Saturday, 23 January 2016

Sociable Drinking


It seemed an unlikely place but nevertheless, in the gift shop at the Tate Britain gallery, I found what I have been seeking: the ideal teapot. Not that buying a teapot was the highlight of my visit - the exhibition Artist & Empire has much to commend it - but it's a promising start to the year and I have a feeling that it will delight me in small but satisfying ways each time I brew up. It might even encourage me to try drinking tea socially: offering guests caffeine instead of alcohol would present opportunities to impress them not only with the stylish teapot but also with my steely resolve to cultivate sobriety.
I'm not generally in favour of New Year's resolutions preferring, instead, a more frequent review (say, weekly) of habitual behaviour, to identify unwanted tendencies and correct course for the general direction of virtuousness. Each January I have the same argument with a certain person over the merits or otherwise of his self-imposed tee-total month. I argue that his concept appears to have, at best, some questionable, short-term health benefits and - leaving aside the possibility that it might be an act of penitence - otherwise serves no practical purpose. This year he has softened and allowed himself some social drinking capacity. Drinking is deeply embedded in social interactions but therein lies a dilemma: imbibe too much and you risk alienating yourself by behaving anti-socially; refuse a drink and you risk being labelled anti-social anyway. And lately it seems I have walked this tightrope so often that I ought to be getting good at balancing.
For example, meeting a particular friend for "a few beers" has become a recurring event and one which is more enjoyable since I adopted the policy of ordering half-pints. On the last occasion, however, we found ourselves drawn into a pub by a live blues band and there, caught up in a good, old-fashioned, feel-good crush, I may have had one too many. But live blues and beer is a combination that's hard to resist.

Informal dinner parties also present challenges to moderation. My partner and I were invited to dinner by her oldest friend and, since she and her husband live in rural Surrey, they put us up for the night. The assumption was that we would want to drink, which we did - too much and too fast, so excited were we at being in their company after rather too long a break. Perhaps there is something to be said for the formality of an aperitif, followed by a glass of Sancerre with the fish, a glass - two at most - of Claret with the main course, Sauternes with dessert and a digestif to end. It's a structure that facilitates paced as opposed to uncontrolled drinking.

But in between the drink-fuelled socialising I have remained sufficiently sober to take in a few cultural events, Annie Leibovitz's solo show at Wapping among them. The photos on display are all of women, accompanied by some interesting text in which she promotes her ideal of equality between male and female, arguing in favour of obliterating gender distinctions wherever possible. In support she quotes several African languages which, she claims, do not accommodate gender distinctions, in contrast to others such as French which attribute gender even to inanimate objects, thereby encouraging the perception of difference.

I also went along to Celts at the British Museum where I was fascinated by medieval bling in the form of torcs, precious metal necklaces worn by both sexes. I also noted that they had a fondness for the drink but had developed an effective social mechanism for controlling its consumption: they removed the element of choice by passing around communal drinking bowls - some of them very stylish indeed.


The Great Torc of Snettisham and a ceremonial drinking bowl

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