01 November 2010

Drinking (Evelyn Waugh)

In my childhood wine was a rare treat; an adult privilege to which I was admitted on special occasions. At my school there was no tabu against drinking (as there was against tobacco). Housemasters occasionally made a mild grog or cup for senior boys. I remember being embarrassed when one Ascension Day (a whole holiday) my companion got very drunk on liqueurs at a neighbouring hotel. It was at the university that I took to drink, discovering in a crude way the contrasting pleasures of intoxication and discrimination. Of the two, I preferred the former.

I think that my generation at Oxford, 1921-1924, was the last to preserve more or less intact the social habits of the nineteenth century. The ex-service men of the First War had gone down. Undergraduate motor-cars were very few. Women were not seen except in Eights Week. Oxford was still essentially a market-town surrounded by fields. It was rare for a man to go down for a night during term. The generation after ours cherished closer links with London. Girls drove up; men drove down. Cocktail shakers rattled, gramophones discoursed jazz. The Cowley works enveloped the city. But in my day our lives were bounded by the university. For a brief Indian summer we led lives very much like our fathers'.

In the matter of drink, beer was the staple. I speak of undergraduates of average means. There were a few rich men who drank great quantities of champagne and whisky; a few poor men who were reputed to drink cocoa. The average man, of whom I was one, spent $100 a term and went down $300 in debt. Luncheon was served in our room with jugs of beer. Beer was always drunk in Hall. At my college there was the custom of 'sconcing' when a breach of decorum, such as mentioning a woman's name or quoting from a foreign tongue, was fined for the provision of beer for the table. At one time I used to drink a tankard of beer for breakfast, but I was alone in that. It was drawn and served without demur. The Dean of my college drank very heavily and was often to be seen feeling his way round the quad in his transit from Common Room to his rooms. There were occasions such as bump-suppers and 'smokers' when whole colleges were given up in bacchanalia. In my first year there was a 'freshers' blind' when we all go drunk on wines and spirits and most of us were sick. Some white colonials got obstreperous and the custom was given up. All drinks were procurable at the buttery but the bursar scrutinised our weekly battels and was liable to remonstrate with a man whose consumption seemed excessive. My friends and I had accounts with wine merchants in the town, relying on the buttery for beer and excellent mild claret, which was the normal beverage at club meetings held in undergraduate rooms. No one whom I knew ever had a bottle of gin in his rooms. I remember only one man being sent down from my college for drunkenness and that not his own; late at night he hospitably passed tumblers of whisky out of his ground-floor window to a friend in the lane, who was picked up insensible by the police. I always thought it a harsh sentence. The poor fellow had come three thousand miles from the United States to imbibe European culture.

There were six or seven clubs with their own premises; some, like the Grid, highly respectable; others, Hogarthian drinking dens. The most notable of the dens was named the Hypocrites, in picturesque Tudor rooms over a bicycle shop in St Aldates (now of course demolished). There the most popular drink was red Burgundy drunk from earthenware tankards. A standing house rule was: 'Gentlemen may prance but not dance.' The oddest of these clubs with premises was the New Reform at the corner of the Cornmarket on Ship Street. This was subsidised by Lloyd George in the belief that it would be a nursery for earnest young Liberals. It became a happy centre of anarchy and debauch. Habits of extravagance grew and in my last year we drank a good deal of champagne in mid-morning at the New Reform and scoffed from the windows at the gowned figures hurrying from lecture to lecture. There was a vogue for whisky and crumpets at tea-time in the Union. I think it is no exaggeration to say that, in my last year, I and most of my friends were drunk three or four times a week, quite gravely drunk, sometimes requiring to be undressed and put to bed, but more often clowning exuberantly and, it seemed to us, very funnily. We were never pugnacious or seriously destructive. It took very little to inebriate at that age and high spirits made us behave more flamboyantly than our state of intoxication really warranted. Not many of us have become drunkards.

We were not discriminating. In a novel I once gave a description of two undergraduates sampling a cellar of claret. I never had that experience at that age. Indeed I do not think that at twenty I could distinguish with any certainty between claret and burgundy. Port was another matter. The tradition of port drinking lingered. Many of the colleges had ample bins of fine vintages of which undergraduates were allowed a strictly limited share. Port we drank with reverence and learned to appreciate. The 1904s were then at their prime, or, at any rate, in excellent condition. We were not ashamed (nor am I now) to relish sweet wine. Yquem had, of course, a unique reputation. Starting to drink it in a mood of ostentation, I was led to the other white Bordeaux. Tokay was then procurable and much relished. Bristol Milk and a dark sherry named Brown Bang were also favourites. We tried anything we could lay our hands on, but table-wines were the least of our interests. We drank them conventionally at luncheon and dinner parties but waited eagerly for the heavier and headier concomitants of dessert.

Nowadays, I am told, men privately drink milk and, when they entertain, do so to entice girls. It is tedious for the young to be constantly reminded what much finer fellows their fathers were and what a much more enjoyable time we had. But there you are; we were and we did.

Extract 'Drinking' from The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (1984)


Belle de Ville said...

I am pretty sure that the level of beer drinking matched that of my son at UC Santa Barbara...starting with the tankard at breakfast.
Now at 27 and working NY hours, he has declared that he just can't drink like he used to.
And thank god for that.
I've been reading a Mid Nineteenth Century novel by Mary Gaskell where the main male characters, who are students at Cambridge, are chastised for having more demanding taste in wine than their Squire father.
Obviously, 150 years ago Oxford/Cambridge was where you went to develop your taste for wine.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but this was Oxford, a very good, but second division University.


Anonymous said...

Lancing..., Oxford..., Oh Dear...,

A.E.F. said...

Admiral, '..the contrasting pleasures of intoxication and discrimination.'
Which do you prefer?

RulingPart said...

Every time I drink to excess it involves hurt feelings and property damage. I think some men wear alcohol well, and some wear it like polyester hot pants.

Nobody wants to see me in polyester hot pants.

Laguna Beach Fogey said...

AEF ~ That is a tough question. Must I choose? I am not very discriminating in how, where, when, or with whom I become intoxicated.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, for a brief moment, I consider that he was easily the best writer of English prose of the 20th century. I admire him very much.


Tabitha said...

I'm so glad I'm not the only one who became pie eyed on liqueurs at an early age - they were easy to snaffle from pater's drinks cabinet.

v. Braun. said...

I really like this excerpt...it not only reflects my own socialization to drinking but it also portrays well that nice, typically English blend of Germanic (beer-guzzling) and more 'modest' Franco-Roman traditions, see: Port, d'Yquem...great read, there, and very inspirational, too!

A Super Dilettante said...

I think this extract by Waugh should be a pre-requisite reading for all the students before going off to the univeristy.

Anonymous said...

What about the good old college bar where I mostly imbibed during the mid nineties? Did they not have a college bar back then? Or do we presume that was where he took "tea".