Wednesday, 20 January 2010

A Complete Hiftory of Man According to Hif Divers Delightf. Part One: 'You Smell of Goat'

by Peter Cresswell

A brief history of the world based on several things that really matter . . .

“ ‘Tis better to be a good liver than to have one.”
Tom Waits

    Man’s recorded history begins on the plains. When wildebeest and wild beasts roamed the plains thousands of years ago, early man roamed with them ... and often provided them with a good meal.
    Life for early man for most of those thousands of years was just as Thomas Hobbes described it :  nasty, brutish and short. The battle for survival was a daily challenge; the threat of imminent oblivion all that drove men forward; Hunting and gathering whatever could be scavenged the only way to fend off starvation.  In such a primitive struggle, man’s mind was of little use :  native cunning and primitive tool-making were highly valued; long-range thinking was not.
    A successful hunt was all such creatures had to celebrate:  a high point in such an existence would be to roast another wild beast over an open fire. For a brief moment in their short and brutal lives their bellies would be full, their bodies warm, and their thoughts could (at last!) roam to higher things.
    They had bought themselves time to think. What great realisations did they come to? After much skull-sweat they concluded that , in the immortal words of Tom Waits, 'twere better to be a good liver than to have one.  On such nights, and over the course of those thousands of year of struggle, there was one thought, one goal, that drove these men forwards:  the idea of beer!
    That’s right. Beer. The first step away from the caves and that precarious existence of the hunter-gather came with the cultivation in Mesopotamia of grains and cereals. With this important step man had begun thinking long-range; he had begun to plan ahead … a season … then a year … then several years in advance. Rather than roaming far and wide for whatever he could find, he could instead settle down, build a house, raise a family, have a beer, start a civilisation.
    The planting and harvesting of grains and cereals represented the arrival on this earth of man the-rational-animal; and for the first time it could be clearly seen that man’s mind was his chief tool of survival. Man had put his mind to work, and for the first time flourishing replaced survival.
    And what was all that grain and all those cereals for? Why, for beer of course! And bread. If bread was the staff of life, then beer was its inspiration. With bread came sustenance; with beer came civilisation. If the symbol of that first phase of primitive human development was a wild beast gnawing on the roasted limb of another wild beast, then the mark of the next was several pitchers of beer, and happy people consuming them.
    Beer was the first example of men expending precious time and effort producing something not just for survival, but for their own pleasure!
    And with the time bought by cultivation, men could now devise stories to entertain themselves while drinking beer. And curiously, many of these tales involved stories of extensive imbibition and getting seriously bladdered. How times have changed.
    The first of man’s great stories-and the very birth of literature--is ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh,’ a tale describing the evolution of man from the primitive to the cultured. This perhaps the first of man ‘s great creation myths, and also the first recorded instance of a great drinking songs. 
    So if civilisation began with beer, then literature began with a drinking song. (Sounds like a good story to me. ) In the epic we hear tell of the whore sent by Gilgamesh to the savage Enkidu, who teaches him what it is to be human. “She [gave Enkidu] bread to eat, because that’s what humans do, and beer to drink, because that’s what civilised people do”:[1]

‘Drink beer the custom of the land.’
Beer he drank – seven goblets.
His spirit was loosened.
He became hilarious [don’t we all!].
His heart was glad and his face shone.

    Enkidu drank beer, became hilarious, became glad – and in doing so became human.
    The Mesopotamians had their own popular drinking song. A rather odd one, suggesting that Mesopotamian lager louts liked rather fancied dressing up:

Sweet beer is in the Buninu barrel.
Cup-bearer, waiter-waitress, servants and brewer gather around.
When I have abundance of beer,
I feel great. I feel wonderful.
By the beer, I am happy.
My heart is full of joy, my liver is full of luck.
When I am full of gladness, my liver wears the dress befitting a queen.

    The only think left to add is a hiccup. And a belch. And to wonder what sort of visions the Mesopotamian liver was conjuring up!

    African myth includes an early version of the story of Pandora’s Box: in this version at the bottom of the empty casket is found, not hope exactly, but a gourd of beer. ‘Forget the afterlife and redemption by the gods,’ this story seems to say: ‘be happy with your lot, because to you is given beer.’  So beer puts the gods in their proper place for the first time:  Where primitive men would fearfully seek to propitiate the cruel and fickle gods for one more day of a brutal existence, civilised men instead called on their gods to assist in the tricky processes of cultivation and fermentation.
    It is thus no accident that religion quickly associated itself with beer: to this day, beer recipes from Belgian monks are still highly prized. Even the murderous Aztecs were not found wanting: if you weren’t completely cunted at Aztec religious rites your head became forfeit to the priests.
    The message seemed to be that as drunkenness was a gift from the gods, it must be so honoured. Now there’s a religious morality you can subscribe to!

    So beer built civilisation: it was what were getting civilised for.  The Sumerians, the Aztecs, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Teutons … all took the happy accident of fermentation and with it made their crops last longer and their short lives better. Beer was good.  Beer was popular. Beer was the reason we were here.  The Egyptians for example used up to forty percent of their harvests to make beer. Bousa (or bouza) as one type was called (yes, it’s true!) was the staple of the Egyptian diet; the pyramids were paid for with another type known as kash.
    Clearly, t
he urge to go out to work to earn drinking vouchers and spend them down the boozer is a long-established mark of civilisation.
    In this way life was made much better for the next few thousands of years, which was important since for many other reasons life – outside beer and its associated revels – was still shit.
Aside from a few brief, glorious years in Ancient Greece -- in which philosophy, art and science were very soberly invented -- getting mothered was the only reliable pleasure to be had across most of the Dark Ages and in most of the world. To understand Europe for most of this time, think Nebraska on a slow weekend – you had the choice of either church or beer. The best you could say was that most monks were good brewers!
    In fact, much of the Dark Ages might well be explained by the fact that most of the people for most of the time were munted.  And who wouldn’t want to be. In an age when the water was disgusting and food was once again scarce and difficult to keep fresh, beer had become the chief source of daily nutrients. The average Northern European, every man, women and child, drank three litres of beer a day – and this is real beer we’re talking about, not today’s girly muck, with much higher alcohol content than the lolly-water of Messrs Budweiser and Miller. (Nordics were even harder: the daily ration for Finnish soldiers was the equivalent of forty cans of strong beer. No wonder the Vikings were fearless)

    If you’re at all interested in history then, try drinking three litres of Tennents Super or Carlsberg Elephant beer every day and see how you feel, and then think about that when you study European history because that’s what most Europeans were filling up their history with:

Almost everything had some liquor in it, especially medicines. Anything not deliberately fermented went off in the summer heat.  In winter, beer froze, causing the alcohol to separate into high-proof liquor… To make matters worse, the main non-alcoholic source of nutrition, bread, is now believed to have been plagued with the hallucinogenic fungus ergot, the base ingredient for LSD. Drunk doctors, tipsy politicians, hung-over generals: the plague, famine and war. Add a pope on acid and medieval Christianity begins to make a whole lot of sense.[2]
    How seriously did Europeans take their drinking?  Here’s one measure: The Eskimos have twenty-three words to describe snow, but the English language has over one thousand to describe getting hammered.[3] Little wonder. Being bollocksed in fact explains much English history, as for most of their history the English spent most of their time getting trolleyed. After encountering the arseholed Ancient Britons, Julius Caesar (more used to the pleasures of the grape than the hops), asked in an ode :

Who made you and from what?
By the true Bacchus I know you not.
He smells of nectar
But you smell of goat.

    High praise indeed!
   It wasn’t just the Britons yore who were getting trollied either. King Harold’s much later fall at the Battle of Hastings (on that famous date of 1066) was ascribed by twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury to the fact that the boys were still hung-over from celebrating an earlier victory over the Vikings. Echoing the much later charge of the Light Brigade (and the more recent invasions of England’s Barmy Army and its football hooligans), Malmesbury describes the English fighting “more with rashness and precipitate fury than with military skill.”  
    Even Queen Elizabeth I indulged, supping her beer soup at breakfast and washing it down with a quart of the warm flat stuff - 'an excellent wash' she called it. When she visited Hatfield House her off-sider the Earl of Leicester hastily wrote to Lord Burleigh, "There is not one drop of good drink or here there. We were fain to send to London and Kenilworth and divers other places where ale was: her own beer was so strong as there was no man able to drink it." [4]
The Scots (or the Picts as they used to called themselves) were even more serious about getting gewgawed: they made their beer one part malt to two parts heather. The heather, it turns out, contains a natural hallucinogen called fogg, which is somewhat descriptive and explains something about the Scottish enthusiasm for their beer today -- including the Tennents Super of today - and very much about their tactics in battle.
    Arseholed they may have been for most of their history, but it was from the drunken shambolic British that we got the idea of liberty. Common law and the Magna Carta were early English makeshifts, just the sort of Heath Robinsonisms you’d put together when drunk.  It was a good start, but we had to endure half-a-millennia more before the ideas embodied within these could be properly developed and applied. 
    What kicked off their proper development was a saviour from the East: in the twelfth-century European scholars began learning from their Muslim counterparts about the great thinkers forgotten in the European Dark Ages.  The rebirth of those great thinkers was so powerful it kicked off the Renaissance—which, naturally, was enough to kick off another round of celebrations.
    Through the centuries of hangovers What Europe really need was to wake up. It needed another drink. And in the seventeenth-century Europeans learnt from Islam of another wonder, and this special wonder helped to kick off the Enlightenment …
    And for knowledge of that pleasure and what came of it you will have to wait for Part Two.

    To be continued . . .

[1] Man Walks into a Pub: A Sociable History of Beer, Pete Brown; Macmillan, 2003
[2] The Devil’s Cup: Coffee, the Driving Force in History, Stewart Lee Allen; Soho Press, 2000.
[3] Yes, it’s true! The fabulous and afore-referenced Man Walks into a Pub includes nearly 250 of these words, and author Pete Brown points out that there are a further 800-odd such words and phrases to be found in Jonathan Green’s Dictionary of Slang. As Brown comments: “It is clearly the work of an insane genius. Just so you know, the only other words that come close to having as many different slang terms as drunkenness are bonking, jobbies, wabs, the front bottom and the old chap. In itself this says more about our culture than most books could ever hope to.”
[4] ibid

1 comment:

1. Commenters are welcome and invited.
2. All comments are moderated. Off-topic grandstanding, spam, and gibberish will be ignored. Tu quoque will be moderated.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say, it's important enough to put a name to.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.