The new year arrives and we think about new selves. Alcohol inevitably hoves into view. Maybe you fancy a break, to lose weight. Maybe you need to stop because it’s killing you. Maybe you know that and you can’t say it. Maybe everyone you know knows it but you.
I’m not here to give you shit for drinking or not drinking. I’m not going to offer “Great New You tips for shifting that weight in 3 easy steps!”
I’m here to offer my unusual perspective, as a boozer who doesn’t like boozing. A bar worker who loved the work but not the drinks. The son of an alcoholic and a tee-totaler. A lapsed wine merchant and more.
Stage 1. Alcoholic
My Dad is an alcoholic. I don’t know him very well, but I know him. He lived at home when I was small, or rather it was his address. As far as I know, he’s been drinking too much throughout his life.
To our amazement, including his, he’s still with us in his eighties, so I’m not here to dish the dirt and cause upset. I feel very sorry for him but he scares me. Sorry dad. Fact is he is an alcoholic and he did things he shouldn’t have - to himself and others.
Stage 2. Sick On My Shoes
We all do it, don’t we? A 3 litre bottle of cider in a car park. An entire bottle of port and falling into brambles. My god that next morning - the worst hangover and a messed up face. Stupid teenage stuff.
No pumped stomachs for me, but, considering my Dad, a lot of tolerance and allowing me to make my mistakes by myself from my Mum. Thanks Mum.
Stage 3. Pubs Rock
As soon as I was old enough, I worked in our yokel Nottinghamshire local, The Star Inn. Frank the landlord sat, skinny as a rake, with slicked back black hair, chain smoking while I poured pints of mild or mixed for red faced farmers that hated me - a hunt saboteur racing cyclist - pretty much as bad as it gets in their eyes. Meanwhile, the cat sat on the sandwiches, licking the ham and piccalilli.
I loved that place.
Pouring pints for people I had nothing in common with taught me to listen, and that we have much in common with each other - everyone. These locals were sexist, racist, homophobic, the lot. But the humanity shone through the pipe smoke and mother in law jokes (and far far worse). They were dicks, but fascinating ones. We should all meet dicks. Maybe they thought the same as me. Maybe I was just a dick to them, but I gave as good as I got, and learnt another way to earn respect.
Five pints to them wasn’t drink driving. Eight was. That was the worst part. This selfishness still makes me wild with anger.
They helped me grow up. I bought a sweet racing bike with that money and each Christmas they stuffed fivers into my pockets and we took the piss out of each other.
I was hooked on being a bar man.
Chris & Lily (licker) in The Packhorse, Bath - my favourite pub and my favourite spot in that pub
Stage 4. Bouncers Like Free Drinks
Off I went to Liverpool to study and with no money, so I worked. Bar work of course! My first gig was the student union. All acne and cheap cider. Reasonable people watching - my people. Not learning much.
Then I graduated to Cream, a house nightclub in the same vein as Ministry of Sound or The Hacienda. I was bar manager - my job was to make sure the right people got free drinks (gangsters, DJs, owners) and the wrong people (cheeky bouncers and nasty chavs) paid.
My other job was the stop the staff from stealing too much from the customers or the till. “No Dave, you can’t charge these guys £20 each for a can of Red Stripe just because they’re from Glasgow”.
It was weird. It was dangerous. Edgy. Insane. Amazing.
The 20 year old from a quiet gypsum mining village was now mixing with a society he’d never known. It was all glamour all the time - apart from the piss, blood, drugs, tears and screaming.
Now I had a ‘cool’ job, I was actually managing to have sexual intercourse with females, which had been tricky to instigate beforehand (I used to be painfully shy). My confidence grew, as did my encyclopaedic knowledge of ways to talk a bouncer out of breaking your face.
Stage 5. All Grown Up
I’ve decided that the day after the night I had a gun put to my head by a known killer was the first day of being A Man.
Until then I was a bitter, sullen, whining boy, trying to work out up from down. Now, I saw in colour. Life was beautiful. I wanted to live.I could do things never thought I was capable of.
For whatever reason, I decided that life was what you made it. That you don’t get to bank luck because you had some crap things happen to you. So I got up and cracked on.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I met my wife shortly afterwards. I was easy going and relaxed. If I could get through GUNS with my head held high, I could do anything. I immediately stopped trying to beg women to sleep with me - radiating desperation, and started just being myself - take it or leave it.
Funny how something horrifying made me stronger. What doesn’t kill you…..
Amongst all this I sold very little actual alcohol. Allied Domecq had opened a house club thinking they’d make millions, not realising that clubbers drink just water when they’re on Es. But heh, I got to dance and book DJs as I called ambulances, so it was interesting.
Stage 6. Cellarman
Eventually the gang violence got on top of me and Emmalou suggested that wearing a Kevlar vest to buy groceries was perhaps not the best life. So I decided to flip everything on it’s head and become the cellarman for the biggest pub in the World, The Moon Under Water on Deansgate, Manchester.
I spent all day underground, pumping Fosters into huge silver vats, like upended oil tankers. I learnt tend real ales. I cleaned 80 lines of beer a week in my little blue boiler suit.
It was about as glamorous as a poo in a plastic bag, but it sure as hell kicked the glamour and fun out of working in pubs for me. Next!
Pubs can be a place of quiet horror, joy or contemplation
Interlude: Never Again
In the Summer of 1999 we had a party. We’d just bought our first wee house together and we lived in London. That meant PARTY.
My best mates (including FRAHM co-founder Jason) decided vodka champagne was the drink of choice. I have no idea how much I drank. But it was far far (far) far (far) too much.
I became psychotic for a night. Emmalou says I chewed my pillow, slavering, laughing. I was off sick, poisoned probably, for a week.
It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done to my wife, so I said I’d never get drunk again. And I haven’t.
(Aside from my Stag Do. But that’s The Law. My god the moaning the next day. I nearly killed Jason with boredom.)
Stage 7. Wine Merchant
Chasing the dream… Better hours and the chance to absorb some culture. I quickly rose to become a very young Oddbins manager. Oddbins were (are?!) unpretentious lovers of wine, wanting to democratise it just as wine became far less elitist.
I learnt what grape makes Gevrey Chambertin. How Greece makes amazing wine but everyone except the Greeks had forgotten that. That you still get life’s more unfortunate people in wine merchants…
Men carrying women’s credit cards, trying to steal 60 bottles of Moet (this is as difficult as it sounds). Young kids spraying themselves across a shop, trying to steal what they could. Politicians and ministers, arriving at 8am with the jitters to buy their first bottle of vodka.
I used to work in The City. I’d give fun wine lectures to drunken city traders and have carte blanche to shout insults at them. They loved it. I would sell cans of lager to scaffolders for huge high offices in their lunch breaks.
Vodka was what drove me out of selling booze. As I found out more about my father’s troubles, I realised what I was doing - enabling alcoholics. I was selling what was killing them.
It was The Vodka Lady in The Pencil Skirt who pushed me over the edge.
It started in September. A quarter bottle of vodka in the evening, before her train left.
In October it was a quarter in the morning now too.
November was a quarter then a half bottle.
By December it was a half in the morning and bottle in the evening. God knows what else.
Her slight body deflated like a rotting peach. It became blotchy. Grey. Dead. Her eyes dropped and the pupils merged with her bags into the deep black pools of someone who’d already given up. She smelt like she was rotting. I recognised the sweet, dead smell of old vodka as the breathe if my dad.
I started to realise this was what my dad may have been like. That I was helping to kill someone.
So in the week before Christmas I said no. “I can’t serve you anymore. I can’t do that to you or myself. Sorry. Can I help? What’s wrong? We can talk.” I was horribly out of my depth. I was shaking.
She started crying hysterically. She got down on her knees and grasped my hands and BEGGED me to serve her. It was fucking horrific. One of the worst moments of my life. She had lost all pride, all sense of herself. The drug had eaten her and she was lost.
So I left.
Stage 8. General Boozing.
Yep, what most of you do. I do. Drinking alcohol ‘normally’.
It’s the first drink - The sigh of relaxation - The taste. That’s what I enjoy.
Not so much the second. Certainly not the third. I’m usually done by then.
Except most folk over-do it every now and then. I never get drunk - this isn’t one-upmanship, I just can’t bear it and I’d made a promise. Having seen my dad in his drunken state as an adult and having the most pathetic resistance to booze, combined with the infamous promise, I just don’t get drunk. I hate being around drunk people.
But I do like a drink. Handily, I also now know quite a bit about drink, with qualifications in wine, spirits, beer production etc. Booze is interesting.
I even did a consultancy for Wild Beer, local craft beer creators. I loved their creativity and passion.
Russ from Wild Beer in a Harrington Racer Jacket
Stage 9. Not Drinking?
Booze, or rather the culture around booze, has treated me well. Booze in itself has caused my family pain.
As I get older booze agrees with me less and less. I get sullen, tired, bloaty, snappy, moany, lack concentration in the mornings, wobble about dazed after one G&T the night before.
So I’ve toyed with being teetotal for years. I lose weight immediately - its like ripping off a fat suit. I’m bright, happy, calm, concentrated. It’s all very dull for you, but I like it.
I also like booze, so I do booze.
Stage 10. Mental Health
I had a nervous breakdown in 2017 and the advice was to stop drinking. Alcohol is a depressant. You don’t want to be more depressed. That’s a bit thick.
But this is very hard to do, because booze cloaks pain, for a little bit. That can be dangerous.
Handily I’m terrified of being an alcoholic like my dad, so I have an intrinsic motivation. To be honest it was a mixed bag until I started taking anti-anxiety drugs.
These drugs are strong. With booze it’s a Not So Magical Mystery Tour of Crapness. I gave up for a very long stretch, for someone not really trying anyway. When the drugs stopped, I let booze leak in.
I like booze… Hell, there are times I love it. I studied for years to understand it for christ’s sake.
I love malt whisky, aged rum and craft beer.
I’m surprisingly agnostic about wine, mainly because it feels like being punched in the psyche when I drink it.
I miss drinking Guinness like crazy (I’m allergic to something in it, weirdly).
I love pubs. Pubs are part of the fabric of FRAHM. Proper pubs - community pubs with roast Sunday lunch and dogs and beer gardens.
A great pub - where you can read the paper and eat crisps, in a Utility Field Jacket [very subtly done Nick - Ed]
I like booze and it’s culture a lot.
I also hate booze.
My dad is an alcoholic. It makes me feel like shit quite often. It makes me fat and stupid.
If a doctor said to me “You must never drink a drop ever again” I’d just shrug and say thanks. That would be it. I wouldn’t be sad. I can take or leave it. I am very lucky.
Booze scares me. It should scare us all. It kills a LOT of people. It ruins the lives of these addicts and those around them.
I know this. Nothing in my life has been worse than seeing my father drunk, not guns, or accidents, nothing.
So here’s my middle ground. Be booze aware. Don’t give me grief for not drinking and don’t give people grief for liking a drink. Keep an eye out for those in trouble. Try and help them (this is a whole other blog that I’m not qualified to write) if you can, but goddam it’d hard.
Drink. Don’t drink. Just be happy and healthy.
When you see me, I’ll have a Mount Gay rum with ice, not that spiced crap. Thanks!
Do share your booze thoughts below. Look after yourself. Nick.
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Movie & TV producer of This is England, The Virtues, Four Lions, '71, Dead Man's Shoes and loads more.
A fantastic chat with such an open, down to earth, inspiring gent.
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