In 1975, living in the arse end of nowhere, I did not have a sophisticated outlook. Nothing about my existence, immediately prior to going to university could be described as sophisticated and nothing exemplified this better than my relationship with liquids of the drinking sort.
I turned 18 in November 1974 and for my first legal drink I enjoyed, if that is the right word a pub crawl with four friends up Lymington High Street. My drink of choice? Beer. Ale, of the hoppy sort. Back then nearly all beer sold in the ubiquitous British Pub was either bitter – my preference – or lager – which then was light gassy and tasteless. Indeed the principle differences between most bitters and lagers were in the weight. Bitter was heavier, with more body. It too was generally gassy and pretty lacking in a discernible flavour.
There were signs of the improvements that would reshape the British relationship with beer. Camra – the campaign for real ale – had begun to make its voice heard, though it would take a Thatcherite initiative 15 years later to drive a stake through the heart of the gassy keg bitter that was mostly sold back then. In 1974 the large – as in mahoosive – brewery companies dictated what we punters wanted and that was a beer that kept well – so was pumped full of CO2 – tasted like pond water and introduced the majority of the public to persistent and percussive farting. A joke back then told you all you needed to know
Q: what’s the similarity between making love in a punt and Watneys Red Barrel (a brand of bitter)?
A: they’re both fucking close to water
For me at 18, these were pretty fine distinctions. At 16 pence a pint, at its cheapest, Trophy bitter as Whitbread’s staple was called served its purpose: cheap, enough alcohol to eventually addle my brain but not so much that I couldn’t manage ten pints before I lost control of my lips, my limbs following shortly after.
And that was it, really. I didn’t drink spirits – too expensive, or wine – not popular in my circle. There were non alcoholic drinks of course. Fruit juices came in small bottles and had the sort of aftertaste that suggested at some point they’d shared their glass accommodation with fermenting rodents. Lemonade came in large bottles and was made by R Whites. My mother’s sneering, if she found you drinking this was so loud it was the aural equivalent of the Great Wall of China and could be heard in space. She made her own which was indeed delicious but had a season of perhaps 6 weeks in the summer when lemons were plentiful. Mind you if she sneered at the lemonade I’m not sure of the verb to describe here views on all forms of cola, Coke or Pepsi. Generally she found Americans likeable and her musical preferences were all crooning American lounge lizards, but her scorn knew no bounds when it came to all things culinary. By the time I left for Bristol I’d learnt not to bother suggesting I drink either sort.
And then I arrived in Bristol and met a whole range of people with an even wider experience of alcohol than my parents. In no time at all I was challenged in my bitter preferences but both at the time, and looking back now I have to admit things didn’t improve in quality much.
I suppose the only difference was that some friends drank bottled beer. These pilsners from Eastern Europe were a notch up on the pumped lager I knew from. There were also the danish beers that were popular, Tuborg being one such. But these became occasional treats as much for pricing reasons as any other. As for beer, well Bristol pubs were predominantly Courage pubs so we were soon weaned onto Courage best bitter; it was shite but not as appalling as that pumped directly from the sewers which was Newcastle brown ale – ‘Newkie brown’. Geez, really? You were meant to drink it? I always suspected it started life as something you used as an unblocker and somehow found an alternative use.
Ah yes. Now spirits were available at home but parsimoniously dispensed. Scotch was Bells, what dad drank with ginger ale at New Years Day parties and called cooking scotch. He had mentioned malt whiskies but to my certain knowledge these were never served to anyone of my youth back then. And I certainly never experienced them at uni. Gin as in gin and tonic I’d tried and hated. In the early weeks of my first year Dave and I were invited to some party where we found ourselves getting blootered on gin. It was awful and created a tsunami of pain when it came to the hangover. All I really remember about that experience was running across the Downs on our way back to our Halls having stolen one of those paraffin lamps with which they used to light up roadworks and tossing it between us like a rugby ball. I suppose we were lucky neither of us were flambéed. I do know I never drank gin after that day. Other spirits included vodka and rum but none really appealed and somehow the supposedly manly connotations that came from drinking pints prevented me moving to shots.
I can’t say I became a sophisticated wine drinker during my three years. There were three wines I recall that appeared with a numbing regularity. Blue Nun, Black Tower and Cloberg. These were all Germanic of the Riesling or Liebfraumilch sort, sweetish and pretty unpleasant. The advantage was in availability, pricing and the fact they were session wines, so named because you could survive a session drinking them before you thought better of it. Red wines were far too adult for we novices. I can recall a Cote du Rhône at some point in my third year but that was about it. I also have nightmares being water boarded with a red called Don Cortez, a Bolivian Vino Tinto, but that is another story….
It would be remiss if I didn’t mention cider that staple of West Country obliterations. In Bristol then and probably now you could always find cider on draught. The famous establishment was the Coronation Tap, the Corrie, where they sold three sorts: cheap, very cheap and so cheap you didn’t even realise you’d paid for it. Each could be sampled neat or adulterated with orange or blackcurrant squash. The first universal truth about all three was after one pint you experienced its anaesthetic qualities. After two you developed a ruddy complexion and spoke with the slow West Country drawl because that was a fast as you brain would allow. After three… no one remembers what happens after three.
The right of passage as a law student was during Rag Week – I’m not sure these affairs survive these more sensitive of times – but they were (in)famous for their japes and jokes, not all of which were that well thought out or very sensible. Being lawyers in the making we undertook something involving ritual and humiliation: our version of something called Dwile Flunking.
In simple terms this required one person to stand in a circle made up of the other participants who danced clockwise. The person in the middle held a stick on the end of which was draped a wet rag – the ‘dwile’ which he or she proceeded to fling or ‘flunk’ at the circle. A hit and the ‘flunkee’ drank a cup of local cider; miss and the ‘flunker’ drank the cup. The cider was the roughest that money could buy – it was seriously cheap – and often meant the person in the middle, were they to miss twice needed to be helped away from a stomach pump and counselling. And they tell us the old days were better. Right.
Years later I discovered you could drink this rather than just wash in it. Truly revelatory.
Of course, being students were drank huge quantities of tea and coffee. Somethings have stayed with me.