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They Rode Over Peasants Like You

The ups and downs of falling hopelessly in love with cocktails.
4.6.13

My name is John Doran and I write about music. The young bucks who run VICE’s website thought it would be amusing to employ a 41-year-old who still takes the bus.

In case you were wondering or simply too lazy to use urban dictionary, "menk" is Scouse/Woollyback slang for a mentally ill or educationally subnormal person, and is a shortened version of mental. As in, “Your Sergio Tacchini trackie is sick la, look at that menk Doran, he can’t even afford a Walker trackie. Let’s hit him with a brick and push him in the canal."

MENK 58: THEY RODE OVER PEASANTS LIKE YOU

The day I learned how to make a dry martini was a great day. The day I first put this knowledge into practice, however, was a very terrible day. And so was the day after that. And so were most of the next 365 that followed. And a lot of the 4,400 days that followed that were as well. I was a late starter with cocktails. Up until moving South in 1995 I didn’t even know what cocktails were. And when I say cocktails, I include such drinks as the vodka and orange. Or, to be more specific, I had no idea of the dizzying potential of what a vodka and orange could offer when made outside of St Helens in the pre-Britpop/New Labour era*.

In my teenage local in the mid-80s – The Royal Alfred, or The Alf for short – you could get a potato distilled spirit with a shot of congealing, glow in the dark, syrupy, sunset orange cordial if you wanted, but it wasn’t what I now recognise as a vodka and orange. This noxious combination always managed to somehow separate completely in your mouth so you had double the displeasure of drinking both constituents individually, as if you’d just necked a glass of turned milk and cod liver oil, or Castrol GTX and rancid bull semen. So, to a young man desperate for alcohol, it was very bittersweet to experience it, much like sex in prison on Christmas morning. (Lags actually brew their own hooch by leaving orange cordial on the radiators to ferment. I’m reliably told it tastes remarkably like a vintage V n’O served in The Alf.)

An effete, blouse-wearing ponce like myself couldn’t really take the St Helens vodka and orange experience. I’d just tip a large shot of Smirnoff into my Guinness, sometimes eliciting a screeched, “Ooh, look at him… Oscar Wilde”, from a perpetually angry barwoman called Betty. It was better to leave the foul Dr Jekyll-esque concoction to the only people who could handle it: old women on pension day. They were the sort of females who looked vacuum-packed from the inside and acted like they were cast from bronze, despite having skin like dried chamois leather and only being four feet tall. Every Thursday they would barge up to the bar, sticking their Ray Harryhausen-designed bony elbows into your ribs to get pole position for ordering a drink. They would always go for bottles of Special Brew, Gold Label barley wine or Thunderbird Blue Label that stood on sticky wooden shelves at room temperature, to be followed by a V n’O chaser. Then they would leave like a flock of angry, de-cloaked Jawas in crimpolene for the scoop and weigh and Wilkinsons, their spiritual load seemingly unleavened by the massive lunchtime injection of snide alcohol and crudely refined sugars they’d just main-lined.

I remember some poor sod (presumably returning from university, France or a Communist run homosexual indoctrination camp) asking for vodka and fresh orange once. The reply was simply: “Fresh… orange?” But executed in such a withering manner that people were still talking about the incident early the following week.

When I left St Helens in 1989, it was clear that change was in the air in more enlightened locales. All up and down Beverley Road, many, many hostelries had posters in their windows declaring that all-day drinking was coming – all, that is, apart from The Rose, a spectacularly pre-lapsarian, madness-infused pugilism shack, which had a poster announcing: "Coming soon: 'MILD'!!!"

Although all-day drinking didn’t arrive at Hull University’s Student Union bar straight away, vodka and fresh orange did. And by fresh orange, I mean fresh orange, motherfucker. I was only just getting used to the concept of vodka and Britvic juice on the morning that I noticed that the bar’s fridges were packed up with what looked like cartons of milk except adorned with pictures of citrus fruit.

The bar manager was an awesome, implacable and inscrutable guy called Tom who looked like Patrick Stewart. He possessed deep wells of self-control and patience which had come from serving 15 years in the French Foreign Legion. He hand poured me a large vodka into a chilled glass and then topped it up with the fresh orange juice which was so cold it cracked the ice cubes. Hundreds of pin pricks of condensation sprang up on the glass immediately, like the skin of a fat man stepping into a roasting hot sauna. I gulped it down so quickly it felt like Jack Frost was throttling me. Then I could taste the fruit in my mouth.

“Jesus fucking Christ – it’s like God’s kissed my tongue. It’s got actual bits of orange in it,” I said to Albert, before ordering another one. I drank many of them that afternoon… a halcyon day, if not necessarily surrounded by other halcyon days.

As the afternoon wore on and after much persuading, Tom finally told us some stories about his time in the Legion. The induction process beggared belief. After a year of training he’d been driven out somewhere into the French Pyrenees and made to dig his own grave at gunpoint in the midday sun. Once he was down six feet he was ordered to throw his shovel out. Then he had to climb out while his sergeant hit him on the head and hands with the shovel as all of his new comrades cheered.

“Is that why all your hair fell out?” I asked him, giddy with 24 vodka and oranges. He shook his head kindly and smiled indulgently. It would take more than a student turbo meff who always finished each drink order by saying, "Make it so, Number One!" to upset you once you’ve served with honour and distinction in the Legion. After another large vodka and orange I narrowly avoided soiling myself and vomited into an ornamental fake rubber plant on the way to the exit. The next evolutionary stage of drinking had arrived.

But it wasn’t until 1995 that I experienced an honest to goodness cocktail, made and served with ingenuity and craftsmanship. During the summer I had read an article on how to mix the perfect dry martini in the Guardian. I’d never really known what the difference between the actual cocktail and the hyper-powered cheap Italian vermouth was. The former was favoured by international spies and high-powered American business people while the latter was preferred by those who had relinquished their quest for leading a happy life and those who lasted until 5AM at house parties. I chewed this feature over in my mind while working ten-hour shifts in a plastics factory in Hertfordshire. I determined to go to Claridge's in Mayfair on the weekend and drink some proper martinis. Otherwise, what was the fucking point?

Wearing a suit and tie I propped up the West End hotel bar and watched as the cocktail waiter fetched a frost encrusted eight ball glass out of a freezer cabinet and placed it on a paper doily. He produced an expensive looking solid steel perfume atomizer and held it a foot above the glass before giving the bulb a gentle squeeze releasing a mist of Noily Prat vermouth into the air. Some of this eventually descended slowly onto the inner surface of the glass. It seemed like a homeopathic recipe for making the drink. Only the world’s most sensitive atomic scales would have registered the increase in weight the glass had undergone. Then he reached into a small freezer unit and brought out an expensive bottle of imported Russian vodka that had almost, but not quite, gone waxy with the chill, and topped the glass up the brim. He used a razor blade to carve a thin rectangular slice of lemon peel and rolled it up, squeezing the resultant citrus oil into a slick onto the surface of the drink. Then he speared the roll of rind with a cocktail stick, used a miniature flame thrower to singe it and placed it into the drink.

I drank four and then walked all the way back to King's Cross. My pounding heart was made from the finest patent leather and pumped onyx squid ink round my crystal veins, my eyes had become pearls and shone under street lamps – each of which flickered into warm sodium life as I passed underneath in the twilight. I ran a hand through my hair which was finer than splinters of glass and the strands chimed together. My teeth met in harmony as mutually embracing rows of stalactites and stalagmites. I purred like a tiger and my long coat swung with each step. With each echoing crack my shoes made on the Portland stone-flagged pavements of West London, shop front windows bulged outwards and car alarms sprang into discordant song. The GPO buckled, swayed and then regained its composure as I strode past. The primary neon of Soho singed a message onto my retinas – all of this and more is yours. The after effect of the experience lasted all the way back to the bedsit in Welwyn Garden City and I can still feel a faint echo of it now.

– – –

That Christmas I couldn’t get enough time off work to go up North to see my mum and dad, so I stayed in Hertfordshire and my best mate Stu came to visit. When we woke up on the morning of the 25th I suggested we have cocktails. I sloshed vermouth round two mugs and then filled them up to the brim with Smirnoff.

“Jesus Christ,” said Stu after his first mug full. “How does James Bond get anything done?”

We had another and Stu cooked breakfast, which was made out of 40 cloves of garlic, two tins of butter beans, three packets of super noodles and a tin of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. I made a third martini but on sitting down I realised that I’d forgotten the vermouth. Looking at the clock which read 10AM and then at the cracked Dr Who mug full of vodka, my eyes started to brim with tears.

“I think I’ve made a terrible mistake,” I said querulously.

I don’t remember much about the rest of the day and what I do is pretty grim. Some people apparently received phone calls from me after 11AM tearfully saying that Stu was lying motionless behind the sofa and that he might be dead.

When we woke up the next day, we swore we’d be more careful in future and determined to get it right. We started the day off with breakfast first and then made a mug of martini each.

(*I say pre-Britpop/New Labour purposefully because that short period changed everything for the worse – despite Cool Britannia introducing proper fresh OJ to all pubs. There was an urban myth of sorts going round during the 90s that while on the campaign trail in Hartlepool Peter Mandelson – my friend’s uncle - went into a chip shop and saw someone’s mushy peas and said, "Can I have some avocado dip to go with my chips please?" It’s a funny tale perhaps but it is certainly untrue. Mandelson’s brother was a therapist and lived in Denton’s Green, one of the nicer bits of St Helens and he visited the town quite regularly. The idea that you can spend any amount of time in St Helens (or any other part of the UK) and not know what mushy peas are is preposterous but not only this, Peter Mandelson, a canny political climber was very much interested in portraying himself as a man of the people and would often be seen around town wearing a donkey jacket, sporting a moustache and carrying the Morning Star or Socialist Worker rolled up in his armpit. He saw me once wearing a Dead Kennedy’s "Kill The Poor" T-shirt, skin-tight black jeans and winkle pickers with all my hair stuck up and told me that I looked "like a radical". He then apparently expressed dismay when he saw me a few months later dressed in the more typical Smiths fan get up of the day: Dr Martens boots, second hand faded blue 501s with roll ups, shirt buttoned up to the top and a tweed suit jacket bought from Oxfam.

The story about the guacamole is true but it didn’t involve Mandelson or happen in Hartlepool. Shelley Keeling, was a trainee researcher from a wealthy American family who was an intern in Jack Straw’s office in Kirkby, a Merseyside town just a stone’s throw from St Helens. When she went to the local chippie for the first time she happened to mention that the green stuff in the metal bowl looked delicious before asking innocently: “Is it avocado?’ The then Labour leader Neil Kinnock repeated the story as part of his retirement speech in 1990 but claimed the culprit was Mandelson in the ward of Hartlepool. When writing about the speech in his weekly politics column for The Sunday People Mandy denied it had happened but neglected to mention the young American girl’s understandable mistake, even though it would have killed the urban myth stone dead and restored his face among the working class rank and file. But then he’s as canny as fuck that man, and probably knew that his allegiances were in the process of shifting. He was about to change from someone who wanted to impress working class people for the sake of his political career in the 1980s to someone who wanted to impress his wealthy, well-educated and well-bred paymasters at Millbank for the sake of his political career in the 1990s. After all, what better way of signalling in public where your allegiances lie than by encouraging people to think you asked for avocado dip in a working class chip shop?)

Previously: Menk, by John Doran – Don't Tell Me That the High Rise Has to End

You can read all the previous editions of John's Menk column here.