Monday, January 28, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: The Art of the Moonshiner

January limps depressingly to its close to the accompaniment of yet more priggish suggestions that if we will not limit our alcohol intake the crudest of economic sanctions will be applied.

Should this nonsense come to pass, the only honourable response will be to revive the ancient mysteries of the moonshiner.

The tradition of making of one's own illicit spirits is associated with two places in particular – the southern states of the US and Ireland – so much so that in deference to the tradition I shall refer to the drink as poitín from hereon in.

There is a connection here, of course. Both places have a long tradition of distrust for – and outright - hostility towards authority. Moreover, the American South was settled in large part by the so-called Ulster Scots. In Ireland the spiritual heartland of the poitín maker was Donegal and the west. You may also wish to speculate on the kinship between the Bluegrass ballad posted here (the modern homage is rather entertaining too) and old Irish staples such as this, or this.

I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler, I'm a long ways from home
And if you don't like me, well leave me alone
I'll eat when I'm hungry, I'll drink when I'm dry
And if moonshine don't kill me, I'll live till I die.

The romance of poitín is heightened by the fact that it is ideally made in wild, mountainous country as a solace for the desolation of the place and a moment's pleasure in defiance of the injustices of life. (And – let's be frank – some of the other ways in which the people of the Deep South and Ireland have shown their disdain for the authorities are rather less pleasant).

Still, I feel that it is a tradition that could easily be imported into England. The actual process is straight forward enough: you get your water, some rye and sugar, brew it up then distill it to separate the spirits from the rest (many of you will have done something similar in chemistry lessons at school; the only difference is – I'm assuming – you didn't get to sample it afterwards.) The only tricky bit is getting the equipment right – these should help you out, however.

What I'm suggesting is illegal, of course, but as I have said the defiance of the law is part of the pleasure and romance of making your own spirits. If you don't have the technical know-how on how to make the still and tubing properly, I don't, additional fun could be had trying to import the necessaries under the interfering noses of customs.

Another caveat, it is the custom in Ireland to pour the first glass of poitín away as a gift to the fairies: this is sound practice. The first fruits of your distillation are likely to contain the impurities that will make you go blind. Ideally you'd want to distill it more than once.

If all goes well with this plan to elevate the art of the moonshiner to its rightful place in England, we might be able to see another great Irish custom – that of the shebeen (or illicit drinking den). It's not that the illicit manufacture and consumption of drink doesn't happen here, already, of course, but what's lacking is the panache and verve with which it is practised elsewhere.

For guidance, here's a tale of a modern day Donegal shebeen, the Bog Hotel (complete with Polish barmaid). I gather that some locals have described the place as a den of vice and iniquity – little better than a hoorhouse said one: that's my holidays sorted then.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

True Scot

It's Burns night tonight. Lots of twee tartanry in the offing – just what sort of person would go to the "celebration" at the JD Wetherspoon in Cricklewood incidentally? – and you'll either find all that 18th century dialect and lyrical verse intolerable or, you'll agree with Seamus Heaney's Birl for Burns in today's Telegraph:

For Rabbie's free and Rabbie's big,
His stanza may be tight and trig
But once he gets the sail and rig
Away he goes
Like Tam-O-Shanter o'er the brig
Where no one follows.

I incline to the latter view, though I don't quite see why the Russians, in particular, are so red hot for Burns. Still good as he is, though, there is more to Scottish culture, although Burns night does tend to mask that fact.

In that spirit, here's the truest insight to the human condition to come out of the place.

Y'aright there Rab?

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Drinking a Lion Under the Table

A moment's silence, please. Now raise your glasses in honour of Californian bar owner, champion eater and drinker extraordinaire Eddie 'Bozo' Miller.

Although he was best known for his eating feats – such as eating 27 chickens in one go – Miller was a drinker on a truly heroic scale. "Before lunch, I'd have 10 to 12 martinis, every day," he told the Oakland Tribune last November and he was also, apparently, noted for his ability to pack away 2 litres of whiskey in the space of an hour. This latter was a world record, apparently, I bet that Guinness doesn't allow such reckless feats of drunkeness into its record books these days.

His most entertaining exploit, though, was drinking a lion under the table.

His encounter with the lion came, like most of his exploits, as the result of a bet. "Some guy from the circus came into the restaurant - Reno Barsocchini's, I think - with a lion on a leash," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I drank them out of a glass, and they put the martinis on a soup plate for the lion. I maybe had about a dozen. The lion, he kept lapping them up until he just fell asleep."

That lion sounds a bit of a lightweight, to be honest. Still, to paraphrase Dr Johnson, it's not so much that it's done well, but that it's done at all.

No matter, if anyone deserves a Trollied Tuesday valedictory it's Eddie Miller. His life stands as a rebuke to the narrow, reductive puritanism which seeks to drain all the joy out of life – and not just because he lived to be 89. His exploits, like those of other great lovers, gamblers and other disreputable types, provide a dash of colour, romance and excitement – in other words a spectacle which helps to make life at least a little bit liveable.

By contrast, the idiotic idea that drinking a fair bit is destroying society has taken on the proportions of a national epidemic. A particularly asinine example comes in today's BBC story Men Drink Far More Than Women. You can insert your own drippingly sarcastic comments to this. The actual "story" – that people with some spare cash drink more than people who are broke need not detain us, save to observe that it does tend to suggest that enjoying a drink does not preclude you making a moderate success in life.

Or to put it another way. What has more value to you as a reader? Pious, by numbers tut-tutting from a bunch of bibulous hacks about the Middle Classes destroying their health? Or reading about Eddie 'Bozo' Miller?

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

National Stereotypes: Not Always Useful

When a smoking ban was introduced in Ireland in 2004 the country, which takes a certain pride in its rebel heritage and disdain for authority, acquiesced meekly like a flock of lambs. Thinking that if you can tell the Irish how to conduct themselves, you can get people to do anything, the authorities in Europe followed suit. Well it's easier than tackling a far graver risk to public health.

But when the authorities tried getting the law-abiding, orderly and humourless Germans to do the same the result was – revolt, defiance, chaos and piss-taking.

Some pub and club owners have even tried to turn their establishments into member-owning smoking clubs, like Hamburg's Association for the Preservation of Smoke Culture and Advancement of Tolerance.

The owner of the Mouse Trap pub in Schleswig-Holstein has lodged an application to turn it into a church. 'I consider the burning of tobacco to be a religious practice,' said Dirk Bruckner, who already boasts around 400 followers.

While smoking in bars is technically already illegal, fines of between €5 and €100 for those who continue to light up will not be implemented until July, when orderlies will be sent to inspect establishments. As a result, many Berliners in particular - considered to have one of the most pronounced counter-cultures of any city in Europe and therefore used to putting up a fight - are holding out until then. So where you can smoke and where you cannot could hardly be more confusing.

Chaos and revolt German style. They should do it more often.

PS: It's not mentioned in the article quoted above, but a special mention should go the man who put a "smoking point", three cushioned holes – one for the head, two for the arms – for the use of smokers in his bar. Picture of it here.

PPS: I should also mention the city of Philadelphia. I was there just over a year ago and it had introduced an anti-smoking law that was so vague everyone just ignored it and carried on as they pleased.

Rauchen sie gut.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

So that 's what they mean

You may be familiar with the Australian term "tall poppy syndrome" – that if someone stands out too much, he'll be cut down to size.

I don't know enough about Australian society to know how widespread this is, and how much the term is used as short-hand whinge by high-profile people who are being pulled up on their shortcomings. But any doubts I had as to how it works in practice have been dispelled by the highly entertaining Corey Delaney story.

Corey, if you need reminding, was the teenager who hosted a party which culminated in 500 teenagers clashing with riot police in a Melbourne suburb and spawned lurid allegations of semi-naked teenage girls playing twister (that should boost my hits count). Global notoriety ensued.

Now, though, the police have cut him down to size.

Victoria Police said in a statement that one male had been charged with producing child pornography and creating a public nuisance, and had been bailed to appear at a children's court on February 22.

Bit of an over-reaction isn't it? Who among us has not wanted to host such gargantuan scenes of Saturnalian debauchery (at least one hack admits to a sneaking admiration). And which of us does not feel secretly enraged that it is a jumped up little bollocks seen sporting that supernally irritating sun-glasses and fur hoodie (in an Aussie summer too) combination who has managed to achieve it?

A more appropriate response is, I think, the Aussie Daily Telegraph's slap Corey game. Although personally I think horse-whipping the self-absorbed little runt would be infinitely more satisfying.

Youth. Wasted on the young.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: On the Wagon

It is with a heavy heart that I open my laptop to write the following words; but for the time being I am on a booze break. For the month of January, or thereabouts, I tend to give my liver something of a break – should this blog seem more than usually wistful or sub-standard then this, I am afraid, is your explanation.

Despite the headline I've given this post, I have a particular dislike of the phrase "on the wagon" – there is something irritatingly self-regarding and portentous about it. Possibly it lies in the much-disputed origins of the phrase. One theory has it that it derives from the final journey of convicts to Tyburn, London's historic place of execution. They would be allowed to stop on the way for a final drink to steady the nerves, but once they were on the wagon, that was it. So the theory has it, anyhow.

Sadly, it seems that the true origin of the phrase is even more unpleasant. In the United States temperance types would parade "reformed" or "repentant" drinkers on wagons through towns in which they would either show off their new found virtues or else serve as an awful warning of the perils of drink. (As mentioned before, I can provide plenty of examples to refute this by showing the merits of drinking).

At least those at Tyburn executed were able to give a grand spectacle on their final journey. Public executions were massive spectator events (I don't think I am being unduly cynical when I speculate that if we still had public executions, tens of thousands of people would still turn out to watch the "fun") and the likes of Jack Sheppard, the most glamorous outlaw of his day and Lord Ferrers, the first peer to be hanged, went out in style. (The latter dressed rather stylishly in "white suit, richly embroidered with silver" on the unimpeachable grounds that "This is the suit in which I was married, and in which I will die".)

Anyhow, the tiresome, nannying mindset which inspired Trollied Tuesday would doubtless applaud this temporary lapse into abstinence, but my intention is not to parade my virtues in the fashion of those unfortunates being paraded through the streets of Buttfuck, Iowa (or wherever). Besides, the boredom of life stretching out endlessly would surely kill me. This is more my type of health kick (the fellow involved has just been done for amphetamines too, what fun) Instead let us think of more pleasant things, such as the other amusements which I can afford with the money I save as my liver recuperates.

1) Gambling. The perfect vice, from a health point of view. You get to exercise your brain calculating the odds (and a clearer, alcohol-free brain surely helps here) plus the excitement from a big punt on a live event will give the heart a good work out. Currently, the marvellous Political Betting site and the US primary season are providing me with a stimulating diversion.

2) Better cigars. I will blow the smoke from my Romeo y Julietta in the face of all puritans.

3) Unhealthy literature. I particularly fancy the Dedalus Book of Absinthe. This last is an example I urge you all to follow, for a an especially good reason.

Due to the overspending on the Olympics, the Arts Council has cut funding to Dedalus (and 193 other arts organisations). Unless the publisher can raise £24,958 by the end of February it's the Newgate Hornpipe for it. There are various things you can do (including signing this petition). But I would urge you all to follow the path of enlightened self-interest and swell the company's coffers by buying some of its remarkable books. If you're short of cash, give up drink or something for a while.

(More on Dedalus here and here.)

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Index Librorum Prohibitorum

No only am I damned by my taste for offensive music, I now stand doubly condemned by my book shelves. Specifically,by the complete Flashman. To understand just how terrible this is, please imagine that you are a young lady who has been enticed back to my premises (doubtless by the use of alcohol, shameless flattery, insincere promises and the judicious use of a cravat).

Helen Rumbelow, writing in the Times, warns "there is one type of book so alarming that if you spot it you should gather your coat, write a note saying 'it’s been special' and leave immediately. That is, of course, any book from the Flashman series." As she explains this could betray – depending on context – "nostalgia for a prewar Britain where the rigid caste system was playfully reenacted by boarding-school boys smacking their juniors’ bottoms"; "male chauvinism"; or "raving, possibly violent," misogyny (defended by a cowardly shield of irony).

You might think that this article has just been written to a commission solely to provoke a response (one gathers that the Times has done this before). Unfortunately, Rumbelow is entirely correct, although she has only scratched the surface. A further glance at my shelves would provide evidence of an interest in such a range of crimes, vices and offensive things as to prove conclusively that I should be shunned by all right-thinking people, even Murdoch hirelings. I imagine it's the same for most Flashman readers.

Imagining you are still the trembling young ingenue who has been lured into my villainous lair (you are still reading this in character, aren't you?) browsing the shelves as I pour the Madeira (thank God you're not looking through the DVD collection); you might find other shameful relicts of Empire and masculine adventure such as Sherlock Holmes, John Buchan and Patrick O'Brian – the last a rather "gay" choice, I've been told. But subsequent discoveries could bring another flush of shock to your maiden cheek, followed by a thrill of fear and maybe even a half-suppressed frisson of excitement.

1. Works from and about ancient Greece. Anyone interested in this sort of thing is either the sort of man who has an unhealthy fascination with "Grecian" practices such as grappling with other muscle-bound, naked men or buggering young boys (why there are even poems celebrating that sort of thing). Alternatively, he is interested in philosophy, in which case you should certainly run for it. In any case, this interest in an era in which women were firmly kept in their place should raise suspicions.

2. "Satanic verses". Not Rushdie, but Milton's Paradise Lost. This has certain uncanny parallels with Flashman, in that both are dominated by a charismatic, compelling and utterly irredeemable hero who overshadows the more virtuous characters. To fall for the allure of reigning in Hell is almost as bad as being nostalgic for the days of empire. To compound the situation, you might also find Liber Legis and other "spiritual" works by the likes of Aleister Crowley. Crowley might have been a total charlatan, drug fiend and deviant who wrote a half-baked work mixing Nietzsche and Satanism, but, well, by now you know how bad it is to be entertained by villainy.

3. The Koran. Continuing the spiritual theme, but what a minefield this is if you want to judge someone's motives by the books they read. So many possible interpretations and one mis-step could lead to that worst of all crimes – causing offence. Still, since you're here, fancy a temporary marriage?

4. French literature. Possibly the worst of all. As Rumbelow says: "If you need permission to enjoy a sexist, racist world, don’t use irony – visit France." From modern times there is Michel Houllebecq accused of, amongst other things, obscenity, misogyny, Stalinism, Islamophobia, poor taste and, perhaps most damningly, retreating into science fiction. Passing back through the likes of ideologically iffy writers like Sartre and Céline, we reach the apex of literary crime: 19th century Paris. The languid decadence contained between the pages of Mallarmé and De Gautier might seem harmless enough, if a bit effete, but placed alongside Huysmans and such works as À Rebours and Là Bas, it starts to look ominous.

And there, inevitably, to confirm your worst fears is a copy of Les Fleurs du Mal, that exploration of every form of vice and thought crime known to personkind. Apart from the fascination with prostitution, lesbiansim, sickness, death, diabolism, revolt, Bauderlaire's masterwork also betrays an unhealthy fascination with crimes which are positively Flashman-esque in their scope. These lines (inc translation) might explain why:

Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l'incendie,
N'ont pas encor brodé de leurs plaisants dessins
Le canevas banal de nos piteux destins,
C'est que notre âme, hélas! n'est pas assez hardie.

It's fair warning: to expose yourself to a man who likes Baudelaire is to risk becoming entangled in all manner of unhealthy desires and exotic vices. Run for it, ladies, lest you too start to understand this fascination.

Top hat flicked upwards to Quink to picking out the piece in the comments to the previous Flashman post.

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Five minutes in Camden town on a Saturday afternoon will convince you of the need for the return of national service. Ten minutes, and you'll start to warm to the idea of bringing back the birch and capital punishment.

Five minutes in Hampstead on a Saturday afternoon will convince you of the need for a revolution. Ten minutes, and you'll start to warm to the idea of Maoist style purges and a one-child policy.

As for Oxford Street on a Saturday, I imagine that if the jihadists were ever having trouble recruiting suicide bombers, an afternoon spent traipsing up and down the place would solve the problem.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

George MacDonald Fraser dies

No sooner do I write about cads and bounders than George MacDonald Fraser, whose appropriation of Thomas Hughes's Harry Flashman has given us one of fiction's greatest bounders, dies. If you're a fan, any further praise would be superfluous; if you're not, then what are you waiting for? Get reading.

Still, by way of a small tribute, here are three favourite things about Flashman.

1). The sledge chase in Flashman at the Charge. A breathless, dramatic chase through the frozen Russian steppes as the wolves close in and the sinister Russians get ever closer to the fleeing Flashman. So, naturally, at the moment of greatest tension he heaves his lady friend over the side of the sledge to create a diversion.

2) John Charity Spring: a psychotic slave-trader and captain of the slave ship Balliol College, prone to explosions of terrifying violence and quoting from the classics. The latter are, if anything, more alarming than the former.

3) The tantalising gaps in Flashy's record. Like any great storyteller, Fraser knew that some things were best left to the imagination. The second book – Royal Flash – begins "If I had been the hero everyone thought I was, or even a half decent soldier, Lee would have won the battle of Gettysburg and probably captured Washington." By further hints and asides we learn Flash fought on both sides in the Civil War, having been blackmailed by Lincoln into taking part. Of course, we'd love to learn more, alas we never will – unless there's another packet of the memoirs waiting to be discovered in GMF's attic?


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

EDW: the cravat

Elegant, suave, louche and a certain indication that the wearer is not to be trusted. The cravat is an item of clothing worn only by the cad, the deviant, the bounder, the rotter or the charlatan and such its presence on a fellow's neck is a most valuable indicator that you should be on your guard.

I trust I am not prejudiced against the garment by the fact that, at university, I had the misfortune to share a flat with the most unspeakable Bavarian who used to wear a cravat as part of the over-bearing, pompous persona he was attempting to create. I have two cravats myself, and always like to wear them when on my very worst behaviour.

No item of clothing is better suited to getting up to no good (unless you had the doubtful fortune to be educated at a leading public school, in which case the old school tie meets the case equally well) for there is something rather magnificent about the cravat – provided it is worn correctly. A perfect indication of how to do this is Errol Flynn, here, a fellow whose louche and devilish manner perfectly matches the allure of the garment. In his personal life Flynn may have crossed that line that separates the cad from the bounder, but one must allow that anyone who dies aged 50, while holidaying with his 16-year-old chorus girl lover, his body worn out by boozing, heroin and womanising has something going for him.

This distinction between the cad and the bounder is an important one; as a rule of thumb the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Alan Clark, George Galloway and most of the men in the late Princess Diana's life are all bounders – it is not a thing to aspire to. The case of the cad, however, is more complex; we all enjoy a good cad.

Dressing in a cravat is an important part of the cad's role. It is a sure sign of self-awareness; he knows he is a wrong 'un, but should dress the part. The cravat is, after all, the ideal thing to wear when up to no good. It is important, besides, that any lady who should fall prey to the machinations of the cad is given the romance and excitement that comes from associating with such reckless types will, when it all ends as she knew it would, not be too broken-hearted (a bounder would have no such consideration) but, rather, have benefited from the experience. She cannot say she was not warned, after all.

PS: Interesting-ish fact. The word "cad" derives from a slang term for the conductors on the earliest London buses. (See section 131 here). They were a byword for rudeness, foul language and so forth – very far from the modern ideal of the cad – but the name's associations with bad behaviour must have stuck.


Is anyone else having the same problem?

Tedious query here, but Blogger is not letting me comment on this and other Blogspot blogs. I know some of you can still comment on this site, so I'm at a loss to see what the problem is.

Obviously if you can't leave a comment, I can hardly ask you to let me know. But if you can and have an idea what it may be, do let me know (in clear, idiot-proof language, if possible).


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: The Hangover Cure

New Year's Day is boom time for sellers of Alka-Seltzer, fizzy drinks like Lucozade and Irn Bru and the like; but we all know, do we not, that while these might dull the pain of a hangover, and may help you get through a day at work, the only thing that works is the hair of the dog. For the true drinker a hangover is a punctation mark, not a full stop. Ideally, one would not get hangovers. This is not, however, an ideal world so we must face it as best we can.

Personally, I tend to stick to the Bloody Mary, but we all have our prefered pick me ups; there is always a case to be made for a champagne based reviver. The discussion in this Guardian books blog alerted me to Evelyn Waugh's preferred reviver: a dash of gin and a bottle of stout which is all topped up with ginger ale. I must say, it sounds rather cheering.

The one thing that can be safely said is that in this imprefect world there is no perfect cure for the hangover (rumours tell me that there may, in fact, be a perfect form of the dry martini, but we must leave that for now). We have, however, the concept of the perfect hangover cure, thanks to the genius of PG Wodehouse. I refer, of course, to Jeeves's magical concoction. The effects of which match the Platonic ideal of the hangover cure. Some observers have suggested his cure bears some relation to the Prairie Oyster; I doubt however that that concoction could ever have the same effect as Jeeves's.

For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more.


Oh dear II

Further to the previous on Pakistan's fucked up-ness, one phrase strikes dread into the heart.

19-year-old Oxford undergraduate. There is no creature on earth more cocksure, jumped up and more in need of a horse-whipping.

Still, the young fellow in question may be an exception. What's his character like?

"Described by friends as studious and devoted to his mother".

Best not put that on the campaign literature, I think.