Alcohol is such a huge part of our culture that we actually look at someone with suspicion if they say they’ve never had a drink. But tying one on isn’t a new thing, despite what every teenager enduring their first hangover may think. In his new book A Short History Of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, And When Humankind Has Gotten Merry From The Stone Age To The Present (hardcover, Kindle), writer Mark Forsyth explores how people throughout history have gotten totally wasted, dude.
The title seems self-explanatory but I’ll ask anyway: What is A Short History Of Drunkenness?
It’s a look at how drinking, and more specifically, getting drunk, has changed over millennia. We all have a pretty good idea of the rules of drinking and the role of drinking in our own culture, but was that the same in Ancient Egypt, or Greece, or among the Aztecs, or in a Wild West saloon? What were the rules? Where did you go to drink? When? With whom? Were women allowed along? Children? What did you think you were doing and why? And once you were drunk did you sing, or dance, or make love, or fight, or vomit, or have religious visions? Or all of those at once?
Incidentally, the Ancient Egyptians did all of those at once, except for the fighting.
What made you want to write a book about this and, more importantly, why did you think you were the right person to write it?
I’ve always been fascinated bythis thing we do, getting drunk, and why we do it. What is it precisely? And has it always been the same? The answers seem to disappear the more you think about them. Drunkenness is very hard to define. It’s a shape-shifter. One person drinks to calm down and relax, another drinks to get crazy and scream.
The truth is — and you can prove this with some cunning experiments —most of what happens to you when you get drunk is culturally defined. If you think that alcohol will make you violent, it will. If you think it’ll make you creative, it will. If you think it’ll make you fall in love, it will. A lot of cultures drink in order to communicate with the spirits of the ancestors. But if that happened to me after a few beers, I’d be terrified.
Is there a reason you decided to write this book about all kinds of alcoholic beverages, as opposed to focusing on just beer or scotch or wine? Beside the fact that there’s already lots of books about beer, wine, and scotch, of course.
I very specifically wanted to write about drunkenness. Drink here is just a means to an end. There are lots of very good books about fermentation and distillation and collecting grapes and all that sort of stuff. This isn’t one of them. So far as this book is concerned, that’s only a means to an end.
Of course, there are times when production and kinds of alcohol really effect that way people drink. When distillation and spirits arrived in England in the early eighteenth century, people decided to try this new drink, gin, and they decided to drink it by the pint — which is what they were used to — and the results can best be described as interesting, and at worst calamitous. There was a lot of public nudity, and a lot of death by alcohol poisoning.
Non-fiction books can take a variety of approaches. Some of scholarly, some are super detailed, and some strike a more light-hearted tone. What approach did you take for A Short History Of Drunkenness and why did you feel that this tone was best for this subject matter?
I went for light-hearted. It’s hard to write about the effect that alcohol has on a herd of elephants — not good — without chuckling. Most of the funny stories wrote themselves. There are times when things get a lot more serious, especially in the plague of alcoholism during the London Gin Craze, but most of the time, you can’t help but laugh.
When you started writing A Short History Of Drunkenness, did you look at any similar books to see what to do and what not to do?
I certainly read around the subject. There are some great books by Patrick McGovern, Iain Gately, and Henry Jeffreys. And there are all sorts of more specialist works on particular times and places. However, a lot of them are about drink, and as I said before I was interested in drunk.
And how often did you tell someone, “This is for research” as you tied one on?
When I told people what I was writing, everybody said “Oh, the research must be fun.” And I would go along with it. But, in fact, I was sitting in the British Library reading dusty tomes on the Egyptian Festival Of Drunkenness, or whatnot. There was almost no hands-on-bottle research because I don’t have a time machine. After all, military historians don’t get to shoot anyone.
I did try drinking a gallon of beer over the course of a day, as that was the standard ration handed out to a medieval monk, but all I found was that a gallon, which is eight pints, stretched out over a sixteen hour day doesn’t really get you drunk at all.
Speaking of research, in doing yours for A Short History Of Drunkenness, what was the most surprising thing you learned?
Adjusted for bodyweight, humans have the best head for alcohol of any animal in the world, except for the Malaysian tree shrew. Never, ever, get into a drinking contest with a Malaysian tree shrew.
I don’t know if that the best fact, but it’s the first that pops into my head.
Finally, if someone enjoys A Short History Of Drunkenness, what non-fiction book would you suggest they read while waiting for you to finish A Short History Of Riding The Horse?
Well, of course I’d like to suggest one of my other books like The Elements Of Eloquence, but they should probably go for something healthy and uplifting. Somebody must have written a history of mineral water, haven’t they?