I have a theory that most British people are naturally two drinks soberer than everyone else. Two drinks down, we’re our best selves, happy in our own skins, confident enough to chat to strangers, be funny. Dance. Or is that just me?
People from other parts of the world aren’t like this. Ten years ago I was living in Nigeria. Many of my Nigerian mates didn’t drink at all. They didn’t need alcohol to let themselves have a blast. There would be times when a gang of us roared with laughter down the street, singing and joking and being VERY LOUD. We must’ve looked hammered, but we were all stone cold sober. Fun was just a lot nearer the surface, all the time.
Back here on our cold, grey, island, it seems we’ve always had a drinking problem. It’s woven into our culture. In Othello, Shakespeare plays the crowd, getting Iago to big up the English talent for boozing. In the 18th century, not long before my current story is set, crowds marched on Westminster to protest new gin laws, shouting ‘No Gin, no King!’ The need for alcohol, and the worry about it, are old news.
I once walked back home along Clapham High Street at 2am on a Saturday night. It looked a lot like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Or 28 days later. I stepped in pretty much every kind of bodily fluid. The weekend bursts into misrule, because we button ourselves down so much during the week. The price of control is the longing to lose it. We want to find that happy, confident place, because of all the things we bite down, hold back. All the places that life rubs and pinches. Our creeping fears and hidden bruises.
In my heartbroken early twenties, I’d get back from a night out and fill half a notebook with tipsy scrawling. Most of it toe-curling ‘poetry’ (wince). But the urge to write it was unstoppable, like vomiting.
For all its awfulness, it was the other, better way of dealing with what hurts. Working pain into words, rather than trying to soak it away. Putting it down. ‘Oh God! That men should put an enemy in their mouths, to steal away their brains,’ moans Cassio (Othello again). How many of us felt like that this morning? Our hurts aren’t ours alone. And if a record, a tidemark of experience, can help us make sense of ourselves, it might help someone else too.
I should have made this confession earlier. I’m pretty hung over today. But tonight, I’ll leave the glass of wine with dinner, and crack open my laptop instead.