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The Adviser Book Review...

A Short History of Drunkeness by Mark Forsyth

As Christmas approaches many will be enjoying a few more tinctures than usual – the unit count will exceed that spurious level doctors invented decades ago which was based on the well known ‘finger in the air’ technique. Where did it all begin? Where did our abiding love of all things alcoholic develop?  This book gives you an insight into drinking cultures from pre-history to the time of the American prohibition. It’s that thing of wonder, both erudite and witty, each page bringing out a gasp of astonishment as some arcane fact is revealed.


A friend once said that the human condition is based on four things: the need for food, shelter, sex and getting off our skulls, and it seems that our ancestors showed us the way. Where we would say, ‘Hold on, old chap (or chapess), take it easy’, they were going full-steam ahead, often trying to commune with gods or, at the very least, to vomit copiously and then start all over again. A night with the Egyptians wasn’t complete without falling over drunk, random sex and a long, long sleep. (Makes Nottingham student revelries seem very dull).

Forsyth informs us of the differences between an English inn, a tavern and a pub through history; The Tabard Inn of Canterbury Tales fame was actually not what we would know as an ‘inn’ but more like a grand hotel, hence the reason so many pilgrims could be put up in relative luxury.


England in the 1600s was a country where gin ruled, brought into this country by William of Orange whose soldiers drank vast quantities of the stuff, hence Dutch courage, so fearless were they in battle. The product was untaxed and consequently within the reach of the very poor who used it, unsurprisingly, to drown out the desperation of their daily existence. Mothers would sell their baby’s clothes to buy the liquid, leaving the poor child, literally, to die in a ditch.


Russia favoured vodka of course, neat, and both Ivan The Terrible and Stalin would force their right-hand-men to quaff more than was good for them in the accurate belief that no conspiracy could be wrought by someone drunk enough to spill the beans at the first asking, the old ‘in vino veritas’ method. Australia, in the early days, was run by whoever controlled the rum trade, the spirit being used as an inducement to work and a method of control for the Governors.


The Wild West, as we know, was a Hollywood myth for the most part. Saloon doors were single, sturdy constructs not the swing doors we see nearly all the time. The bar itself would be at the end of the room and would, most likely, cost more than the rest of the saloon put together. There would be a mirror stretching behind the bar, again, a very costly item. This afforded the drinkers the opportunity to see who might be coming up behind them and to ogle a picture of the scantily clad lady which would invariably be positioned on the wall. Beer or whisky was the order of the day, although a recent TV programme indicated that a gin fizz was available to the chaps in chaps, not entirely in keeping with the macho, Colt-wielding image. Prohibition was a feminist construct, an attempt to prevent men abandoning families to the draw of the bar, handing over the week’s wages and leaving the mother and children in destitution.


The only quibbles are that Alexander the Great gets a single line mention; an Olympian toper Alexander killed during a drunken rage, the man who had saved his life, Cleitus the Black. Secondly, modern American literature is littered with drinkers and there is a discussion to be had whether the likes of Faulkner, Kerouac, Hemingway and Bukowski were the better or worse for drink. Again, Churchill spent much of his war years high as a kite on brandy and champagne. Anyway, life is and has always been a tough proposition – some see it through without a single snifter, but others choose not to. I would highly (pardon the pun) recommend this book – the frivolous title belies a little gem and makes me feel a lot better for my personal consumption!

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