Monday, December 26, 2011

On the Drinking of Meths

If this blog has failed to notice Christmas, it's because the blogger has been rather busy noticing it in person. The suckling pig was excellent, the beer suitably cold, the presents perfectly chosen and the company very agreeable. The weather has been cold and sunny, making it possible to run and ride enough to make room for the piglet, and to avoid the preparation of it. In short, Christmas as it should be. I hope readers can all say the same.

And now, in the interests o fbalance, a post about the observation of human misery.

The highest expression of human desperation is to me the drinking of meths. When exposed in London to all kinds of human life, including all kinds of human suffering, the lowest of the low, those so far lost to any possibility of a return to humanity and happiness that they could not remember being human or conceive of becoming so once again (that's how I imagined it) were the meths drinkers.

I saw them regularly in Euston Square. I wouldn't even call it misery. My impression, rightly or wrongly, was that they were beyond any experience of emotional suffering. It was a world I could observe but not imagine, as it was so far from my understanding.

The image of figures that had once been people, sipping purple fluid from glass tubes or some makeshift container, a barely discernible vapour rising from the surface, is fixed in my mind, so firmly that it is almost certainly not real. But they were there, on the grass under the trees when it was warm, on the benches when it was cold or wet. And not only in Euston Square, though that is where I remember them.

To drink meths, I imagine, indicates a resignation from life more complete than any other act, even suicide. Taking one’s own life requires an act of will, and the recognition that one could continue to live, even that one’s life has some value. The meths drinkers have nothing, and they know they have nothing. They eat at times, a few crumbs abandoned by the birds, just a reflex when the discomfort is too great. Most will not live long enough to need to eat. Their existence consists of the only pleasure that remains to them, the consumption of industrial spirit, which they know will quickly drive them mad and damage their organs beyond repair, will destroy what is left of their humanity, will reduce their human relations to being with people like them and attempting to articulate abuse at each other. They have renounced their humanity, because they believe it has renounced them. They are the most hopeless group of creatures have ever come across. I don’t believe any of them could ever have been returned to anything resembling a form of normal life.

They belonged to another world. In fact, they created another world within ours, surrounded themselves with an aura of remote horror, and allowed us to surrender that space to them. People will sit next to tramps and filthy, bloodied drunks on benches, if there’s nowhere else.They won't sit with the drinkers of meths. No one will join their world. They exist on another plain, that the rest of us do not want to be part of. We are happy to leave it to others to experience.


Vincent said...

You may be right and there is no way I will argue with your intuition, based on what you observed. However, I take the romantic view that no one can know the inner experience of another creature, whether of the same species or not. I often observe alcoholics near where I live (a run-down inner-city location) and of course they are in various stages, and drink a variety of different things. One could say that they daily make their choice because they could go to a hostel and clean up, but they prefer their freedom.

As for meths, I’m instantly reminded of one of my favourite books: Mister God, This Is Anna by Fynn, set in the Thirties, based on the true story of a little girl aged 5, Anna. One night she goes with Fynn (aged 19) to talk to the homeless who sit round a bonfire near Embankment, drinking Red Biddy (red wine mixed with meths). Yes, their lifestyle will send them to an early grave, but they have their dignity, even a kind of wisdom, some of them.

There is a depiction of old tramps hanging around Kings Cross Station in The Long Dark Afternoon of the Soul by Douglas Adams. In his tale, they are immortals on their way to an annual meeting in an alternate reality, which maps onto the same geographical space, so that St Pancras Station is actually Valhalla. They go to feast in the old way, and listen to Odin and Thor.

I like Adams’ symbolism in this depiction, defying our everyday judgements as to the dignity and subjective experience of others.

But if you say that this is a fanciful and sentimental notion, there is no way i can prove you wrong!

James Higham said...

So, with a malt in my hand, I'm still a short way away from destitution?

CIngram said...


When I lived in Camden Town as a student I would sometimes chat to the tramps who wondered up and down the High Street and slept in the little parks. Some were happy, some were miserable, some were mad, some would never have wanted to return to 'normal' life, some did want to, but couldn't, and some probably did make it back. There was a bit of everything. But the meths drinkers seemed to have none of that variety, or cheerfulness, or self-knowledge, that other, more 'orthodox' tramps had. I couldn't say which was chicken and which was egg, but the drinking of meths was associated in my mind at that time with a uniform hopelessness, the lowest point it is possible to reach, marking the end of everything.

I hadn't come across the Fynn book before. I'll see if there's a Kindle version. Douglas Adams on the other hand I can quote largely from memory, the HH books anyway. I remember that scene well. One point of the book is that gods have difficulty functioning, finding a place for themselves, in the modern world, and so many of them are effectively vagrants.

In general I agree with you that it is extremely difficult to understand the experience of others.


I think sipping malt whisky you're still a long way from destitution, but you're certainly a step closer to Heaven.