A Short History of Drunkenness, by Mark Forsyth, Penguin, 243 pp, £8.99, ISBN:978-0241359242
A Ukrainian proverb can be taken to illustrate our human attraction – and perhaps our occasional uneasiness about that attraction – to alcohol, its pleasures and dangers. “The church is near,” it goes, “and the tavern is far. It is snowing heavily. I shall walk carefully.”
Mark Forsyth’s brisk gallop through a number of historic civilisations and their drinking habits begins with a short disquisition on the universality, or near universality, of ritual drinking across ages and cultures. Few peoples have been immune, it seems, even in strongly religious societies where the practice is frowned upon. As one Iranian religious leader complained (in 2011): “Not even the Westerners drink alcohol like we do. They pour a neat glass of wine and sip it. We here put a four-litre barrel of vodka on the floor and drink it until we go blind … What a bunch we are! We’re all the masters of excess and wastage.”
But why do we drink? To shed our inhibitions is a common answer. But this is something that Forsyth disputes, pointing out that he can remember doing things under the influence of alcohol so stupid and pointless that it would be absurd to suggest that he was longing to do them when sober but simply didn’t have the nerve. He may have a point here, but of course the idea of inhibition and that of judgment are closely related: when we lose our inhibitions we also frequently lose our judgment. It may well be that for a shy person – and many of us are shy – it will be easier to ask the question “I was wondering if maybe you’d be interested in going out some time, say for dinner – what do you think?” after four or five pints. And if the person you are asking has been tolerating your company over those four or five pints there’s a good chance the answer will be yes. So that’s all to the good. But there is also a possibility that your “enhanced” mood will lead you to pair off with someone whom you would possibly have avoided when sober. Hence the concept of “beer goggles”, though of course it’s far from being just a question of looks.
Mark Forsyth’s boozy crawl takes him from prehistoric times, when our ancestors came down from the trees, attracted – he claims – by the fermenting fruit on the forest floor (“the Drunken Monkey Hypothesis”), through Sumerian, Egyptian, ancient Greek, ancient Chinese and Hebrew civilisations, on to the medieval ale house, England’s eighteenth century gin craze and twentieth century experiments with prohibition. Even when the behaviours described as typically accompanying boozing are unedifying, riotous, violent or just plain murderous, Forsyth’s tone tends to remain jaunty: this is certainly not a book for the temperance activist, or even someone concerned by the multifarious down sides of our long affair with drink. “If you live in Russia today,” he writes, “there’s a 23.4 per cent chance that your death will be related to alcohol.” And yet the jokiness continues. Unlike the English ruling classes in the eighteenth century, who wondered where the ready availability of cheap gin was going to lead their people, Russia’s rulers have apparently more often been terrified about what might happen if the peasants and proletariat stopped drinking. The only serious temperance campaigns of the last hundred years or so, Forsyth writes, were directed by Nicholas Romanov and Mikhail Gorbachev – and both ended with regime change.
Forsyth’s short history deals principally with drinking as a social activity, whether with guests in the home or in the ale house, tavern, inn, pub or cocktail bar. There is little on the solitary drinker, the kind of man (usually a man) whom the seats up at the bar are for. (A solitary woman drinker has traditionally been less visible.) And there is not so much about that most desirable practice – moderate drinking – in theory an enjoyable and civilised business which can alas transmute into something else after the effects of the initial drinks on our old friend judgment. If we could only freeze it there, at that pleasant and just very slightly naughty moment James Thurber called “that third martini feeling – when you’re beginning to feel very sophisticated but can no longer pronounce it”.