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A Short History of Drunkenness

Mark Forsyth

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Alcohol doesn't lower your inhibitions - it gets you to do all sorts of things you never wanted to do when sober.

Cultural expectations - if you expect beer to make you fight, then you'll get into fights. Wine is associated with poshness, so rarely get fights.

We'd think it very starnage if a famous/rich person was buried with crates of beer and wine, but in fact we are one of few societies that didn't bury the dead without all the makings of a good party in the afterlife.

When the Ancient Persians had to make a big decision, they would debate the matter twice - once sober and once drunk. Only when they could come tothe same agreement on both occasions did they act.

Drinking surrounded by unwritten rules. For example in England, absolutely everyone knows you shouldn't drink before noon, except, for some reason, at airports and at the cricket.

We were drinkers before we were human. Perhaps the reason we came down from the trees was to grab the lovely overripe fruit lying on the ground. This fruit has more sugar and more alcohol. And about 10 million years ago, we got a mutation that allowed us to metabolise alcohol.

If supply rat colonies with alcohol, for first day or two they go crazy, but then almost all settle down to two drinks a day - one just before feeding and one just before bedtime. The dominant male is teetotal. The heaviest drinkers are the ones atthe bottom of the social ladder. They drink, it seems, bc they are failures.

Benjamin Franklin quote - "the existence of wine proves that god loves us, and loves to see us happy". He also theorised that Noah's Flood was punishment for drinking water, since he used it to kill off most of humanity.

There's an archeological site in Turkey - Gobekli Tepe - which dates to about 10,000BC, which is before humans settled down to agriculture. So it's made by hunter-gatherers. You'd need alot of them, bc the slabs are big, so probably several tribes. There are big stone 40 gallon tubs there, which hold traces of a chemical called oxalate, which forms when you mix barley and water, and which ferments naturally.

So Forsyth draws the conclusion that this was aplace where tribes gathered for a piss-up. And this led to farming, bc it was worthwhile to grow barley to make booze. Lots of reasons why grain-for-beer rather than grain-for-bread. Beer is easier to make bc don't need a hot oven. Beer provides Vit B, which hunter-gatherers got by eating animals. If you were farming, you needed an alternative source. Beer is better food than bread bc the yeast has already done some of the digesting for you. Beer can be stored. The alcohol in beer kills the germs that get into water anywhere you have settlements.

So, to sum up,around 9000BC we settled down bc we wanted to grow barley for booze.

When you find cities, it means farmers are producing a surplus, and that city dwellers areproducing things that farmers are willing to swap crops for - clothes, housing, protection or accountancy services.

This is called 'trade', and trade causes disputes, and the people who settle these disputes are called govts. Govtsrequire money for thrones, armies and fact-finding trips. And bc it's hard to remember who's paid their taxes, need writing. Writing causes Prehistory to stop and History to begin.

Pretty much the first thing people wrote about was beer. There were no coins, so people paid each other in gold, barley or beer. Originally, in about 3200BC, you drew a little pic of a beer mug on a bitof clay. That quickly got stylised into something easier to incise in clay, and became a letter (kash in the case of the Sumerians, who were the ones inventing writing.

They drank beer through a straw, bc there's a fair bit of solid barley stuff floating on top.

Plato thought you should practice getting drunk. The first time will cause hangover pain, but it you pratice you'll be able to get over that. He believed that impt to practice self-control - see a man's character by the way he behaves when drunk.

Middle Ages England there were inns, where people stayed, but no pubs. Taverns sold wine, which was expensive. The workers got ale, mostly brewed at home. Ale was made with fermented barley and water, and was alcoholic but not nice to drink. A sludgy porridge with solid bits. The, in C14, started adding hops to the ale, to make beer.

Alehouse was usually just someone's kitchen. By law, door had to be kept open, so authorities could check on bad behaviour without entering. Ao 'public', hence public house, pub.

The well-off middle and upper classes still drank at home, but for servants and laborers, the pub was a Third Place - wasn't work, where had to obey boss, and it wasn't home, where had to mind your wife. Whereas today Friday night's for drinking, in Middle Ages Sunday morning was time for getting mellow.

Aztecs had pulque, a drink madeout of fermented agave juice, which had lots of vitamins so pregnant women drank it. But banned for everyone else until they got to be too old to be useful as laborers, and they cd drink as much as they liked.

William of Orange brought a Dutch taste for gin with him when crowned King of England It also solved a problem of periodic famines. In a normal year, farmers grew just enough grain to feed everyone. No point in growing any more, bc couldn't sell it. When bad harvest there wasn't enough grain to feed everyone, so got famines and riots. Solution was to stimulate demand gor gin, which is made out of grain, so that farmers would grow excess grain bc there was a market. Then, bad harvests wd still be enough to feed population.

1700 London was the world's biggest city. English society had evolved a very effective social system based on small villages, where everybody knew each other, knew their place , and social pressure was enough to control.

Then London. Aspects of life were completely new. You cd walk down the street and not meet anyone you knew. This was so astonishing that people wroet newspaper articles about it. You cd dress up as a gent, and people wd assume you were one.

Easy to set up a gin shop. You just went to one of the big distillers and bought a gallon of raw spirit. Then you took it home and distilled it a second time. This made it way more potent, but also gave chance to add flavouring, like juniper, or something to give it even more of a kick. Turpentine and sulphuric acid were favourites.

Big problem was that people were used to drinking pints of ale or weak beer all day, so got into trouble when drank high alcohol spirits the same way.

Original plan for Australia was that it wd be a 'dry' colony - no money and no alcohol, bc then there wd be no crime. The First Fleet had convicts, marines to guard the convicts, and sailors to crew boats. Only the crew were supposed to have alcohol, but the marines protested, and a cargo was shipped for them. The first landed were the marines. Then the male convicts. Then, days later, the female convicts. The Fleet's surgeon described the scene "The male convicts got to them very soon after they landed, and it is beyond my ability to describe the scene of debauchery and riot that ensued that night."

When merchant ship turned up with beer abd rum, Governor allowed them to sell the beer, but bought the rum himself, and sold it to his soldiers, who then sold it to the settlers at 1200% markup. Have to bear in mind two things: First, these soldiers were literally the dregs of the army. They had accepted service in colony as alternative to court martials. And second, there was nothing in the way ofpleasure in this place except rum. An unfarmed, unrefrigerated, and unnfriendly country where all the women were convicted prostitutes.

Every Governor arrived in Sydney with instructionsto stop the rum trade, and every Governor quickly learned that rum was his only lever of power. Nobody would do anything unless bribed with rum.

In 1806 British sent out Captain William Bligh, he of the Bounty mutiny fame. Bligh was as rigid and uncompromising as ever, and ran straight into Captain John Macarthur, a scheming soldier-bootlegger who had made himself the richest man in the colony.

Bligh confiscated Macarthur's stills, and hauled him into court. Mac wasn't worried, bc the jury was made up of settlers and soldiers who were in his pocket, and had already taken strong dislike to the overbearing Bligh. When Mac was put on the stand, the jury started cheering him. Bligh called on the regiment commander, Major George Johnson, to get his men to take Mac to jail, Johnson said he was unable to as he ahd a hangover. That night, 300 soldiers evicted Bligh and installed Johnson as ruler of colony. Twenty years to the day after the First Fleet landing, event called the Rum Rebellion. Ended with drinks and sheep roasting bc, this being Australia, everything must end in a bbq. Jan 26 is still celebrated as Australia Day.

To replace Bligh, in a stroke of genius, British sent out Lachlan Macquarie, a soldier, a dipsomaniac and a crook. His personal genius was recognizing that everybody was a crook, accepting that, then out-crooking them all.

Macquarie realized the colony needed a hospital, so he approached 3 rich sttlers and offered them right to import 60,000 gallons of rum over the next three years in exchange for one shiny new hospital. The men realized they cd make a killing, so grabbed deal, unfortunately without reading the fine print. There was a provision that the govt had the right to sell off any spirits they already owned. And Macquarie had secretly stockpiled 76,000 gallons of rum.

So Macquarie got his new hospital in exchange for nothing, or better than nothing, bc he made £9000 taxing the rum the settlers imported. Unfortunately, he let his wife design the hospital, and she forgot to put in toilets....

In 1797 the largest distillery in America produced 11,000 gallons of whisky. It was owned by George Washington. Before becoming a whisky magnate, he'd stood for office and lost. As a distiller, he was able to hand out free booze to voters and this time he won. (At this time only 600 eligible voters)

In 1914 Tasr Nicholas II outlawed the sale of vodka in all Russia. In 1918, Tsar Nicholas II and all his family were executed. These two facts are not unrelated. Main problem was that govt got a quarter ofits tax revenue from alcohol, so not a very smart idea to cut off finance just as you were falling into WW1. And also the theory that 1914-17 were the only three years when the popn sober enough to notice what their govt was doing.

Stalin wasn't even a Russian. He was Georgian. And his real name was Josif Dzhugashvili. Stalin just means 'steel man'.

When Prohibition ended, people had forgotten what good booze tasted like. Which was fortunate, bc the producers had forgotten how to make it. All the equipment had been destroyed, and all the skilled craftsmen had migrated or retrained. For the next half-century, US had well-deserved rep for producing bad beer, wine and whisky.

NZ held a referendum on prohibition in 1919, and the Drys won. Until the votes of servicemen, who were still coming home from war, were counted.


It's one of the more mysterious features of human history that people of every era and in almost every place have regularly striven to reduce their intelligence, impair their reflexes and generally ensure that everything about them functions far less well. So what is about getting drunk that we love so much? According to Mark Forsyth's breezy new book, the best answer comes from somebody not often thought of as a classic roisterer: William James, the American philosopher and brother of Henry. "Sobriety," James wrote, "diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes."

And the way Forsyth tells it, drink has caused us to say yes to an awful lot. The desire for booze, he suggests, led to — among other things - fixed agriculture, civilisation, cities, Anglo-Saxon England, America and the Russian Revolution. (In 1914, the Tsar unwisely banned vodka.) It may even be the reason that we came down from the trees in the first place - because the forest floor was where to find fermented fruits.

Admittedly, some of these assertions turn out to be more convincing than others. Taken as a whole, though, the book - ranging as it does from Sumeria to the Wild West, Ancient Egypt to the Vikings - makes an overwhelmingly strong case for alcohol as a central and badly overlooked historical driving force.

Nonetheless, Forsyth is at his best when he leaves the wider theories behind in favour of the kind of memorable individual facts that you might well find yourself wanting to tell your friends in the pub. One observation, that confirmed Darwin's belief in man-monkey relatedness, for example, concerned baboons who'd been fed strong beer:

The following morning, they held their aching heads with both hands and wore a most pitiable expression; when beer or wine was offered them, they turned away with disgust.

In one of his many myth-busting moments, Forsyth also brings us the bad news that English literature didn't begin in a pub after all. The Canterbury Tales does famously open at the Tabard Inn, but in those days, an inn was a posh hotel - which is why the host Harry Bailey wasn't some sort of cheery barman, but an extremely rich businessman and MP. Just as disappointingly, the same careful taxonomy of old English drinking places reveals that the modern equivalent of Falstaff drinking sack in the Boar's Head tavern would be someone drinking champagne in a cocktail bar.

Whether deliberately or not, Forsyth relates all of this in best saloon-bar style. In his previous books, mostly about unusual words, his prose has always tended to the jovial. Here, however, the joviality goes into overdrive, with 'chap' his preferred synonym for man, the Sumerian deity Inana referred to as 'the goddess of rumpy-pumpy' and even the unironic use of the phrase 'the fairer sex'. Happily, the odd groan never feels like too high a price to pay for a book that, for most of the time, is a highly successful blend of the entertaining and the informative.


The pleasure of the micro-history is the chance to view the complex chaos of the past through a narrow lens. In “A Short History of Drunkenness,” Mark Forsyth takes the tendency to endearing extremes: The very origin of the species, he reports, comes down to our love for hooch. The first primates that swung down from the forest canopy may have been in search of fermented fruit, kick-starting evolution. Ten million years later, humans turned to agriculture “because we wanted booze” and needed to grow barley. Writing? The ancient Mesopotamians came up with it after using a symbol for kash, or beer, on trading i.o.u.s pressed in clay. Fast-forward a few millenniums and we find that Christianity was such a hit because it used communal wine in its rites. In modern times, George Washington launched his political career by handing out free booze to voters and succeeded on the field after he doubled his men’s rations of the hard stuff. The Russian Revolution occurred because the czar banned vodka in 1914: Since the beloved spirit was a state-run business, the treasury went broke in World War I. Why stop there? Perhaps a sequel might suggest that Adolf Hitler’s teetotalism put him in a tetchy mood; a relaxing glass of schnapps might have kept him out of Poland.

But a little hyperbole is all part of the fun on this entertaining bar-hop through the past 10,000 years. The tone evokes a cheeky Oxford professor regaling us over a pint of stout in the pub, and Forsyth revels in his Britishisms as much as any P. G. Wodehouse character. Prohibition worked “jolly well,” people “get trollied” on “plonk,” and there is lots of “guff” around generally. At times, he seems to be channeling Austin Powers: An ancient Egyptian hymn is translated, “Let him drink, let him eat, let him shag.”

As it happens, far from a crusty don, Forsyth isn’t much over 40, according to his bio, and is best known in Britain as a witty etymologist. Another pertinent detail we learn on Page 1 is that the author is — unsurprisingly — not averse to a tipple. In fact, the good folks at A.A. will be apoplectic over this book, which suggests that heavy drinking is a basic human need, providing us with relief from the burdens of civilized society and even, for many cultures in history, a glimpse of the divine. Forget the ruined relationships, the disintegrated livers and the car (or horse-riding) accidents.

This cheerful acceptance of the bottle may strike more abstemious American readers as another very “British” element. Unlike the hand-wringing that has shadowed the drinking life in the United States, the Brits still tend to have an indulgent attitude to bingeing. This, Forsyth explains, makes them one of history’s “wet cultures,” in such good company as the Vikings, as opposed to the “dry cultures,” whose mildly buzzed denizens drink in “Continental” style, sipping for hour after hour, but in moderation. (Full disclosure: I was raised in Australia, a land so wet it’s practically drowning. Down Under gets its very own chapter on its liquor-addled origins as a penal colony, when rum was currency and even inspired a military coup, the Rum Rebellion. It gives one a patriotic glow!)

This refreshingly guilt-free account of getting sloshed through the ages is a gift to the chalkboard-writers of dive bars the world over, laced as it is with inspirational quotes about the joys of a snifter. We have the Roman poet Horace writing that “Flowing wine makes verses flow,/And liberates the poor and low” and Benjamin Franklin famously declaring that wine is “proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” The alcohol lobby would love an Ethiopian proverb that recurs like a mantra: “When there is no beer, there is no work,” although the Sumerians were blunter: “Not to know beer is not normal.”

In the best pop-history tradition, Forsyth also guides us on step-by-step tours of the legendary drinking joints of the past. We learn how to behave in the rowdy taverns of ancient Ur (“the perfect place for the craft-ale snob”) and at a Greek Symposium, where the wine poured from the krater bowl was closely regulated by the host, although with mixed success. (The guests might end up running deliriously through the streets, shouting and causing mayhem, in a komos.) We visit a medieval English alehouse and discover that our image is largely culled from romantic novels and cheesy Robin Hood films. Fans of “Westworld” will be distressed to learn, however, that Old West saloons had no swinging batwing doors, while the working girls usually provided nothing saucier than conversation.

It’s a hectic itinerary. The pub crawl can get a little exhausting, and the reader can get bloated on the relentless whimsy. Some will prefer to dip into chapters at random, jumping from the Old Testament Bible to Ivan the Terrible. But there is always some serious history slipped in with the joking. Almost every human society, Forsyth shows, has created an elaborate web of rules around drinking and drunkenness. Even Attila the Hun had strict protocol at his feasts, with guests toasting one another in order of rank. And those taboos and rituals reveal a great deal about the broader culture.

One appealing side effect is to suggest how odd our own drinking rules might look to visitors from other eras. The Aztecs encouraged pregnant women to drink a vitamin-rich brew called pulque, and for most of history, a liquid breakfast was considered healthy. In the Middle Ages, it was downright dangerous not to drink beer all day, since the water supply was contaminated. Every possible attitude to inebriation has been tested over the ages. The only constant, perhaps, is that alcohol is a disruptive force that by its very nature defeats efforts to control it, from ancient Roman bans on the debauched Bacchic rites in the first century B.C. to the great American experiment, Prohibition.

The bottom line, Forsyth concludes, is that boozy revelries are here to stay, and we might as well embrace them. As the philosopher William James (an American, no less) put it: “Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes.”

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