Except I don’t much, any more.
I used to, I can’t deny. My wife and I loved a drink from our early days together when we would cheerfully sink a few beers before moving on to wine and sometimes a brandy. This went on well into our married life, mostly at weekends, but it was not unknown for us to open the odd bottle of wine in the week too. Don’t get me wrong, there was never a time when either of us couldn’t go without a drink, but it was a regular drip feed.
Then, about 18 months ago, we turned to each other, just after starting our second bottle of red one Sunday evening (shared with our grown up son), and agreed that neither of us were enjoying it any more. It finally dawned on us that we were drinking out of habit.
We stopped entirely for three or four months. Bizarrely, it wasn’t even hard. We’ve gone back to the odd beer now, some of it non alcoholic (which isn’t bad actually) and she still enjoys a G&T on a Friday, but we haven’t had a bottle of wine since. It’s saved us a fortune too.
I find it remarkable when I consider how long I’ve been drinking.
It was a slow start. I grew up in a house which rarely had any alcohol. My parents occasionally had a bottle or two of babycham or some stubby little cans of Mackeson Milk Stout in the cwtch dan star (the cupboard under the stairs). My mother would open a bottle of sherry at Christmas time so that visitors could have some, but most of it went in the trifle she made for my birthday.
The drinking culture of the Valleys I grew up in was deeply ingrained and centred largely on work and rugby. Entertainment was limited but there were many pubs, rugby clubs and working men’s clubs to choose from, although I don’t remember there being an off licence in those days.
My father went to the pub once a week, on a Wednesday evening, and I loved the smell of the pints of Mild on his breath when he came home - if I conspired to still be awake so he could tuck me in. Very occasionally he’d bring my cousin’s husband home with him for cheese and pickles after a Wednesday drink. The exotic equivalent to an olive in Don Draper’s Martini for Brynamman.
But I only ever saw my dad drunk once my whole life after a session with his brother in law and his niece’s hard-drinking boyfriend when I was in my late teens. I can imagine the set up. The two older men trying to keep up with the young buck, not to be outdone but suffering the consequences of years of moderation. It was a situation I fell foul of myself (in reverse) a couple of years later, when I foolishly tried to keep up with my girlfriend’s Irish father. I threw up after ten pints and went back for more. He seemed impressed but probably thought, rightly, that I was a knob.
But that wasn’t my first experience of drinking. When I was fifteen I started going with my mates to the school disco, there was no alcohol of course, so we hatched a plan to buy some flaggons of cider from a pub known to have a relaxed attitude to serving minors. It was a couple of miles to walk but no matter, our virgin thirst drove us on like Lawrence of Arabia crossing the Nefu desert. The Golden Lion, our Aqaba.
We tossed to see who would go in, gave him the money and went to hide around the corner in case we were seen. Ten minutes later, out he came with a triumphant look on his bum fluffed face as he struggled to hold on to six slippery flaggons of Woodpecker. We whooped around him to grab the spoils just as a Police car rolled by. Our hearts stopped and so did the car, reversed up and collared us in the act before we could scatter and ditch the evidence. Our bloody luck. He knew most of us, or at least people who knew us, and let us off with a stern warning. I suspect the landlord got a sterner one. We were worried sick all week in case he had told the school, but we heard no more of it.
After my first thwarted attempt at illicit underage drinking it took a year or so to finally get the opportunity to sink my first pint. It came via an invitation to an 18th birthday party, where the assumption was that everyone there was close enough to 18 to make it not worthwhile checking — not that we had any ID in those days anyway. I don’t remember the details (a situation that would become increasingly common from then on), but I, and most of my peer group, would have quickly dissolved from the scrubbed and suited upright citizens our mothers sent out into the evening and morphed into vomit-flecked wrecks with piss-stained shoes by the end of the night. Lovely.
There were enough blind landlord’s eyes turned to allow a regular habit to be developed over the next couple of years. We drank at the Collier’s and the Half Moon in Garnant, The Farmer’s in Glynmoch, and The Cross Inn, The Railway, and the Bard in Ammanford. A seven mile pub crawl completed via bus and thumb from my home at the top of the Amman Valley. Everyone was at it. The pubs were full most weekday evenings and every weekend, it was a great atmosphere, a social whirl.
Admittedly, some of the pubs were a bit rough. I remember my friend being bitten on the ankle by a small child who was hiding under the pool table in the Farmer’s Arms. It was obviously a regular occurrence as the barmaid screamed at the child, I’m sick of tellin’ you to stop faackin’ bitin’ peeple! The Bard on a Friday night resembled the pub in Boys from the Blackstuff complete with a character in a ‘Wales’ sun hat who was always in place at the corner of the bar with a monkey puppet permanently welded to his arm. Shake hands, indeed.
I got to seventeen and passed my driving test before most of my friends and this put a curb on the drinking for a while, an enforced respite as I adventurously ferried my pals about to country pubs in my dad’s van. We drove across the mountain to The Three Horseshoes and the Pont Aber or up near Carreg Cennen Castle to the Square and Compass and the Cennen Arms. I played the newly installed Space Invaders (a table version with a sturdy glass top), and chose songs from the jukebox as my friends got drunk. I didn’t mind, as the novelty of driving was still that, for a while. Eventually we took it in turns as more of them passed their tests too.
I drank beer or cider all through my college years, though not to great excess as money was tight. We had the odd party of course but I also began to enjoy a quiet pint with a newspaper on my own now and then rather than getting shitfaced every weekend.
When I got my first job my consumption took an upward swing again. As most of my colleagues were single young men the Friday night after work drink became a weekly highlight. We’d finish work and dash across the road to Uncle Sam’s then up the road to the Upland’s Tavern (the Tav). It was a wind down from work and a warm up for the weekend.
I was renting a flat on my own in Swansea and it was a great base to stagger up and down to the pubs and clubs of the big city, making it popular with friends from the valleys and beyond to come and stay at the weekend. We’d start around 6.00 on a Saturday, (unless there was a rugby match which would mean a 1.00 kick off to the drinking and a 2.30 kick off for the game). A pint in the Cricketers or the Rhydings, or both, before stopping at the Westbourne, the Singleton and the Quadrant Gate. Then on to the clubs, Baron’s, Martha’s or Harper’s — funny how they all seemed to belong to someone.
Dancing ourselves into an alcoholic trance while leering at the womenfolk became an unrewarding pastime we spent far too much time and money in not becoming expert at. When you got to the stage where the music started to reverberate in your head you knew it was time to pull, or get a kebab.
Kebab in hand I’d start the walk back up the unforgiving hill cursing my luck and knowing full well that I’d pay for it tomorrow. I also knew that I’d be doing roughly the same the following weekend.
I foolishly went on a drink fuelled lads fortnight to Corfu in the mid eighties following the break up of a relationship. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d gone with a human rather than the trained chimp my friend became after a couple of glasses of Ouzo and coke. He managed to get himself arrested on the second night for dropping his trousers in the main street. I was otherwise engaged when he went missing and baffled when he didn't turn up the next day. Finally, around 7.30, just as I was thinking of phoning the police, he turned up, beetroot, barefoot and bitten to pieces. They’d arrested him, taken his money and his flip flops and driven him way to the south. It had taken him the whole day to walk back. I somehow managed to keep him in one piece for the rest of the fortnight and swore quietly to never go on holiday with him again.
Then I met my wife and discovered a shared enjoyment of wine that I had previously not known I had. I discovered that it was the sharing that made it special. I can still number the times I have had a bottle of wine on my own on the fingers of one hand. It’s the same number as the number of children we have — four, as the only time Sarah would not have shared a bottle with me was when she was pregnant. That cut down my intake too, partly in solidarity and partly, as I discovered each time, it’s not much fun alone.
Before we got married we went to Spain to visit my future mother-in-law. We flew to Alicante and she picked us up from the airport. It was a white knuckle ride to rival the one in ‘Planes Trains and Automobiles’ but we somehow screeched into the port town of Javea just as the sun was going down. I’m not a religious man but I crossed myself as I got out of the steaming Fiat Panda and kissed the blessed ground outside her villa.
We went straight out to a bar before we could strap up our sandals and Muriel proceeded to take us on a tour of the attractions, most of which involved a laarge braandy daarling. We did eat, but I’ve no idea what, or how we got back to her villa.
The next morning I was ravenous. By eleven I got fed up of waiting for Mu to get up and raided the kitchen for breakfast. The fridge held nothing but some bottles of Bitter Kas and the cupboards were bare apart from some dog food which I briefly considered but then thought better of, not being certain of the quality of Spanish Winalot. Our hostess with the leastest floated downstairs around midday and said You poor thing, you must be famished, I know just the place. Driven by hunger alone we reluctantly got back in her battered car and she careered up the coast to a beautiful cove. We took a seat at a beachside table of a café and Muriel said something in Spanish to the waiter as we went in. Three frosty beers arrived in short order as Muriel delightedly declared, Aah! Breakfast!
We went into detox for a while after our two weeks in Spain but it wasn't long before we got back in the swing. Those pre-children 1990s days were a succession of dinner parties, weddings and functions with nicely arranged tables and we made the most of it.
My birthday is on New Year’s Eve and we have held many a house party over the years. These often became occasions when we drank ourselves sober. It’s a strange phenomenon, we would be drinking steadily from early evening and entertaining until two or three in the morning but always found the grown up energy to clear everything away before going to bed, usually swearing we wouldn’t be doing it next year.
It was also a New Year’s eve that I got the most drunk I’ve ever been. We had a civilised dinner with an old school friend and her Scottish husband but it quickly degenerated when I got the whisky out, Irish, to his immense disdain. We drank it anyway and our wives left us dancing around the kitchen to the Pogues while playing a selection of kiddie’s toy musical instruments, me on a tooty little sax and him on a plastic tambourine. I woke up next morning lying face down on top of the saxophone on the kitchen floor. I’ve never been drinking with a Scotsman since.
The last time I got drunk
I’d like to think that the very last time I ever will get drunk, was when I went up to visit our eldest son in Aberystwyth. He’d been to University in the town and got a job and stayed on for a couple of years afterwards so he knew the place well. One weekend I decided to go up to take my dear boy out for a meal in the evening. Starting with cocktails it quickly descended into a drinking session where he pushed the pace to a level that I couldn’t live with, by now unused to it.
It was a revelation to see him like that, a mirror to my younger self I had not expected to see. I had that odd 21st century dichotomy of knowing that drinking is not big or clever, and yet I was still proud of how my son handled it. Those macho roots go way deep and start just below the surface no matter how hard I’d like to think them gone.
That was three years ago and now I still enjoy the odd beer, mainly because I like the taste — most soft drinks are too sweet for my palate. But I genuinely feel free of the desire to drink to excess now and it’s liberating in ways I would not have anticipated. I still have a nagging doubt that with the confidence of Dutch courage gone, I’m not as interesting as I once was when I’d had a drink, but I suspect it may be that I only ever thought I was.