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1st November, 2020

In The Rock Pool, the only novel produced by the 20th Century editor and essayist Cyril Connolly, Naylor, a middle-class Oxbridge mediocrity who loses himself in an artists’ colony in the south of France before the war, wakes with a hangover:

Somebody was tapping his skull as if it were a breakfast egg. When he moved loose flints rattled inside it. His mouth seemed full of corrosive sublimate. He had breath like an old tyre on a smoking dump… Naylor closed his eyes, opened them, and was sick. For some time after he lay like a crushed snail on a garden path.

A friend who is painting his portrait gives him a wet towel and a tumbler of brandy. Naylor proposes leaving for England. His friend says:

‘Oh, you feel as bad as that, mon copain? Here, just wait and I’ll get you some Fernet Branca.’ He disappeared and returned with a glass of the black draught that most of us learn to appreciate sooner or later.

It’s the kind of wipe-out hangover experienced by the young or those otherwise unused to hangovers. Fernet Branca is indeed recommended as the last resort for the desperately crapulent. Mark Gullick, of this parish, introduced me to it in that strange land called the Nineties. Pouring me a glass as I weakly struggled to prise open a can of Andrews’ Liver Salts, he said: ‘There you go. They call it the barman’s hangover cure.’ I seem to recall him saying it had an opioid quality, and Mark would know as he has, like me, done time behind bar. But I digress. Connolly’s hangover description inevitably brings to mind another one that is far more famous, from Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis:

Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth has been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

That is probably the finest description I have read of the hangover from hell. I note both writers’ employment of the broken insect/slug imagery. Everyone has their worst hangover story, and I have mine. It occurred 33 years ago and I have yet to top it, thank God, despite a few near misses.

As a teenager I was an enthusiastic toper, and started my hobby in the Three Tuns, in Beckenham, southeast London, where years earlier Mr David Bowie held hippie court in the back room (it is now an Italian restaurant franchise called Zizzi’s, though a friend of mine correctly observed that by rights it should be called Ziggy’s). It was in the Tuns – a true madhouse of under-age drinking in the mid-Eighties – that I developed a strategy to rev up the evening. I would drink a pint of Courage Directors’ Bitter followed by a pint of Kronenbourg lager (older drinkers called this French muck, but youth – or this youth at least – cared nothing for such chauvinist views) followed by another pint of Directors’, followed by another Krony. Under such a regimen you soon learn about what drink can do. I only projectile vomited once, but that caught a doorman’s leg: occupational hazard, right?

That period contained rather more than the usual teen quota of pissed-up shopping trolley rides, traffic-cones-for-hats, ripping trousers, losing shoes and falling out of trains and so on. I once opened a slam-door on a train when it was entering a station at speed. The door knocked someone flat. I was horrified as well as pissed, but having jumped out and helped the man to his feet I found he was also pissed and very amused by the incident and said he wouldn’t mind if it happened again. I said I’d go over the footbridge to the down platform, get off at the next stop, get the next train back up and open the door again and knock him over if he wanted but instead he got on the train I’d just got off. He waved as it departed. Today I would be in court I suppose. I never opened a slam-door like that again though.

I decided it was wiser to not mix, or at least not mix so recklessly. About a year later a barmaid in a friend’s local announced she was giving a party at her parents’ house. Everyone was to meet at the pub before going on to her place. I attended with two friends and decided to get the evening started by reverting to my Directors’ and Kronenbourg strategy. This was all well and good. Upon arrival at the barmaid’s parents’ house, which was large, had a swimming pool and was in a green belt area, we found a barbecue was on the go out the back by the pool, with many wine-boxes at the disposal of the guests. We started greedily drinking half-pints of white wine, probably Liebfraumilch (‘beloved lady’s milk’), well it was the Eighties. Someone was smoking cannabis joints with little stars and half-moons on the rolling paper – it was the first time I had smoked it. I was by that time not far short of seeing stars, but we continued guzzling the wine. The party was warming up, lots of people had arrived and music was playing. At this point a tubby little man wearing a plastic neck brace arrived on a moped. After this it all gets a bit impressionistic. Me throwing a bag of barbecue coals over a mate; me face down in a plate of cheese and pickles in the kitchen; the man with the neck brace appearing very drunk and very angry: ‘Someone’s nicked me neck brace!’; me asking him why he took it off; him saying: ‘To give me neck a fucking rest of course, you prannet!’; someone running around with the neck brace on; a huge row that I was not, thankfully, involved in; blackout.

The next thing I knew it was still dark but dawn was not far off. The swimming pool area was deserted bar one or two people in a stupor some way off. I was on a chaise longue. One of my pals, now coal blackened, was on a chaise longue next to mine. He was sitting on the end of it, vomiting. After a while he lay back. At this point I sat up and vomited. I noticed that my green deck shoes already had vom on them from some unknown spew before this fresh evacuation hit. Eventually I lay back. At which point my pal sat up and was sick again. This synchronicity of puke – good punk album title – continued until I got up and looked around among the wreckage on the drinks table for water. There was none. I staggered about a bit. I stood staring into space and feeling crappy. It was then I noticed the neck brace man’s moped lying at the bottom of the swimming pool. It was like when Jim Hawkins sees Israel Hands’s body lying on the sea floor in Treasure Island. I wondered where he was and, for that matter, where his neck brace was.

My third friend appeared, having been asleep in the house. We left on what should have been a 30-minute walk to my mate’s house, but which took two hours as we were still so out of it we got trapped into going round in circles down unfamiliar roads. After an hour or two’s kip I awoke to the full horror of the hangover. My head was on fire. Never since – and I’ve had plenty of biggies – have I ever felt anything like that inferno of stale cheap wine in my blood. I tried a cigarette. Bad idea. I caught a single-decker bus back into south London. The driver was heavy on the brakes. My stomach churned, I felt clammy. Hang on, I told myself, just hang on, you’re nearly home. A child got on and sat opposite me on the long bench seat and started to read the Beano. As the bus turned into my road, my body rebelled and I was sick as a dog on the bus floor. The boy drew the comic up close to his face in shock then slowly peeped over the top of it at this bizarre apparition before him – black suit with red pinstripes and green, vomit-splattered deck shoes; the only other passenger, a female OAP, tutted loudly as I got off the bus. It would be another year before I could drink legally in a public house.

We never got to the bottom of what happened at the party but I don’t recall the barmaid ever speaking to us again.

I spent that long Sunday in bed concentrating on re-reading Coming Up For Air by George Orwell, which seemed to distract me from the feeling of being completely poisoned, which indeed I was. It is said there are tribes of pygmies who drink excessively not for intoxication but to obtain a hangover, which they believe is an altered state of consciousness that yields revelations about the universe. Well yes, you could put it like that.

As I lay there, every so often I somehow caught a smell of the barbecue, a taste of the wine, a sniff of the hash, a reek of tobacco smoke, and a greasy grey tide of nausea would wash over me. I would close my burning eyes and would see coal cascading over my pal and neck brace man shouting, and dark figures dancing and shouting, the moon and stars burning in the joint, and us downing half pints of wine, the emergence from abyssal drunkenness on the chaise longue, the intermitted sick … Never again, I told myself, never again. But of course I did it all again with knobs on and I’ve had plenty of hangovers since, some even crazier – but never was the morning quite so painful. But to be fair I never vommed again – except once in the Nineties when I was smoking cocaine and drinking Carlsberg Special Brew* – and never did the Director’s and Krony strategy again either, and I’ve never quiteguzzled wine again in the same way. All of which makes me think that those signs that say Please Drink Responsibly should be rewritten as Please Try to Respect Bacchus If You Possibly Can.

*Carlsberg Special Brew was created as a tribute to Winston Churchill in 1950. You didn’t know that, did you.

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