Lawrence Osborne

Acclaimed travel writer and author, Lawrence Osborne, has traversed the globe and witnessed first-hand the complex relationships that exist between cultures and alcohol. Intrigued by the starkly contrasting views on drinking—specifically the Western tradition of permission versus the Islamic East’s culture of prohibition—Osborne set off on a personal journey through the world’s dry countries for a look at life untainted by the “demon drink”—below is an excerpt from his journey, which he chronicles in The Wet and the Dry on sale this July.

Gin and Tonic
Excerpted from The Wet and the Dry by Lawrence Osborne

In Milan that summer, as the temperature reached almost thirty-five every day in the deserted streets and squares around my hotel, I forced myself to stop dreaming of the fjords of Norway and the ice hotels of the Arctic Circle and, gritting my teeth, went instead to the lounge where gin and tonics were served to the guests of the Town House Galleria from a moving tray equipped with buckets of ice, lemon rinds and glass stir-sticks. I liked to go at an hour when I knew the place would be empty and this moveable bar would be for me and me alone. The tall windows would be opened an inch and the gauze curtains flapping, the flowers wilting on the restaurant tables. The drinks trolley had stoppered crystal flagons of unnamed cognac, a bowl of marinated olives, Angostura Bitters and bottles of Fernet. It was like being in a luxury hospital where, because you are paying so much, you are entitled to drink yourself to death privately. You go right ahead, because you are human and drink is sweet.

Fashion magazines stood undisturbed on the coffee table, and in the dining room next door I could hear wealthy Russians cracking open lobster claws with silver tools and commenting ignorantly upon the wines that Europe’s only seven star hotel offers to its guests. I could hear them say “Sassicaia,” then slap down the list and burst out laughing. It was six hundred euros a bottle. The waiter asked me how I would like my gin and tonic. I said that I take mine three parts tonic to one part gin, Gordon’s, three ice cubes and a dash of lime rind. The tonic brand is not an issue. The drink comes with a dim music of ice-cubes and a perfume that touches the nose like a smell of iced grass. Ease returns. It is like cold steel in liquid form.

I went to the lounge at six with some regularity, even when I had to give a lecture at the Teatro Verme. One night I was interviewed by a television crew and a radio station, and the gin tasted sweeter, more maddening. I fumbled my sentences until the faces around me changed and I could sense them asking themselves “Is he one of them?” I sat there and blathered about my latest book, which I could no longer remember, and the glass shook slightly in my hand and the ice cubes rattled. The pretty girls thought it was funny.

“Do you have a special affinity for Milan?”
“I’ve never been here before.”
“Do you always have a gin and tonic at cocktail hour?”
“It’s part of my heritage.”
They thought this was pretty quaint, especially as the glass was still shaking in the hand of an alcoholico.
“It’s an English drink,” I said. “The national drink.”
They wrote it down. Centuries ago “she” was known on the streets of London as Madame Geneva, a feminine killer.
“Cut,” the director muttered.

I always end up alone with a glass and a wet lip. I sat by the windows with my forty-euro drink and admired the Galleria, the ground floor of which is occupied by a mass of bars and cafes. The architect Giuseppe Mengoni, who built it, fell to his death from the glass dome two days before it was opened in 1877. The ironwork inspired the Eiffel Tower. The cafés were lit, the Prada outlet below the hotel glittering with crystal and mirror. Chinese tourists swarmed around the small mosaic image of a bull at the centre of the gallery floor, taking photographs of it. I could see the men in suits on the terrazze with glasses of Spritz and Negroni sbagliato and neat Campari. This was collective, merry out-in-the-open display drinking on wicker chairs, with napkins and service and ice tongs. No-one was standing, and no-one was falling down. No-one was shouting, no-one was incontinent. The Italian style of drinking is, as we all know, organized along these lines. Men sit face to face with women and talk to them at a decibel level appropriate to sexual interest. The Galleria was intended originally as a prototype of what we would now call the mall, but it was also a covered and protected space in which to eat and drink. The protocol of the aperetivo and the digestivo was perfectly suited to its echo-friendly spaces and its allegorical frescoes.

“Other countries drink to get drunk,” Roland Barthes once wrote, “and this is accepted by everyone; in France, drunkenness is a consequence, never an intention. A drink is felt as the spinning out of a pleasure, not as the necessary cause of an effect which is sought: wine is not only a philter, it is also the leisurely act of drinking.” The same can be said of Italians.
I sipped my watered gin and, as always happens when I “enter” into this drink ( I think of drinks as elements that are entered, like bodies of water or locales ) my mind tilted its way back to the past, to the England of my childhood that I no longer possessed and which no doubt no longer existed. But why it did this was a complete enigma. As teetotalers so insistently remind those of us for whom drink is the staff of life, the mind itself is a chemical body. We are fated to control it.

Many of the hotel’s guests were rich Arabs and I would sometimes see them wandering around the restaurant with their children and their masked wives looking for a table. They would pause by the balcony and peer down at the Gucci store and then over the café terraces. Their expression seemed almost disdainful. It is the rich Gulf Arabs who are to a great degree the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, but I had the feeling that when they looked down at the tables crowded with multicoloured alcoholic beverages they were nonplussed, aloof. Even in Dubai, where many of them might have been from, people would not openly consume such things in public, in such spectacular spaces defined by such large crowds. It was the publicness and the ease, I think, that made them wrinkle their noses for a moment and pass on, retreating to the family dinner atble laden with bottles of chilled mineral water. But I am guessing.
When we see these wealthy Muslims with their families in our luxury restaurants, we think to ourselves, as likely as not, “They have the money, but they aren’t free. Look at their women. Look at the bottles of chilled mineral water on their table. They can’t drink.”

It is unclear which offends us more, the de-facing of the women with the hijab ( the elegance of the body suggested only by perfectly painted nails or a beautiful ankle ) or the soft drinks that stand in for majestic bottles of wine, the water that stands in pathetically for a decent Brunello. We think the interdictions that govern these two things, women and alcohol, are not unconnected. It might be that it is the molecules of alcohol constantly coursing through our blood system day in and day out, night after night, their effect barely noticed most of the time, that make the occidental feel free, unfettered and magnificently insolent. He is, to the Muslim’s eye, in a state of constant but unnoticed intoxication, but to himself he is something that commands space and uses time wisely. We are drinkers from late childhood to death, rarely if ever abstinent for the week or so necessary to discharge the last traces of alcohol from our blood.

An unusual liberty. That millionaire from Abu Dhabi could never in his worst social nightmares imagine a Saturday in Bradford. Put him in Dagenham on a weekend night at eleven and he would not know what planet he was on. When I am in London I sometimes take the late bus back from London Fields to Old Street, an experience instantly recognizable from images of Gin Lane. Looking down at the Galleria, he would see no passed-out girls lying in their own vomit but the cocktails at dusk would not seem like freedom to him either. He would be baffled as to why we think that they do.

A few years before I was riding buses through Java, much of which is “dry”. As I moved from town to town in an endless rigmarole of packing and unpacking, sleeping and waking, I began to feel bored and restive, or rather my blood began to thin out from its alcohol high and I began to feel lighter, more lucid, more weighed down by anxiety.

Exhausted, I stopped for a night in the religious city of Solo, otherwise known as Surakarta. Solo is where the Bali Bombers came from, the place where the fiery religious schools preach jihad against Indonesia’s tourist sector. The Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah group bombed the JW Marriott in Jakarta twice, first in 2003 and then on July 17th 2009. The JW in Jakarta was famous for its flashy, socialite bar. Nineteen dead. In 2002 the same group detonated two bombs inside Paddy’s Pub and the Sari Club in Kuta, Bali, killing 202 people. In 2005 they repeated the stunt at a food court in Kuta and at some “warungs” ( small outdoor restaurants often serving beer ) at a western-frequented beach town called Jimbaran. Twenty people were killed, many by shrapnel and ball-bearings packed into the explosives. The perpetrators, later executed, called it “justice.”

I stayed in a small lodge and descended into the street at dusk. The atmosphere was already peculiar.
White robed students walked about a “dry” city of six hundred thousand while the mosques preached over loud speakers. I spoke a little Bahasa so I could make out the word “unclean” in these torrents of verbal passion and I began to wonder if it was I who was unclean. Unclean for a number of incontrovertible reasons that could not be changed. I walked to a corner and asked a group of students if there was a restaurant I could go to that might, perhaps, serve a beer.

I had paid no heed to the images of Osama bin Laden or the long cool stares from the boys in white. I asked the question crudely but innocently. As soon as I had uttered it I was conscious of the mistake, the potentially fatal faux-pas. It was too late, of course, to back up or even run. So I had to weather the little storm that was bound to come down upon me. The boys, however, surprised me. They expressed no outrage, or even annoyance at the question. Instead, they did something surprising. They invited me to a café to have a coffee and “discuss” the matter. They might be able to make me see why my question was, if not absurd ( given my uncleanliness ) then at least unnecessary if one took the longer view.

Did I not see, they argued once we were at the café, the disasters that alcohol visited upon the Western world? It was a plague, sickness of the soul. But their reasons for agreeing with the Koran’s prohibition of alcohol were not merely rigid or rote; they were, I found, quite nimbly considered. The terrible thing about drink, they said gravely, agreeing with each other, was that it took one out of one’s normal consciousness. It therefore falsified every human relationship, every moment of consciousness. It falsified one’s relationship to God as well. One day, they mused, the government would close down all the bars and the capital would be beautiful again. It would be purified. “But still,” I suggested, “you’d like to go there before it is purified? That would be normal.”
These reedy boys in their white gear shifted on the balls of their feet and suddenly we were all staring sheepishly at the ground, where a water bug waddled between the cigarette butts and the bottle tops. Who could speak of desires in a café flooded with the light of neon rods, in hearing of the mosque loudspeakers?

Our conversation broke off right there at the critical point but I remembered it clearly as I was drinking that night in Milan and watching the Arab families with their bottles of Perrier. I was “wet” while they were “dry,” and with those boys it had been the same. I particularly remembered that phrase “a sickness of the soul,” because the more I thought it the more I was unable to disagree with it, though nor could I agree with it.

The two states of wetness and drynes : one balances between them. Perhaps every drinker dreams of his own prohibition, and every Muslim or Christian teetotaler dreams of a drink at the end of the rainbow. One cannot say. Certainly all things are dialectical, I thought as I went walking around Solo, hoping in some dark way that I might eventually stumble across that most delightful phenomenon, a Muslim alcoholic. ( I had a soft spot not just for Muslim alcoholics, but for the very idea of them. A Muslim alcoholic gives me hope that the human race can be saved. )
I went through a night market where various animals were being cut up, past cafés where men sat without women, slouched at tables of soft drinks and cans of pre-prepared tea called Tea Pot. There was a out-of-joint, off-putting delicacy about the men. They stirred glasses of lychee juice and ate off oval plastic plates with one hand, their eyes turned on the unclean foreigner. One quickly feels paranoid.
The non-Muslim among Muslims is placed inside a unique mood. There is something pure about it, something desirable, and at the same time it grates. Was it, at this moment in Solo, the knowledge that every person there was sober and always would be?

Six hundred thousand people, I kept thinking, and not a single bar. It seemed like a recipe for madness. This was where Abu Bakar Bashir ran his Al-Mukmin boarding house, or pesantren, a spiritual home of the three men executed for the Bali bombings in 2008. It was the center for Jemaah Islamiah, Indonesia’s Islamic terror network. One of those men, Imam Sumadra, gave an interview to CNN just before his execution by firing squad, during which he explained in broken English that he had learned to make bombs on the internet and that he was correct to massacre drinkers in bars because of the deaths incurred by “commander Bush.” Another of them, Amrozi, said in the same interview that the pictures of the charred bodies produced no emotion in him whatsoever. They were, he said, “kafirs, non-Muslims.” Solo was his city, and I supposed he must have known these streets well.

The unease I felt as I went further and further into the night markets was also the discomfort of being “dry” for days on end and I remembered it well as I sat at the Milan Town House drinking my gin and tonic and other things and listening to the crowds at the tables below, the beautiful noise of drinkers massed together under a single roof. It is only when you are surrounded by teetotalers that you realize how indebted you are to the chemistries of alcohol.

The waiter came over and asked me for the umpteenth time how I liked my gin and tonic ( I had decided to watltz on with Madame Geneva ) and I sank into that dim music of ice-cubes and that smell of frozen grass as he mixed the drink for me. Forty euros for a gin and tonic : it seemed a little stiff, and is there a good gin and tonic that is thirty euros better than a bad one? I swirled the ice and tipped the glass to see the oily emulsion on the liquid’s surface. So much better than a Bellini or a dreaded sgroppino, that Venetian mix of sorbet and vodka that all the bars in Milan seemed to have that summer. The noble “g and t” is truly a cocktail di meditazione. A product of India and the Raj, of the British and tropical heat and its diseases ( the quinine in tonic was used to treat malaria ), this simple drink is the only one I can consume quickly, the only one in which the ice does not intrude and numb.

I was now so becalmed that I could not really stand up and I contemplated – as if from afar – the possibility of an evening spent entirely seated. The Arab matriarch glanced over at me and I could see what she was thinking. To my surprise, however, she suddenly raised her glass of water and smiled. She seemed to know that I was not quite finished yet, or even finished at all, because one can never be finished entirely. One drinks from birth to death, unthinking. I raised my gin and tonic, therefore, and said, “Inch’allah.” Blasphemy, certainly, but her husband didn’t hear.

Check out a “Read it and Eat” feature here!