Bartenders around the world, especially those in Notting Hill, Manchester and New Orleans, would probably look at me and say: now there’s a man with a clear-cut relationship with alcohol – he drinks everything he sees, and can’t handle it as well as he thinks he can.
Considering that for at least half of my adult life, selling, serving or writing about alcohol has put food on the table, my friends and family would probably say the same thing.
But it’s not true. I have a somewhat confused relationship with booze.
I took my first drink at the age of ten. My father had run off with his secretary that year (don’t worry, this is not the beginning of a sob story), and so I was farmed out to various nuclear families to get some ‘male influence’ in my life. In the eyes of my friend Dave’s father, this meant giving me a beer at a barbecue. It was one of those French lager stubbies, a 33 Export. I remember it quite clearly.
I realised that being given this beer was a big deal, so despite it tasting and smelling like vomit to me, I worked my way through it, and was rewarded with ‘oi oi’ grins and ‘good lad’ winks from the men in attendance. My ten year old body began to feel strange, sleepy and sick at the same time. I think I puked on a sofa cushion.
Beer no longer tastes and smells like vomit to me. It, and rum and bourbon taste like meat and potatoes now – essential parts of a stable diet.
I love the way booze tastes, I love the way it makes me feel. I love the way it makes others feel, the conviviality it brings to a group of people. It has been a dependable crutch and companion my entire life.
The confusion comes from a dark side to alcohol. Or more accurately, a dark side to my relationship with it. I’m not an alcoholic. I can go days without a drink, without even thinking about a drink. I can also drink without getting drunk. But I definitely have a faulty ‘off switch’. Past a certain point, there seems to be no going back – one shot too many, or a daiquiri over the edge, and the next stop is a creeping sense of doom and shame.
Everyone has heard of drinker’s remorse, which to me refers to a nebulous feeling of regret, usually attached to a rampaging hangover. My sense of shame is sometimes attached to real, embarrassing and regrettable behaviour – be it a hastily deleted Facebook status, mysterious injuries or finding the contents of my kitchen in the front garden. I am always left thinking, for fuck’s sake mate, get your shit together and rein it in.
So herein resides my confusion. I love booze, but it sometimes turns me into someone I hate. And I wonder if this juxtaposition would have occurred if I had not worked in this industry.
Going back to the early eighties, Dave’s dad equated ‘manly influence’ with giving me a beer. Nothing has changed. The bar industry is awash with statements like ‘man up, have a shot’, ‘get involved’, ‘he’s a lightweight’. All of these statements and sentiments attach machismo to drinking heavily.
But more than this, and perhaps more dangerously, they all have an implication of acceptance or belonging – he’s one of us, because he can drink. Or, he’s not one of us because he can’t.
This truth is demonstrated by the way we launched BarLifeUK. We had no money to spend on marketing or PR, so we drank our way into the industry. We were first in and last out of every event, we matched bartenders shot for shot until, for a while at least, we had a reputation in certain parts of the country that I hope my mother never hears of.
No one ever talks about this stuff, which is a situation we must change. We go to events and away on trips, joking about responsible drinking while putting away amounts of alcohol that would hospitalise a civilian. And we refer to people who don’t drink like us as civilians.
In the five-odd years that BarLifeUK has been in business, we’ve seen an alarming number of young bartenders die. Now while I can’t speak to the specifics of these cases, I do know that in my friendships and social circles outside the industry, young men are not passing away with such frequency. To believe the lifestyle that accompanies bartending is not a factor is at best foolish.
As the new year begins, among the resolutions you will make and not keep, make a commitment to yourself to be honest about your feelings with regard to your drinking. The routine of constant shifts, late nights, events, competitions, after-shift drinks rolls on, and at times either your body or your mind will shout at you for some respite. Instead of ‘taking a man up pill’ and making yourself a corpse reviver, actually give yourself a break. Eat a salad, do some exercise, go for a walk in the sunlight, and ignore anyone who gives you shit for it.
Most importantly, be aware of what you are doing. Hang on to and analyse those fleeting moments of doubt about your behaviour – this is your spider sense talking to you.
And remember the fighter pilot’s maxim: There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots. But there’s no such thing as an old, bold pilot.