I started drinking at thirteen, and I blame my drama teacher. Mrs Bradbury had got us doing ‘ad lib’ impersonations in class one day, and one of them was to act like a drunk. As the pupils staggered about like zombies, arms outstretched, lolling their mouths and with skew-wiffy eyes, I realized that as I didn’t actually know what being drunk felt like I couldn’t really pull it off convincingly. As a result, that night, while my parents and grandparents sat in the living room drinking their usuals – whiskey and orange, gin and tonic – I stealthily crept down to the garage with my younger brother in tow and plundered my dad’s home-made elderberry, the wine he used to make from those gorgeously English wild-gathered plants – fragrant, entrancing elderflowers for the white, the berries for the red – that we would trample under foot ourselves to begin the fermentation process: the fruits of our many drives out to the countryside for stickleback fishing by the streams, and elder berry gathering (there were so many plentiful fruit heavy trees down the country lanes that you never felt that you were stealing anything); the strange, adult brews that were kept in giant jars and that were strictly off bounds for curious, sticky fingered youngsters.
Except that now, with the seeds planted of alcohol intrigue – what would it feel like, why do the adults always do it? – I proceeded to not only sip and taste the pungent forbidden liquid but drink it by the mugful. I don’t exaggerate. My brother, who must have been about ten, didn’t have too much and was unimpressed, under duress, but I myself was determined to go the full hog, and before I knew it I was gurgling hysterically and falling right down to the bottom of the stairs from the top bannister in a great thud: my booze- relaxed body too soft for my bones to be injured, but, much to the great consternation of my grandmother who, paranoid, was convinced that I was making fun of her as I slurred my words ridiculously and kept laughing inexplicably, I was eventually furiously sent packing by my parents to my bedroom.
It was by far the drunkest I have ever been in my entire life and I can remember it vividly. My head spinning round like a helicopter; the room lurching and looming, the nausea rising, my young brain pickling in dank, organic spirits, and before I even knew it I had passed right out into black. To awake, drenched, swimming, in wine-loaded sheets, crimsoned as though I had given birth, the spew of my unready guts staining everything right through, the evidence I would now have to try and conceal. Which I obviously couldn’t (the stupidity of a teenage boy stuffing the sheets in futile fashion into the laundry basket, thinking he might be able to get away with it because, well, who does he think does the washing?) My mother did of course immediately notice and I was quite rightfully screamed at for being outrageous and debauched (” You think you’re an adult? You know nothing about being an adult”!), me, like a criminal, sent to my bedroom to sulk and ponder my crimes. I was in the dog house for days, the story scandalously passed to my parents’ friends and our relations of the young and budding lush.
In England, though, and the rest of Britain and the northern countries generally, drunkenness and underage drinking are practically welded into the DNA. In a way that doesn’t happen in say Italy, where children are so used to seeing wine at the table (and where they are not legally restricted from drinking) that they aren’t really that interested, or in Japan, where people are so damn obedient that I once met a nineteen year old girl at a dinner party who had never tried wine or champagne in her sweet and well behaved life but told me that she soon might like to have a taste (” I have not, but I will be able to in two months or so when I reach the legal of twenty”)…..
In Japan, quite the drinking culture when you come of age and enter university and the work place culture, though not as intense as Korea, which is really quite hardcore, people do get drunk and say things you wouldn’t quite believe them capable of until they get the beer or sake-soaked courage to do so, yet they still, on the whole, nevertheless manage to do it with decorum. Yes, you see salarimen vomiting onto the train station platforms, but they don’t get loutish and aggressive in the way that we Anglo-Saxons seem predestined to do when the ethanol starts coursing through our veins ( I think of Vikings; of pillaging, rape, and ransacking; of hooligans and gin-drenched British housewives……there does seem to be something in our culture that makes boozing more than just a method of dissolving social niceties but more a psychological necessity). Yes, the Japanese also need the sauce to let their inhibitions go, but it is somehow different. It usually remains quite jolly and benevolent, not the wanton, vandalizing rottweilers you see screaming and kicking in Birmingham on a Friday or Saturday night, groups of girls vomiting down the drains, people crying and out of control. Given this culture, then, the constant prevalence of that need in our society to ‘get pissed’, it wasn’t very long before my friends and I were out on our block, gathering like thieves, and trying to get our hands on some cider, some lager, or some ‘Martini’ – some Cinzano Rosso.
Any teenager of my generation remembers that taste. Sitting on the pavement, swigging it from the bottle or else in plastic cups drunk with lemonade, usually ending in a puke in the gutter, this was the unsophisticated youngster’s take on spirits before we ever knew what a real martini was. And in all honesty, it’s the kind of taste and smell that I now find brings on the quease. I still drink red wine, but you won’t generally catch me with Cinzano: the smell brings a smile to my face, of course – all those hormonal crushes and rages and wild teenage parties – but the associations of bile and bringing up the evening’s stomach contents are just too strong now, which is why I was bemused when I first smelled the new perfume by Paris based perfume house Jules Et Mad, Nin Shar. This is Cinzano Rosso for me, albeit steeped in thick, beautiful roses. A warm, ‘rose liquor’ top note fused with the bitter and interesting note of artemisia (one of the key ingredients in vermouths such as Cinzano Rosso) that lees down cosily into a plum, Turkish rose heart, where the usual Arabic cushions of sensuality lie purringly underneath (the expected oudh, patchouli, benzoin, vanilla). But what I like here in this preparation is that unlike most of the oriental roses you get of this ilk which are just waiting to turn into brash, harsh oudh bombs, the incense accord of the base accord here is more like a rich satin lining for the cushion of red, booze-kissed roses; sinous and insinuating; the mellifluous, gliding heart notes that form the macerating intoxicant of the mainstay.
Nin-Shar is unusual. While smelling it – and it is quite a wrist-attaching concoction – I can’t quite ever detach myself from the virulent young sap of my melodramatic teenage self (such tender memories, though, all those emotional, uncontrollable scrapes); the associations of Cinzano, of cider, and the raucous, brain-freeing necessities of those happy, but insecure, coming-of-age nights. At the same time, there is something, also, of wine in this calming, well made scent – rounded, pleasingly smooth and beguiling, more mellow and ‘adult’, that reminds me of my current, and hopefully more balanced, more Rioja-quaffing self.