time I found myself absolutely drunk was on the occasion of my 19th birthday, when I was more or less frogmarched down to the Dovedale to be served up weird cocktails and deceptively sweet-tasting brews which left me barely able to stand and resulted, on the short walk back to the hall of residence, in me holding a number of animated conversations with complete strangers.

The morning after I suffered my first full-on hangover, though luckily I had no lectures or any reason to go out of my room. I lay in bed for hours wondering how long the agony would continue.

By mid-afternoon, of course, it had all gone and I was eating again. But the memory of the extreme intoxication and the confused aftermath persisted long in my brain and I don't think I ever permitted myself to get so pissed ever again.

The ludicrous flirtation with great big pints of beer persisted as long as I remained an undergraduate, however, though once I was through my first year I more or less opted out of sprawling nights in the city and stuck to quiet visits to nearby hostelries, now including a horribly revamped Dovedale Towers and the agreeable Rose Of Mossley Hill (the scene of my bizarre meeting with Robbie Fowler).

Unfortunately one of the people I'd ended up having to share a place with during my second and third years was a shameless and utterly clich├ęd beer monster, who loved consuming vast amounts of alcohol along with his similarly-inclined mates then barrelling back into our house in the early hours shouting and cackling, waking me up and keeping me awake for hours.

It was fucking dreadful. I hated those nights, and I hated him and his friends. And they hated me. They used to insult me to my face, which when I look back on it was blatant bullying, no more, no less, and I handled it like I handled all the times I was bullied in my life: by running away.

In later years, after I'd graduated, I began to realise that, just like you can choose the company you keep, you can choose where to keep it and on what terms. And I discovered bottled beer. Then, as I ended up leading an increasingly more secluded life, I found I was contriving to avoid social occasions where alcohol was involved altogether, or if I did go, I didn't drink. And that was that.

I once tried to write a poem pissed, just to see what it looked like in the morning. Naturally, it was shit.

I never did, and still don't, understood the value of socialising and talking to friends and acquaintances in a situation where you steadily lose control of your own faculties and your very ability to socialise and talk. But I see the vast body of the population doing otherwise, and enjoying it, so there you go.

I guess it's just me. I don't like losing control. And I never much liked the taste anyway.


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