The ancient Greek’s guide to drink
Sometimes you see a book title that simply gladdens the heart. Everyone I showed this book to either smiled broadly or laughed out loud.
This may have something to do with the fact that I was reading it.
It is true, I will admit it, that I like a drop. As it happens, there are 14 pubs in my postal district and I like to think I have kept at least some of them in business in tougher times than these.
But throw your preconceptions aside — because Mark Forsyth has done a sterling job with this brief, and sometimes astonishing, book.
Forsyth is the author of The Etymologicon, a bestselling trip through some of the dictionary’s more obscure words that was clearly dreamt up during a long lunch.
He also wrote a sequel, The Horologicon, which wasn’t a fraction as good and was obviously conceived during a lunch that went on rather too long.
Mark Forsyth takes readers on a hilarious journey of drunken antics through the ages
One remarkable thing is that no one has done this book before. The second is that, in his researches, Forsyth found an absolute wealth of material —much of it quite bizarre — which proves that civilisation has depended on drink for longer than we can imagine.
In fact, so steadily have people been drinking for so long, it’s amazing we have any civilisation at all.
Drunkenness, he says, is near universal. ‘Almost every culture in the world has booze. The only ones that weren’t too keen — North America and Australia — have been colonised by those who did.’
And in every age and every place, drunkenness is subtly different. When the ancient Persians had a difficult political decision to make, they would debate the matter twice: once drunk, once sober. If they came to the same conclusion both times, they acted.
His book, then, could have been so much longer, but Forsyth has cherry-picked from history, going for the amusing story, rather than comprehensive coverage.
Drinking, he points out, has always been surrounded by rules, but they are rarely written down. ‘In present-day Britain, for example, though there is no law in place, absolutely everybody knows you must not drink before noon, except, for some reason, at airports and cricket matches.’
Why have humans been champion booze-hounds for so long? Benjamin Franklin thought it was because of the position of the elbow.
‘If the elbow had been placed nearer the hand, the part in advance would have been too short to bring the glass up to the mouth; and if it had been nearer the shoulder, that part would have been so long, that when it attempted to carry the wine to the mouth, it would have overshot the mark and gone beyond the head.’
Still, he also thought that Noah’s flood was intended to punish mankind for drinking water, by trying to drown us in the stuff.
And what was the first thing Noah did after the flood waters receded? Planted some vines, of course.
A detail from the tomb of Nerfertiti, who died in around 1330 BC, shows a female servant holding a wine vessel, while her mistress sits on her right and throws up. How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen.
The Greeks didn’t drink beer, but they loved wine. Their famous ‘symposia’ were just extended gargling sessions. The playwright Euboulos wrote: ‘For sensible men I prepare only three kraters [barrels of wine]: one for health, which they drink first, the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home.
‘The fourth krater is not mine any more — it belongs to bad behaviour; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.’
I think this may be my favourite piece of writing about anything, ever.
Early Christian monasteries did not disallow wine completely; they just wouldn’t let you drink more than a bottle a day. The Koran does prohibit you from drinking wine, but promises infinite quantities of the stuff in paradise.
One of the best chapters describes the precise differences between inns, taverns and alehouses in England between the 12th and 17th centuries.
Essentially, inns were posh hotels, taverns were posh wine retailers and alehouses were people’s kitchens where you could buy drink.
Most spirits started out as medicines that were taken so enthusiastically that their medicinal application was swiftly forgotten.
Queen Victoria favoured a whisky-and-claret cocktail, which Forsyth says is ‘not as bad as it sounds’.
In a recent internal report, NASA revealed that on at least two space shuttle launches, astronauts were ‘properly, full-on, hiccups-and-happiness drunk’.
This is a book of some brilliance — probably best consumed with a restorative glass of something by your side.
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