News / November 2015

GREAT DRUNKS OF OUR TIMES

Pythagoras called sobriety ‘the strength of the soul’. He was also a vegetarian who believed the mysteries of the universe could be unravelled using maths, so The Rake suggests you spurn…

'Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle, Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And René Descartes was a drunken fart,
I drink therefore I am.'

Monty Python's Philosopher's Song - a ditty penned by Eric Idle, which alluded to the capacity of history's great thinkers to sup from the cup of Bacchus - was a moment of cerebral comedy genius. Not only was it packed with lyrical virtuoso (the line 'There's nothing Nietzsche couldn't teach ya 'bout the raisin' of the wrist' is a poetic peach), but it also managed to incorporate the schools of thought expounded by the savants it cheekily lampooned (Immanuel Kant being 'very rarely stable', for example, alludes to any inebriate's wobbling gait, but more subtly to the German ethicist's theory of a stable universe).

Given the Pythons' intellectual credentials, Idle's feat in injecting such academia into his daft-yet-deep masterpiece is no surprise. But the song is endowed with extra comic resonance for the fact that it is apposite, for there is an unequivocal correlation between intellect, competence and influence (most of the philosophers were the A-listers of their time) and a predilection for the bottled magic with which mankind has enjoyed a heady relationship ever since some serendipitous Neolithic first noticed the mind-bending effects of fermented berries.

If you're not content with the proof that can be found in ancient history - Alexander the Great built an empire stretching from Greece to India in just a decade while practising a deeply dipsomaniacal devotion to the cult of Dionysus, the God of wine - then what about modern science? In 2013, Finnish researchers gathered data on 3,000 fraternal and identical twins and found that the sibling who first developed verbal ability also tended to be the first to experiment with, and subsequently form a relationship with, alcohol.

And if you're still not convinced, what about the endless list of extraordinary coves who have made an indelible imprint on political or cultural history despite a yen for revelry touched on in their obituaries and eulogies with euphemistic insinuations such as 'larger than life', 'convivial' or 'cheery'? Sir Winston Churchill is, of course, one of the first to spring to mind, the former British Prime Minister having conducted an entire theatre of war while enjoying a little more than the odd glass of hock with breakfast. 'I must have a tumbler of sherry in my room before breakfast, a couple of glasses of scotch and soda before lunch, and Champagne and 90-year-old brandies before I go to sleep at night,' he once told a White House butler during one wartime visit.

His penchant for bubbly was cemented some years later, in 1945, at the British ambassador's home in Paris. There, a bottle of 1928 Pol Roger was served to toast the liberation of France; Churchill was so taken with it he bought all of the remaining 1928 and 1934 Pol Roger, and was sent a case at Chartwell, his home in Kent, every birthday onwards. When he died, in 1965, Pol Roger placed a black border around the labels of any bottles bound for England.

As he was a man disposed to grog-related quippery - ably demonstrated in his well-documented exchanges with Conservative MP Lady Astor* - Winnie must privately have been a great admirer of this witticism from Frank Sinatra: 'I feel sorry for people who don't drink - they wake up in the morning and that's the best they're going to feel all day.' In the crooner's case, though, the grog didn't always cheer his mood: in fact, it would seem those famous ol' blue eyes would more than occasionally mist over a garish red when he hit the bottle, particularly once he became depressed as his star waned in the mid-to-late sixties. For example, consider the occasion he ran up a $500,000 gambling debt at The Sands in Las Vegas, disappeared for a weekend, came back soused, drove a luggage cart through a glass doorway, tried (and failed) to set fire to the curtains, then arranged a hit on the manager for refusing him his usual $50,000 worth of free chips.

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