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Original Essays

Alcohol and the English Imagination

by Gerard Woodward
  1. A Curious Earth
    $1.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    A Curious Earth

    Gerard Woodward
    "Rich in humor and pathos, this comedy of modern urban life with its richly defined main character will have wide appeal among readers of literary fiction." Library Journal

    "[B]eautifully written....Aldous is at once endearing, sad and inspiring, and he's given a vibrant set of foils in the flamboyant supporting cast." Publishers Weekly

  2. I
    $24.95 New Trade Paper add to wishlist
    Finalist for the 2004 Booker Prize

    "Woodward is absolutely unsentimental, and he makes no excuses for his characters — but his unflinching, dispassionate attention is itself a kind of grace. Intensely humane and elegantly written." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

  3. August: A Novel
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    August: A Novel

    Gerard Woodward
    Shortlisted for the Whitbread Award
English literature, it could be said, begins in a pub. Or an inn, to be precise: The Tabard Inn, London, where Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims meet at the beginning of their journey. Their host, Harry Bailly, is a goodfellow who offers to travel with them. He holds out the prize of a free feast on their return for the pilgrim who can tell the best tale. It is something of a challenge to literature itself, since what follows is a collection of vastly different stories — from high-class courtly romance to low-class ribaldry, from poetry to prose — held together purely by the host's desire to be entertained by a good narrative. The host of the inn is therefore someone not unlike the connoisseur of literature, eager to find the best story there is, told in the best way possible.

It is entirely fitting that English literature and English drinking should be intertwined from the outset in this way. The democratic space of the English pub, where peasants rub shoulders with lords, can serve as a microcosm of English society itself. This is particularly evident in perhaps the most famous pub in English literature — the Boar's Head in Eastcheap, where Falstaff held court and entertained Prince Hal, the future Henry V. In fact, the Boar's Head's chaos and conviviality can be seen as the first representation of the ale house, and drunkenness in general, as something that might need to be brought under state control, an anathema to the emergent protestant state of Elizabethan England. The first serious attempt by the state to control drinking through legislation came during the reign of Henry VIII, when a series of acts of parliament, aimed at cracking down on "vagabonds, idle and suspected persons" lead to the first instances of state control of ale houses and the introduction of the licensing laws which persist today, in varying forms.

It is perhaps at this point that the ambivalence with which the English regard alcohol becomes apparent. Excessive conviviality breeds chaos. The English pub is at the heart of the community, but it has traditionally been a male-dominated, antifemale space. It is still quite possible to find pubs in England that have never been graced by a female footfall, let alone the scampering of children's feet. This may all stem from a cultural tradition that aligns England with Northern European traditions of drinking. Although the Romans brought wine and turned Britain, briefly, into an adjunct of a Mediterranean culture, with the decline of Roman influence Britain returned to a Celtic, or Germanic drinking pattern — essentially beer- and ale-based, with an emphasis on distilled spirits, especially whiskey. This is in contrast to the wine-based drinking culture of Southern Europe, where wine is considered part of the diet and is typically consumed on a regular, daily basis as part of a meal and in a family setting, and there are strong informal sanctions against public drunkenness. In contrast, Northern Europe tends to be characterised by a more explosive drinking pattern, in which drinking is less frequent but heavier when it does occur, usually around weekends, usually away from the family and as an end in itself. This concentrated form of drinking — "binge drinking" in the current jargon — was intensified by the practice of buying rounds, which encourages everyone to drink at the speed of the fastest.

This isn't, of course, completely clear-cut, and wine-drinking in Britain has increased hugely in recent years, with the influx of cheap non-French wines from eastern Europe and the new world, but despite a certain amount of convergence there is a stark contrast in degenerative alcohol effects between the extremes of northern Europe — the UK, Denmark, Finland, Scandinavia — and the southern extremes — Spain, Italy, France and Greece.

I share something of the English ambivalence toward drink. My trilogy of novels concerning the Jones family, a heavy-drinking and drug-taking clan of North London bohemians, draws substantially on my own family experience, but I was loathe to simply depict alcohol as a destructive social force. One reviewer described the family as being simultaneously destroyed and sustained by alcohol. In a way that description could be applied to the English relationship with alcohol in general; we watch our young people destroying their pristine livers and debasing themselves in our city centres, and respond to the tragedy by introducing 24-hour licensing. Yet the 24-hour licensing idea seems to make perfect sense. The troubled attitude of the English to alcohol seems often to stem from an anxiety about lack of supply. If alcohol was more widely and easily available, if pubs were truly family-friendly, then the puerile need to binge drink might be lessened. Managed well, the drinking of alcohol is a beautiful experience — socially cohesive, possibly even enlightening. In my novels I wanted to celebrate this aspect of alcohol, even as the central characters succumbed to its violent and dissolute darker side. I wanted to celebrate the lost pubs of North London, encouraging my characters to make their own Chaucerian pilgrimage through the engraved glass partitions and dimpled copper tables of the snugs and saloons in a series of epic pub-crawls. It is, however, the darker side of alcohol that creates the dramatic tension. A novel about a family of happy drinkers would, in itself, only fulfill the Tolstoyan dictum concerning the uniqueness of tragedy. The unhappy Joneses are, I feel and hope, unhappy in a particularly unusual way.

In the recently published final part of my trilogy, A Curious Earth, I have done my best to depict the ups and downs of the life of an elderly man living in the aftermath of tragedy, alcohol still doing its work of nagging at the boundaries of Aldous Jones's sense of self. Conscious that I was writing the concluding pages to a narrative concerning the near total destruction of a family by drink, I couldn't resist bringing alcohol back, in the final pages, to its customary position in our culture — at the centre of everything. The demon in the bottle that is also the blood of Christ, maker and destroyer. There may be a form of paradise that is very like a pub (of the best sort). Of course, there may be a version of hell along the same lines. In whichever one the Joneses end up, I imagine them raising a glass in eternity.

÷ ÷ ÷

Gerard Woodward is a poet and the author of the Man Booker Prize finalist I'll Go to Bed at Noon and the Whitbread finalist August. He has received the Somerset Maugham Award and lives in England. spacer

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