Essay / 7 May 2019

The Hope Slayer, Alcohol.

To despise the drunk

“He is the king of liars. He is the frankest truthsayer. He is the august companion with whom one walks with the gods. He is also in league with the Noseless One. His way leads to truth naked, and to death. He gives clear vision, and muddy dreams. He is the enemy of life, and the teacher of wisdom beyond life’s vision. He is a red-handed killer, and he slays youth.”

Jack London, John Barleycorn

I haven’t drunk alcohol in over twelve years. I am intolerant towards the drunk because of a failing within myself. I am a controlling person. A virtue slanted upon a failing, I begin with myself, at least. I haven’t done so because I am English. I haven’t done so because I don’t like the feeling of being insincerely friendly. Because I used to be a doorman and drunk people traumatised me with their savagery. Because within the delicate societal balance of English manners, rituals and relentless anger, alcohol is the match that starts the tiny bonfires which light up like beacons across Britain every Friday and Saturday night. And because I had my part in that, because of where I come from, beyond my choice, and where I then went, into the bloody, hops-stinking depths of nightclubs in regional English cities, entirely by choice. I am quite aware, now, that my hatred of the drunk is my fault, a pavlovian association with the onset of frenzy and physical violence at the most, or at the least, the gross, tiresome, meaningless conversations and confessions of the inebriated that I would often be forced to listen to for hours on end.

I have had roughly three phases of perception towards alcohol in England. The first begins very early in my life. My parents ran an alcohol business. They made cider in Cornwall. They had a factory with their own apple press and would bottle the drink, label it and sell it themselves. Some of my earliest memories are of this factory, the sour smell of fermenting apples, the machinery of production, the boxes of chinking bottles stacked impossibly high. A truly industrial image, one that likely no longer exists. Cider, one of the stronger alcoholic drinks to taste close to fruit juice, was on my dinner table. I have lots of brothers and sisters, and my family was not wealthy from this business. A working-class attitude towards alcohol meant I was drinking before the age of ten and developed none of the taboo around age restriction that my friends had. My father even made mead, honey alcohol, especially for me as a boy. The sense was that somehow, mysteriously, this consumption was good for me, aided in the growth of my masculinity. It was precisely this amusingly quaint familiarity with the sensation of being drunk that so allowed for the trauma that would follow in my second phase of alcohol experience.

I became a doorman because I had anger that felt, in my teenage years, like a kind of mild madness. I had a hole in my stomach I wanted to fill with belonging, acceptance and nihilistic physical negation. I wanted to be seen moving physical things in the world, bodies. I was 17 when I worked my first shift. I had practised martial arts and pretended to myself I was pressure testing techniques. But I left my home city to do this work, knowing that its greatest danger comes from being known ‘in the town’ and people you had crossed coming to find you when you were not working. What I was not prepared for, and remains profoundly and bizarrely understated in English discourse, was the level of violence perpetrated, and accepted, in every pub and club I worked within. I had had no experience of the kind of aggressive drinking that felt emotional, psychological, confrontational. People in their hundreds and thousands drinking as much as they could as fast as was possible. People screaming, at the top of their lungs, for no reason, weeping, pissing their pants, fighting over nothing.

I once saw a man try to gouge a stranger’s eyes into his head. I saw another kick a stranger’s head like a football. I saw a woman wrap her handbag around the neck of a stranger and try to strangle them to death. I was punched, kicked, tackled, bitten and even, though not seriously, stabbed, by humans who couldn’t stand up straight. And within this adrenalin-soaked arena, I remained, unlike my colleagues, completely dry. Not on shift, or off shift, would I touch alcohol. And so, so my peers told me, remained without the tiny speck of empathy which often held their hands. I have calculated, in writing this, that I did a minimum of 200 shifts, probably far more, and while some at student unions and small pubs were quiet, most, in gaudy nightclubs and city centre pubs involved multiple physical confrontations a night. Conservatively I have tangled with over 500 drunk humans. Some easy wrestling. Some life-threatening fights.

I watched them enter, sober, watched them order luminescent chemical candy drinks by the doze. I watched them drain these liquids like water and begin to slowly hunch, slur, drool and scowl until, inevitably, they attached themselves to a fellow inebriate, and my job, under the abuse of other customers, was to interrupt these conflicts and eject the parties. Their apparent faultlessness, their stinking of alcohol, their altered speech, their desperate attempts to harm me remain in my memory, and have altered my opinions of humanity, and ethics, permanently. What stays with me too is what I did to them, as sober as anyone has ever been, unfairly advantaged against them, vindictive, frightened, excited and swaying in the palm of liquor.

The third and current phase of alcohol experience is wading through and past the self-referential, self-important bourgeois dinner party wine drinkers whose invitations I rarely receive and always turn down. People so aware of their own intelligence it stifles their ability to be kind, or generous of spirit. Who use wine for the same purpose as the hordes I once bounced, but without violence, and under the auspice of culture? Who become lecherous, dictatorial, over-familiar and unkind under the spell. Who are often alienating for their self-indulgence when sober but, when tipsy, make me wish, painfully, for the times when I could operate within simpler rules. The novelist, overly confident in their political proclamations and self-centred around vague and simplistic notions of ‘goodness’ begin to hold court with their glass in hand, as gossip spreads and eyes roll. Never are the elite educated more hypocritical and blind then when drunk. It is a depressant accelerant.

I make no unique point or argument. Of course, I am aware this is all a very specific experience, and one cannot balloon out such things into a generalised insight. And so much of it is my fault, and my failing, and my culture. But I despise the drunk and the kernel of truth I witnessed is like the pragmatic truth known those who practise professions where they deal with the worst of people all day and every day. The fire service, the paramedics, the police, the doctors, the nurses, the social workers. Those who have not the luxury of philosophy and its distance and who can never slip beneath a theoretical duvet under which to rest. Alcohol ostracises me and makes me realise, as the kindling to insight it is towards the sober, but never towards the drink, I am often, if not always, in between worlds. Scared of the drunk of both classes whose company I have kept, longing for one while with the other, until I am happiest around neither. Alcohol makes me know I am alone even when I am not the one drinking it.