The Drunk Samaritan

keep your coinsThere’s a Philip Larkin poem (beautiful because true) to the effect that people make selflessness sound uplifting and inspiring and fulfilling, while in reality selfishness feels like sitting by the fireside with a good drink and good music and selflessness feels like hanging around a hospital waiting room in an ill-fitting suit. This will always be epitomised for me in the night I let a homeless man sleep on my floor.

I was behind the bar at the Great Welsh Beer Festival in Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium, familiarising myself with my stock like any good publican, while faithfully observing the prime directive of not drinking more than you serve – which wasn’t saying much, admittedly, on a busy Saturday evening. I was also somewhat maudlin, having just heard on the grapevine that a girl I used to love had moved in with someone I used to think of as my best friend. I haven’t seen either of them in years, admittedly, but I was having a bad week and the news threw me into a state of abject romantic self-pity. After the festival finished, I was walking home through the park at about 3am, when I blurted out something like ‘Ah me! I am a most unhappy man!’ Here I was accosted by a friendly drunk sitting on a nearby tree stump. He graciously offered me a can of Stella – not my usual tipple, but I never look a gift horse in the mouth – and we treated each other to a litany of our respective woes: romantic desolation and homeless alcoholism. We hit it off so well, in fact, that on finding out he had nowhere to sleep it seemed the most natural thing in the world to offer him a spot on my living room floor for the night.

‘This never really happens,’ he said.

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Can’t think why.’

I staggered back home beside him, fished out my sleeping bag and roll mat from behind the sofa, and left him to it.

Waking up the morning after a good night out, there’s always a pleasant few minutes in which to unpick dream from reality and filter out what memories the tides of wine, ale, and spirits haven’t washed away. It’s this that determines whether I’ll be chuckling over great wit, silliness and conversation for the rest of the day, kicking myself for being such a vulgar idiot, or merely scratching my head and wondering how I got home, or some other enigma. There’s one girl I still can’t remember if I kissed on a night out or if I merely dreamt I did. I’ve never had the courage to ask her which.

I put it to you, said my newly reawakened Reason, that you let a homeless stranger and professed alcoholic sleep on your living room floor.

Surely not, said I. Alcohol makes me a complete idiot, to be sure, but surely not that much of an idiot.

I put it to you, said Reason, that you go and see for yourself.

I peeked into the living room. There was a homeless guy sleeping on my floor. I gulped. And went to take a shower.

By the time I was washed and dressed my guest was awake. Rhys – for such was his name – was in his late forties, and surprisingly well dressed. He wore a shirt, a white jacket and light jeans, none of them stained, his hair was orderly, his chin stubbly but not beyond the bounds of fashion. Aside from the fact that he was drinking his first beer of the day at eight o’clock in the morning, you wouldn’t have looked at him twice.

‘Do you want any tea?’ I asked.

‘No thank you.’ he said. ‘Sorry about the beer, but I need it. I’m an alcoholic.’

I nodded sagely, and set about fortifying myself with earl grey, toast and marmalade, after which things would presumably become easier to cope with. Having offered him hospitality, the main problem was how to get him out of the house without being rude. I looked out at the thickening downpour barraging the patio. At least I’d saved him from waking up in the middle of it.

Rhys fixed one of my drawers while I ate my breakfast, and was thankful for the night’s rest. He did have a USB stick on which he insisted on showing me pictures of his daughter, but his daughter turned out to be surprisingly hot.

‘She has beautiful eyes,’ I said, diplomatically.

When I left for the university he left with me, and we went our separate ways. He thanked me again for my drunken generosity; I advised him to try and kick the alcoholism, but I doubt I had much effect. I haven’t seen him again.

I got back to my house later and tidied up. Nothing was missing, nothing was stolen. I did need to mop out the bathroom, because he was somewhat inaccurate – but who among us can claim to be faultless in this regard? In despite of having done my good turn for the day in true boy scout fashion, I felt embarrassed, uncertain and awkward, and I wouldn’t be stupid enough to do it again – but then I suppose that’s how everyone feels, all the way back to the good Samaritan and the man who fell among thieves.

How to hypnotise a chicken – A New Zealand adventure

The trouble with any long period away is that it includes such a variety and wide range of incidents, anecdotes, encounters and adventures that it’s nigh impossible to provide a short, cogent answer to a question as simple as ‘How did you find New Zealand?’ apart from the utterly banal (‘I liked it, thanks.’)

I attempted to make things more interesting by summarising my month and a half in New Zealand in a few sentences of Dickensian length and complexity, but since they’re a little too rhetorical to recite by heart, I mostly copy them into letters, Facebook statuses and blogs:

From the streets of Christchurch, where life and culture thrives even among the rubble and dead hulks of its earthquake-stricken centre; to the star-brilliant skies above the blackness of Lake Tekapo; to the mist-shrouded bulk of Mt Cook, waterfalls pouring down its cheeks in angry cataracts; all down the jagged line of the southern alps, past the icy lakes of Wanaka and Wakatipu and into the sheer mountains and impenetrable rainforests of Fiordland, bridged by a single stoney track beneath which the clear Routeburn flows through valley and gorge, I ventured; then turning northward along the dangerous, ever-sounding shores of the west coast, where the glaciers sink slowly backwards into the mountains and the sea foams and spouts like a tempestuous geyser among the tortured and labyrinthine rocks; to the golden sand of Abel Tasman, where western eyes first glimpsed the young country, and paths lead through waist-deep tidal bays to the farther shore; to the vine groves of Marlborough and thence to the verdurous pastures and rainbow-haunted skies of North Island: the snowy crater and steaming volcanic lake of Ruapehu; the redwood forests and bubbling mud pits of Rotorua, and the deep azure mineral pools in which ferns silver and decay; up past Hobbiton and the black water caves of Waitomo to the northern capes and islands where the country began; where the great kauri, taller even than redwoods, pierce the canopy; then south once more to volcano-spotted Auckland, spanning the peninsula from the Pacific to the Tasman Sea: such were my travels in New Zealand. I flew gliders higher and for longer than I ever had before, leaped from planes and the top of skyscrapers, guided kayaks over wide, deep lakes, ascended sheer walls of blue ice and pitted rock, and plunged gasping into lakes, oceans, rivers and waterfalls. And there were beers cooling in the stream, and the scent of wood shavings on the forest air, the geothermal pools were hot and the lakes were cold,there were kisses by moonlight, shooting stars and new constellations, seals swimming the the rivers and kea clowning for scraps, and a beautiful woman did a hula dance in an apartment by the sea.

In any case, I was complaining of this excess of anecdote to my friend Ffion recently, and she cut through my pontificating by asking me to tell her a story about a chicken.

‘Oh yes, we hypnotised one.’ I said, and realised this was a story that I’d neglected to write into my diary, never told anyone of, and completely forgotten until now.

With an archly raised eyebrow and a subtle bulging of the eye, Ffion invited me to go on.

This was in the midst of my coach tour from Queenstown to Auckland, just outside Abel Tasman National Park. Our coach driver, Vince, was brilliant, fearless – one of those people who can persuade with a grin and a quiet word where others would spent gales of breath and bluster failing to convince. He seemed to have a girl in every place we stopped, and tonight he’d come up with two – Cathy and Marie. I’d ended up joining them and a few more of the livelier members of the bus group in playing ‘Never have I ever’. Vince did a lot of drinking, and I haven’t felt like such an innocent since before my first kiss.

Over the course of a dozen-odd beers that evening, Vince happened to mention that he could hypnotise a chicken. It was at that stage of the evening when everything has to be tried, and accordingly we trooped outdoors to where the chickens were roosting in the trees. Vince would bend the branch down low enough for one of us to make a clumsy grab, and an extremely startled chicken would slip through our drunken fingers and make for the hills. This continued until all the chickens on the campsite had received a rude awakening, and then we started to hunt them through the bushes. Cathy eventually managed to catch one after we closed in on it in a threefold pincer movement.

The Wikipedia page on chicken hypnosis is absolutely fascinating. First described in 1654 by Athanasius Kircher, it is mentioned by Nietzsche (“the streak of chalk bewitcheth the hen”) and the article includes tips on technique by a German Chancellor and a U.S. Vice President. Vince’s method was simple and classical. His lovely assistant, Cathy the chicken wrangler, held the chicken at chest height, facing Vince, who held out a piece of chalk at the chicken’s eye level. Slowly the two squatted down to floor level, when Vince drew a long straight line of chalk running away from the chicken and between his legs. Both of them stepped away, and the chicken continued staring fixedly at the line of chalk, completely hypnotised. Only when someone disturbed it by a shove or a loud noise would it snap back into life.

Having proved it was indeed possible to hypnotise a chicken, we left it in the tent of an unsuspecting Dutch woman and went back to our drinks. It would have been the highlight of another weeks diary, but in the midst of all the adventures it passed entirely unrecorded.

Tending Bar at the Cardiff University Ale and Cider Festival

logo with dragonThis coming Thursday, I’ll be bunking off a seminar and taking a long train journey down to Cardiff for the Real Ale and Cider Society’s 17th Annual Festival. It’s the largest student festival in Britain. There should be about 50 ales and 50 ciders – I’m told there is a list, but apparently it’s being kept Top Secret until the festival begins – 5 types of mead and 7 types of wine. My mouth is watering at the very thought.

Despite this being my fourth year at the festival, I have never visited as a customer. I’ve always worked behind the bar, recommending my favourite brews, serving up the ale with a flourish and partaking liberally in the quiet moments. A certain degree of familiarity with the different types of ale is a most desirable characteristic, and so long as you don’t drink more that you serve, the few genuinely sober people about are quite forgiving.

On my first year, I went home for the festival weekend, and only worked on the Thursday – how little I knew back then! Still, I returned to my halls addled enough to forget to shut the shower door, and completely drenched my ensuite – so evidently it was not time wasted.

The second year was a bit of a blow out, I admit. I managed to time myself so perfectly on the Thursday that the last thing I remember is last orders. And then, as usual, I woke up in bed, in my pyjamas, to find it was the next morning. My survival instincts often astonish me like that.

The festival that year was a sell out success, so there wasn’t the same chance to drink myself under the table as there was on the Thursday night – the paying customers had it all, the greedy beggars! I blame the undercover policemen, who prowled around quietly on the first night and came back to drink on day two in a massive group. But my memories are good. Being the most beardy member of the society at that point, I was quite identifiable, and got a lot of hugs. There was a lovely moment when I was listening to a band I’d helped book – who were fantastic – with a pint of ale in my right hand and my left around a rather pretty girl, and I thought how jealous and disbelieving my sixteen year old self would have been if he could have seen me now. I felt cool, which, God knows, doesn’t happen often enough. Unfortunately, I blew it almost immediately by reaching that plateau of drunkenness where I can dance completely unselfconsciously. The last band started off by covering Staying Alive, and got cheesier by the minute. At no other point have I, or would I EVER, dance to Gay Bar.

But all too soon the beer and cider had vanished down a thousand thirsty throats, and it was all over save for taking everything down the next morning, and the massive fried breakfast that inevitably follows.

The next year was not quite so exuberant, as I had begun to develop an (utterly unjustified) reputation about the committee, and they refused to give me any mead after nine o’clock. Spoilsports. There was a rather fun moment in the clearing up, where my housemate lent her head against my arm and said ‘Carry me home.’ She was out of the Great Hall and halfway out of the building before she managed to convince me it was a joke. What the security guards must have thought, I don’t know.

Surprisingly, considering I hadn’t drunk myself into complete insensibility, that morning was the worst hangover I’ve ever had at the festival. I stumbled into work at 3pm in my day-old festival t-shirt and oldest jeans, looking like hell and smelling of stale beer. Yet to my astonishment and delight, I pulled shortly after last orders, and turned up to the fried breakfast on Saturday with a big cheesy grin on my face that didn’t fade for a week afterwards.

I doubt I’m going to get that lucky again. But whatever happens, I’m going to have two nights of good music, cracking cider and wonderful ale, among some lovely people who I haven’t seen for over half a year, and that’s more than worth the journey.

The Cardiff University Real Ale and Cider Society Festival is open from 2pm to Midnight on the 21st and 22nd of February. Entry is £3 with a commemorative pint glass.

My First Time Drinking Mead

In hindsight, my mistake was in thinking I was a Viking.

It was a houseparty for one of my friends in Cardiff, the delightful Cathy. She will laugh at anything, and is never found out of her hoodie, and she may drink her ale in lady-like halves, but she can still match me drink for drink with ease. I was sprawled out on the sofa introducing myself to some Spanish exchange students when my friend Jamie came in, carrying a five-litre plastic container, something like the size of a desk drawer on its end. A rich and mysterious looking brown liquid was sloshing about within.

‘What is it?’ I asked, wondering if one of his regular home-brew disasters had finally come to fruition.

He slapped the container. ‘This, my friend, is mead.’

‘Mead?’

‘Medieval mead. Specially brewed for authenticity. Have a glass if you fancy.’ And he went off to talk with Cathy.

I have never been behindhand in trying new drinks. My glass of warmish ale swiftly vanished, and I got to my two tipsy feet to sample the mead. The only thing I knew about it was that the Vikings drank it in horns, and that a horn held about two pints. So I poured myself a pint of mead, and sat down again.

It was delicious. I have never been much for sweet drinks since I sampled my first Guinness, but the mead was flowery, dark and sweet and tasting of all the scents of summer brewed together. It vanished with surpassing swiftness.

‘The mead’s lovely, isn’t it?’ I shouted to Jamie, when he glanced my way.

‘It’s great. You’ve got rather a large glass there, haven’t you?’

I looked at my quarter-pint incredulously. ‘Don’t be stupid. Vikings used to drink it in horns. I haven’t even drunk half a horn yet!’ I stood up on feet that suddenly seemed even tipsier than before, and carefully poured myself another pint of mead.

Everything gets a bit hazy from thereon in. I think someone tried to explain to me that mead was 14.5% abv, and that I’d been drinking wine like beer. Someone else told me it was probably time to go home. I just remember lying back on that sofa, grinning toothily at the ceiling, the most chemically happy I had ever been in my life. If Vikings felt like this every time they got drunk, how did they ever manage to get up the testosterone for all that raiding and burning and pillaging? This was bliss!

And then my friend Chris was walking me home, whilst I was laughing at everything and qupting the Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam at the top of my voice. That was my first night drinking mead, but it wouldn’t be the last by a good way.

The Thirty-Three Happy Moments

Of all the books on my shelves, one of the ones I’m fondest of is also one of the shabbiest. It’s a small, gunmetal grey volume about the size of an old tobacco tin, heavily creased up and down the spine. It’s called ‘The Knapsack’.

Even if it were not a proverbial sin to judge a book by its cover, the utilitarian appearance of my volume is easily excused by the fact it was designed as an anthology of prose and verse for the use of servicemen in World War Two. My secondhand copy advertises itself in the inside cover as belonging to an E. Riley of Hull; there’s no indication whether E. Riley ever served in the war, or carried it into action, but I like to think he did, and while away my time imagining the battles and foreign fields this shabby volume was borne through.

The anthology, as edited by Herbert Read, has an understandably martial and Christian theme to it in many of its sections, but it is very rarely less than entertaining. As the original vehicle for introducing me to the wild and Celtic wanderings of the Irish Saint Brandon, to the ancient ballad of Chevy Chase and the beautiful lyrics of Shelley, it has a place in my heart – but what really won me over are the half-dozen pages in the back reserved for ‘Notes and Additions’.

One of my favourite items is ‘The Thirty-Three Happy Moments‘ of Chin Sheng’tan. The story of its composition is a simple one. It was a rainy day in 17th century China, and the playwright Chin found himself shut indoors with a friend. To while away the monotony of their seclusion, Chin began to compose a list of the truly happy moments in his life. They are an entertainingly varied selection, ranging from the worthy and spiritual:

I am not a saint, and am therefore not without sin. In the night I did something wrong and I get up in the morning and feel extremely ill at ease about it. Suddenly I remember what is taught by Buddhism, that not to cover one’s sins is the same as repentance. So then I begin to tell my sin to the entire company around, whether they are strangers or my old friends. Ah, is this not happiness?

to the pleasures of the flesh:

To keep three or four spots of eczema in a private part of my body and now and then to scald or bathe it with hot water behind closed doors. Ah, is this not happiness?

And including both selfless actions:

I have nothing to do after a meal and try to go through the things in some old trunks. I see there are dozens or hundreds of IOUs from people who owe my family money. Some of them are dead and some still living, but in any case there is no hope of their returning the money. Behind people’s backs I put them together in a pile and make a bonfire of them, and I look up to the sky and see the last trace of smoke disappear. Ah, is this not happiness?

And the delights of schadenfreude:

To see someone’s kiteline broken. Ah, is this not happiness?

To say more would be to deluge my article in quotations, and spoil the pleasure of reading The Thirty-three Happy Moments through properly. Suffice to say, I found Chin Sheng’tan’s work both amusing and inspirational. I have always been guilty of finding happiness in the little things, in the sly moments of creeping contentment rather than in great acts and crowning achievements. Here was a work that celebrated precisely those moments of joy – often small and silly and insignificant, but not the less joyous for that. In my notebooks and facebook statuses, I began compiling my own small list:

To eat a piping hot bowl osoupf soup on a cold and drizzly day. Ah, is this not happiness?

A few nights ago, I got so drunk I cannot remember what took place after a certain point in the evening. I worry that I spoke or acted rashly, and may have given offence to someone. Days later, I meet someone who was there, who assures me that I offended no-one, and that I am always fun and pleasant when I’m drunk. Ah, is this not happiness?

Comfortably finishing a book in a single sitting. Ah, is this not happiness?

I am riding my bicycle on a chill winters night, a few days after the Christmas lights have been switched of. The headwind pushes against my chest like an ice cold current, but I am too caught up in my own speed to care. Ah, is this not happiness?

I have discovered a bee in my kitchen on a sunny day. While I am still hunting around for something in which to trap it, it flied casually out of the door into the garden of its own accord. Ah, is this not happiness?

To watch McLintock! with a really good whisky. Ah, is this not happiness?mclintock

Bathing in a stream on a hot summer’s day, I decide to risk my neck sliding down a series of waterfalls. I end up in a bruised but exhilerated heap at the bottom, and acquire a limp for the next several days – but this is a small price to pay for the experience and the anecdote. Ah, is this not happiness?

It is the first really hot day of the year. I have taken advantage of the informality of the occasion to wear shorts. As my friends sweat in their thick trousers, a cool breeze rustles around my knees. Ah, is this not happiness?

To walk across a playing field in the summertime, while the swifts flit in endless circles around you. Ah, is this not happiness?

To visit your favourite pub on a Friday night, and find it doesn’t close until two am. Ah, is this not happiness?

To go climbing in good company; to lose all the skin from your hands in the pursuit of a worthy sport; and to return home to liver and onions and mustard mashed potato. Ah, is this not happiness?