Thursday, 10 September 2015

Provoking the Desire

Plenty of Henrys

Like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, another vivid image of an English drinker is Henry VIII. He was clearly a man of enormous appetites. He loved wine and ale, not to mention food, sport, music and women. There have been plenty of fictional Henry VIIIs apart from Shakespeare’s version in All Is True. Hilary Mantel created a vivid Henry in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, as did Philippa Gregory in The Other Boleyn Girl. I also vividly remember Keith Michell in 1970 in the BBC’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Richard Burton in 1969 in Anne of the Thousand Days and Robert Shaw dueling with Paul Scofield as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons in 1966.  Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in The Tudors, Sid James in Carry on Henry and Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII have all made their mark in popular culture.
Richard Burton, Robert Shaw, Charles Laughton, Richard Griffiths, Nat Parker, Keith Michell, Damien Lewis

A few other vivid drinkers in Literature

Michael Henchard in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge starts the novel sozzled in Furmity (milk and raisins mixed with rum) – and then promptly sells his wife to a sailor, a startling beginning to a novel. Dick Diver in F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night – starts as a successful playboy and ends in a drunken stupor. On stage Maggie and Brick in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are earlier incarnations in their drinking battles of Martha and George from Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; both are memorable and sympathetic couples, in spite of their intoxication. Dickens created the unforgettable image in A Tale of Two Cities of the Parisians desperately lapping up spilled wine in the streets and even squeezing wine-soaked handkerchiefs into the mouths of infants, prefiguring the later puddles of guillotine blood. He also gave us the tragic Mrs Blackpool’s alcoholism in Hard Times and the comic Mrs Gamp’s gin-swilling in Martin Chuzzlewit.
Mrs Blackpool and Mrs Gamp

Days of dirty water

Where does the British love of alcohol come from? In medieval times alcohol was indispensible because safe drinking water was a rare commodity. If you lived near a source of fresh spring water you were lucky but most medieval folk (rich and poor alike) relied on:
  • home or locally-brewed concoctions of weak or strong wine 
  • mead (using honey or fruits)
  • cider (using different fruits) and
  • different kinds of ale or beer. Beer had many variations by the time of the guzzling Tudors and nicknames inevitably sprouted, for example: 
  • mad dog beer
  • dagger ale
  • tooth rot brew
  • dragon’s milk
  • double double beer (double double beer was eventually banned by Elizabeth I as it caused such riotous behaviour by all accounts; an early example of prohibition)

    Wine, women and song

Heavy drinking and drunken revelry is not a modern phenomenon: there are references to bacchanalian orgies of drinking in classical Greece and Rome; we know that the Chinese developed rice wines in ancient dynasties; the Vikings enjoyed pouring horns of plenty into their gullets; and even Noah in the Bible inspired artistic depictions of his fall from grace after too much celebration following the appearance of the rainbow.

The First Hangover (Genesis 18 – 24)

Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japeth came out of the ark…. and from them the whole earth was populated. Noah, a farmer, made a new start and planted a vineyard. He drank too much of the wine, became drunk, took off his clothes and lay down in the middle of his tent. Ham, Canaan’s father, walked into the tent and saw his father’s genitals and told his two brothers who were outside. Shem and Japeth took a large robe, threw it over their shoulders, walked backward, and covered their naked father without looking at him because they turned away. When Noah sobered up from his wine, he discovered what his youngest son had seen...
The Drunkenness of Noah by Bernardo Cavalino

“It provokes the desire but takes away the performance….”

So spake the Porter in Macbeth.
“Drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things . . . nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.”
Times past and times present are not that different in terms of alcohol. It can lead to disaster, violence and death in some cases. It can also lead to happy times of great joy. On the one hand it’s a toxic, calorific, liver-destroying, addictive, hangover-provoking, sleep-disrupting activity that affects your judgement, perception and performance. On the other hand it can reduce stress, reveal truths, dilate blood vessels, promote socializing, improve the taste and digestion of meals, enhance friendship and lead to a more contented state of mind. I suppose you need to choose your drinking companions and moderate your intake. Then all will be well with the world. Cheers.