Tuesday, 21 June 2016

I'll Drink To That

"Never drink on an empty stomach.....always have a couple of beers first...."

So came the sage advice delivered dead-pan by my dad to my impressionable pre-pubescent self, as I sat listening intently to his pearls of wisdom. My sister and I were drinking warm Coca-Cola through straws from hourglass bottles in the smoke-filled Hither Green Working Men's Club, a regular weekend haunt of his.

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Karen and I wore matching heart-print dresses, knee-high socks and ugly Clarks T-bar shoes, swinging our legs as we sat crunching on cheese and onion Golden Wonder whilst Dad chugged back lager and chatted to my uncle and grandfather above the music being belted out by the red-faced organ-player in the background. Mum was at work: this was working-class Daddy Day Care, Eighties-style.

The set of Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights was modelled on such clubs, characterised by men-only bars, endless naff-prized raffles and dated Seventies decor, right down to the gold metallic-strand curtain shimmering beneath neon strip lights.

This particular South-East London venue was a classic example: sticky lino floors, polystyrene ceiling tiles, pork scratchings (then considered a nutritious snack) and live darts being broadcast loudly on big boxy televisions held on brackets. Standard.

I gazed around at the sea of guffawing men, right arms tilting pints heavenwards in unison, sharing jokes, pausing intermittently between gulps of lager to sling a handful of KP dry-roasted peanuts into their open mouths. They seemed to be having a whale of a time. Thus began my introduction to the world of drinking.

Another educational gem, delivered with a wink by Dad as he expertly arranged his tie in the mirror on a weekday morning following a boozy City-based client dinner:

"You see Sam, you don't want to be wasting your day off feeling rough. Always get paid to be hungover."

Fast forward a decade and my early experimentation with alcohol was executed in the much the same way as the science experiments my classmates and I carried out at school.

First, we'd come up with a theory, our hypothesis: to get deliriously happy-drunk with the minimal amount of apparatus, monetary outlay and with the least adverse chemical reactions.

Next came the method: siphon off small quantities of various contraband spirits, mix in a conical flask (or failing that, an empty water bottle), add friends, then decamp to the local park to await the results of the chemical experiment. No bunsen burner or tripod required, yet the outcome was often explosive. Colours became brighter, jokes funnier....then the world spun more quickly on it's axis and it was time for a lie-down.

Conclusion: careful and precise measurement of inflammable liquids is required in order to achieve the desired effects of euphoria and giggles, as opposed to green-gilled quease and room-spinning unease.

It was evident following a few miscalculations and mishaps involving lifts home from St John's Ambulance instead of taxis and the ensuing parental fury, that this delicate balance was going to take practise, but being resourceful teens we were unconcerned. We were in no hurry. We knew that what we'd begun with alcohol was a long-term commitment, not some casual fling. We were prepared to put in the legwork to make the fledgling relationship flourish. And flourish it did.

By our mid-to-late teens most of my friends and classmates at school were regulars on the local pubs and clubs circuit. It was the obvious place to meet socially; trendy coffee chains weren't yet the norm - drinking was just what we did, a hobby. It was what everyone did. No big deal, right?

By the time we understood the long-term ill-effects of alcohol it had become a deeply-ingrained habit, a part of who we were. The demon drink was like fast-growing ivy, coiling it's suffocating fronds around our vulnerable minds.

It's often implied that those who like a regular tipple are brash and coarse: arrogant, braying City boys or lairy lager louts. In my experience, the opposite is often the case - crippling insecurity and low self-esteem are masked by a few drinks to loosen up, as the shy self-medicate their way to a more confident, dazzling version of themselves: the dispirited turn to spirits.

"You look great" whispers Smirnoff...."Go on, hit the dancefloor" urges Chardonnay. "You're so witty!" gushes Hendricks and tonic, twirling her cucumber curls flirtatiously as she encourages you to dominate the conversation.

As a young adult, there's a tendancy to binge. As Oscar Wilde once said:

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes"

I'm inclined to agree. In the hectic heyday of my twenties my busy social life involved several pub meets a week, whereby multiple drinks would be consumed (on an empty stomach, naturally) in quick succession, since we had to squeeze our jollies in between unsociable working hours.

To be fair, any working hours were deemed unsociable in those days, since they invariably got in the way of our fun - eating into our precious partying time - which was rather rude and inconvenient, I always thought.

No wonder hard-working folk binge-drink, in the same way that we binge-watch box sets: even relaxing has to be shoehorned into our tight schedules then approached head-on with gusto; there's simply no time to waste.

As one rumbles into middle-age, it becomes more socially acceptable to drink less, but more often. It's not the done thing for a wrinkled-up raver to go on a mid-week mashup to break the monotony of the nine-to-five treadmill...although a drip-feed approach to drinking (say, a few glasses of red a night) is considered fine. But is this option less damaging? The jury's out (out down the pub, I'm assuming).

Some argue that having weekdays off then saving up your units for a weekend blow-out at least allows the liver to regenerate itself in between sessions. A canny caner's version of the 5:2 diet, if you will.

If a middle-class mum has a few glasses of expensive Merlot to unwind every evening and doesn't guzzle them all on a Friday night in town, rounding off the evening with a greasy kebab in the back of a cab, is that better for her body....or just her reputation?

Being Brits, drinking to excess is almost expected of us. It's in our DNA. To decline a double-vodka in favour of a sparkling water is frowned-upon, a sign of weakness rather than the strength that is actually required to say no.

Those who don't drink are regarded with suspicion, then dismissed as either a crashing bore, health freak (same thing) or recovering alcoholic. The only time it's acceptable to turn down a mojito is if you have a foetus in situ. Never having been pregnant means I can't recall turning down a drink.

So here's the deal. Rather than seeing soft drinks as a bit, well....soft, I'm going to try for a dry July. For the first time ever (save for my fertility treatment days) I'm going cold turkey. Not a single alcoholic beverage may pass these parched lips.

I'm not saying it'll be easy, but I'll give it a bash. I'm curious to see if I'm miraculously bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, sharp of mind and glossy of coat after this period of enforced abstinence. A better, more productive version of myself, furiously tapping out the modern-day equivalent of War And Peace using all those lovely brain cells I haven't lost through drinking. Hazard lights will no longer be required to steer me through the regular early-morning brain-fog.

Will I shed my Pinot pounds? Alcohol is full of empty calories, so at the very least I should lose a chin or two, no? Why does a night on the sauce never end in carrot-stick cravings, I wonder? It's always a crazed 2am cheesy carb-fest.

And after a month-long detox, surely the retox will be all the more enjoyable?

Or - how's this for a feat of imagination - perhaps having gone a month I'll decide never to go back, to remain a committed teetotaller, like my mum...or the Dalai Lama. (They're the only two non-drinkers in existence, as far as I'm aware).

Will my frayed nerves be able to cope without reaching for the wine bottle? It remains to be seen.

Only time - or the loose-lipped lush down the offy - will tell....

This post has also appeared in The Huffington Post UK

Fancy reading my back-story before you go any further? You can find my other blogs at:

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Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Smells Like Cheap Spirits

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Having been a big blonde fish in the small pond that was Foster's Primary, it was quite a shock when I rocked up for my first day at the imposing Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School, aka Chis 'n' Sid, or "Chis 'n' Sad" as it was sneeringly labelled by the local rival school pupils.

Standing head and shoulders above every other eleven year old didn't preclude me from being picked on; within days I was blubbing into the foyer payphone to my mum, having had a swarm of older kids buzzing round my solitary seat in the dinner hall, swiping my lunch from under my nose and devouring it in seconds as I protested weakly.

My family had earlier nicknamed me Olive Oyl (remember Popeye's love interest?), albeit a blonde-haired version, due to my trademark slicked-back low ponytail, long gangly limbs and lanky, awkward gait; despite my best efforts I struggled to blend into the sea of uncertain babyfaced pre-teens whose eyes were level with my washboard chest.

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I didn't know a single soul in this seemingly huge, intimidating school, and consequently was overcome with loneliness. My starchy new uniform felt alien, it's newness making it stiff and itchy: oversized lurid purple blazer ("you'll grow into it!"), unflattering grey A-line skirt, lilac shirt, box-fresh black shoes....all regulation down to the elasticated purse belt and grey granny knickers. I may as well have had "newbie" written on my forehead in black marker.

Despite my fears, I soon formed tentative friendships with a gaggle of kind-faced girls and we slowly settled in, customising the ugly garb as best we could: rolling the waistband of the school-shop skirt up a few inches here, untucking our shirts a bit there, scrunching down white knee-high socks around skinny ankles. Although all the pupils were united in our collective dislike of the uniform, the vastly differing personalities beneath the ensemble started to show and various cliques began to form: The Cool Kids, Boffins, Geeks, Inbetweeners and Goths.

Unlike at primary school, it quickly became apparent that showing any hint of intelligence was not a good thing, at least not in the eyes of the Cool Kids, who gained credibility by being as disruptive as possible, much to the blood vessel-popping frustration of some of the teachers. To be labelled a "Boffin" was the most scathing of insults.

The roll-call of teachers' names read like characters from a Roald Dahl* novel: Mr Clarence Trotz, Mr Forsdick, Mss Rust and Crust the PE teachers, Mr Pitts, Tony Tipping (nicknamed Angel Delight as he was a schoolgirl's dream topping). Miss Naylor (nail-her?), the voluptuous young English teacher who'd make the testosterone-pumped teen boys drool.

Then there was Mr Jenkins, the red-faced French teacher who was partial to a tipple so constantly wore dark sunglasses, even in winter. He'd secure the boys to the desks by their ties and kick our rucksacks out of the gangway as he paced up and down reciting 'topic vocab' from the overhead projector, sometimes opening a first-floor window to casually sling out a bag that crossed his path. One boy in my class took umbrage to this, so cunningly placed a few bricks in his rucksack and left it in the walkway. We all held our breath as he took a swing at that bag...

The teachers with a sense of humour but an iron fist were generally the most successful. It was a battle of wills; they knew that any sign of weakness on their part would quickly result in chaos. Some resorted to aggression to restore order - throwing board rubbers at pupils' heads (Mr Franklin, History) was effective, slamming down books on tables...less so. Mr "Angry" Anderson the English teacher kept a water-filled Jif lemon bottle in his drawer, squirting it in people's ears if they played up, which was quite innovative, I thought.

'Orrible Mr Horrobin the PE/Rugby teacher frequently terrorised us as we passed his turf of the Games block, appearing like a troll from under a bridge, firing off orders machine-gun style "Get off the grass!" "tuck in your shirts!" "bags off shoulders!" - the consequence for repeat offenders being mind-numbing plimsole-whitening detentions.

The German teachers had a management style all of their own: Herr Fischer's risqué remarks and lingering glances simply stunned us into silence; Mr Ashby's Spam obsession (the cheap meat variety, not junk emails) and classroom sheepdog trials were just plain random. The only German I remember him teaching me was "Is the sausage married?"  "No, he's Die Wurst" (divorced). Groan. 

Mr Sennett was our headmaster, a wizened old vulture, half-moon glasses perched atop hook nose. We nicknamed him Senex, the Latin word for "old man". (Well, we were grammar school kids; even our jokes were intellectual). The thick-skinned velociraptor would stride around, teeth bared, muttering "Guttersnipes!" under his breath, his chosen descriptor for his most unruly charges. He was offset by the kindly Mr Lightwood, his top-heavy deputy, who I remember as rotund and jolly, like a friendly robin red-breast.

There were daily dramas to be punished: boys fighting in the playground, girls smoking in the toilets, metal spatulas heated in bunsen burners then held on the backs of necks during chemistry experiments, water-filled balloon bombs in summer, half-dissected organs tossed at squeamish, squealing girls in Biology.

Like today's anti-terror police, the teachers had the exhausting task of constantly trying to foil fresh and inventive attacks whilst simultaneously attempting to educate us. If this was how grammar school kids behaved, I can only imagine what was going on down the road at the comprehensives: Hurstmere for boys and Blackfen for girls.

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Two things every secondary school pupil had in common were raging hormones and dubious Eighties fashion sense. By '89 we were teenagers, sporting Savile-worthy shellsuits and poodle-like perms. My wardrobe was a lairy mix of Naf Naf, Ton Sur Ton, Nike Air Max, Kickers, Wallabees, bellbottom flares, leggings and Benetton sweatshirts, accessorized with red Rimmel lipstick, a gold belcher chain, a keeper ring and gold hoop earrings. Even Mr T would have balked at that weighty jewellery combo. When I say gold, I may actually mean gold-coloured. It's a wonder my ears didn't turn green and drop off in protest. The boys didn't fare much better, with long hair tied in a ponytail being the style of choice in neighbouring schools (ours had a strict 'no hair below the collar' rule), and 'curtains' for Chis and Sid boys, or those simply preferring a less effeminate 'do'. It's a miracle anyone got a snog, ever.

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The theme tune to my early teenage years was anything by Bros. I was a bona fide Brosette, right down to the Grolsch bottle tops on my shoes: Matt Goss was my God and I would bow down before his poster on my wall. I also loved Madonna, Kylie, Salt N Pepa, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, En Vogue, Technotronic, Soul To Soul and Nirvana, as well as my parents' Beatles and Motown classics.

I would lie on my bed listening to the Top 40 on the radio or a mixtape I'd made myself, with toothpaste smeared on my pubescent pimples reading More magazine, Smash Hits or Mizz, or poring over a Judy Blume novel such as "Forever," which read like a self-help manual for angst-ridden teens. Then I'd pour my innermost thoughts into my diaries, until my younger sister got her mitts on them and read them aloud Jackanory-style to my horrified mother.

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As the teenage years rumbled on, weekends were spent surreptitiously smuggling alcohol from our parents' drinks cabinets in water bottles and heading to the local park with our mates. Every so often there'd be a major event circled on our calendars, be it a Crook Log Disco or a sleepover round at  one of the girl's houses, where we'd paint our nails and eat pizza whilst gossiping animatedly. 
My musical tastes gradually developed into dance music, the rave culture being fully underway by this time. My mate Sheryl Patterson and I fancied ourselves as DJs, the pinnacle of our 'career' being invited to 'play' at the local scout hall disco. We dressed up for the occasion in matching Naf Naf jumpsuits - hers real, mine an Erith market knock-off - and proudly spun some house tracks, as the crowd went mild....save for a loyal contingent of pubescent 'ravers' who jerked about with all the natural rhythm of an epileptic and screeching "aciiiieeeeeedddd", voices breaking as they yelled at the top of their lungs. 
As I got older, being the tallest amongst my pals had it's advantages: I could saunter into the off-license dangling a spare set of 'borrowed' car keys from my finger and casually emerge minutes later laden with booty.

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Diamond White, Thunderbirds, 20/20, K, Hooch or Two Dogs were our poisons of choice, along with a few dozen Silk Cut, then it was off to a house party, Zen's, T's or Bridewell's. Sometimes there was a party in a church in Shooter's Hill where we'd headbang to Nirvana and occasionally end the night crying big salty gin-induced tears for no apparent reason.

 Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I kept getting selected for the cross-country team and swimming gala, the mere mention of either causing me to break out in a cold sweat, not least because we had the most unflattering PE kit imaginable. It had clearly been designed by a nun for maximum sex-hormone suppression: a white aertex (so far, so standard), but the Bridget Jones-style purple knickers with circulation-stopping elastic around the thighs were unforgiving to say the least. Add thick knee-high purple hockey socks and voila! The look was complete. The only reason I was so good at running was my theory that the faster I moved the harder it would be for anyone to actually focus on that horrendously unbecoming attire. Sloshing through muddy bog, legs mottled like roadmaps from the cold, I'd grit my teeth and vow to run more slowly in future.

Then there were the overseas school trips, first to Boulogne in France where we stayed in a grotty hostel munching horsemeat burgers, then later to the Black Forest in Germany where the teachers foolishly allowed us kids to buy cheap alcohol at the supermarket and everyone got completely trollied on the last night, resulting in an emergency doctor being called to treat the resulting casualties and the frazzled teachers vowing never to run another trip. It wasn't just the pupils causing scandals though, quite the reverse, with one married music teacher having a torrid affair with a teenage pupil, another allegedly being caught getting frisky al fresco (and rumour had it, al-desko) with another man.

Am I painting a murky picture of my school days? Maybe. But despite all the angst and drama, drinking and detentions, there was plenty of studying too. That part just isn't such fun to recount.

Like ugly ducklings to swans, we finally emerged from incarceration seven years later clutching a plethora of top-grade GCSE and A-level certificates.

Feeling euphoric at our new-found freedom, we stepped across the threshold of the dimly-lit school foyer and out into the big wide world, blinking in the sunlight, ready to begin our adult lives...

*Roald himself was a Bexley boy, who worked with the brilliant illustrator Quentin Blake, a former pupil at our school who remarked that he took inspiration from his teachers ;-)

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