Stories, Drinking and the World
Written in June of 2005
The literary critic Harold Bloom once said that we weren’t fully
human until Shakespeare began writing: that Shakespeare
completed our sapience. Which is both interesting and stark, utter
bullshit. Stories are what make us human. They’re an advanced form of
play. Cats have play. Sometimes very sophisticated, dramatised forms
of play. But they’re not communicated or externalised. So far, only
humans use stories to dramatise the way they see the world.
And we’ve always had them.
Go out to the ancient standing stones at Callanish in the Orkney
Islands, at sunrise. You stand in the middle of the stone circle and turn
to follow the sun. From that position, the sun is alternately occluded
and revealed by the curves of the surrounding hills. The sunrise is
dramatised as a struggle. As a performance. Shadows fall and twist
around you like spokes, until the sun claws free of the hillside and
sends light right down the middle of the circle and on to your face.
Walk down the great processional avenue to Glastonbury Tor, and
you experience a similar effect. The walk is designed to sequentially
reveal and present aspects of the surroundings, until the Tor is brought
out of the backdrop to stand in front of you. It’s intended as a religious
experience—a walk that becomes an experience of mystery and
revelation. It’s a plotline.
Cave paintings are comics. Standing stones are art installations. It’s
And I don’t mean that in an ethereal Gaimany “the world is made
out of stories, mine’s a nice cup of tea” kind of way. I mean that we
make the world into stories. From scratching our perceptions of the
day into cave walls to dramatising the landscapes we’re born into, we
make the world into stories to make living in it all the sweeter.
Millions of us, every day, add art into our daily mundane experience
of the world by playing a personal movie soundtrack into our ears.
I knew a guy who’d put a tape into his car’s player and would
wait until Lemmy tore into “Ace Of Spades” before standing on the
accelerator and pulling out into the street. I must’ve nearly died a
hundred times because of that bastard.
An acquaintance of mine had a Lemmy story. He was living in an
apartment building in New York, and heard a terrible banging outside
his door. Going out into the corridor, he found Lemmy, throwing
himself into the walls, gripping a huge wooden spoon in one hand.
Lemmy, he said, why are you outside my door with a wooden spoon?
You know how some people have a little silver coke spoon? Lemmy
said. And then he held his wooden ladle up like it was Excalibur and
yelled, This is MINE!
Which brings me to drugs, which accompany storytelling
cultures. Being southern English, my own culture is an alcoholic one.
Mead culture. I’m from a village that began as a Norse settlement.
Thundersley. It translates from the old English as thunder clearing or
Thor’s clearing. It was a small centre of worship for Thor. There was
and is another Thundersley, fifty miles north, and the old story was
that every Thursday Thor would fly over both of his English clearings.
Thundersley was all forest and weir, back then. When I lived there, the
weir has been paved over, and the only trees in the centre of the village were around the school I went to, on a gloomy tree-lined alleyway called Dark Lane. A dramatised little passageway. We still do it. Over in rural Rayleigh, five miles away, there’s a road called Screaming Boy Lane. I’ve never found out why it’s called that.
My dad told me about that. He never found out either, and it was
one of those things that bugged him to his grave. He was one of those
people who stories happen to. He was a drummer in the Sixties. One
night after a gig, a couple of Liverpudlians came up to him and asked
if he wanted to join their band, as they were without a drummer at the
time and on the promise of playing some gigs in Germany…
“I can’t think about that too much,” he used to say.
He was in the Household Cavalry, the Queen’s mounted soldiers,
and once responsible for giving the Queen a horse with the shits to
ride during a public event. He was in the Merchant Navy, and once
imprisoned on Fiji for accidentally jumping ship—said prison being a
thatched hut that he was asked to return to at night, if he’d be so kind.
You become part of your father’s story, and you can feel like maybe
you haven’t done enough to live up to his stories. My dad was an
unpublished writer, and I didn’t realise until late on that he felt that
he’d become part of my story, and that he loved it. I’d phone him on
my mobile from other Countries, places he’d never visited, or had only
seen once. From my usual hotel in San Francisco I can see Telegraph
Hill, where he’d gone during his single trip there. I called him from the
black shoreline of Reykjavik. Our stories, then.
Dad and I had similar histories in our drinking. Both woke up
in our late teens/early twenties finding ourselves doing a bottle of
something in a single sitting without trying. For the rest of his life,
I never saw him have more than a small can of beer at Xmas. I just
control mine, ferociously. I know to the drop the point at which I can’t
return from, and can fine-tune my drunkenness so I don’t wake up
naked and halfway up a tree. Again.