In this season of merriment and boozing, what better cure for a hangover could there be than to learn a bit about our curious fondness for the intoxicating beverage.

Beware, books by Mark Forsyth are often packed with facts, but in such a lighthearted manner as to make them delightfully digestible.

As with his previous books on the strange history of lost words, there is a tone of playful joy in his writings, of a chap sharing a favourite anecdote over a nice ale in a pub. Just a hint of ever so English gentle ribbing of the French and the Scots.

What emerges from A Short History of Drunkenness is just how varied mankind’s romance with the beverage has been. For something that is a basic chemical, your reaction to the dread drink is more often governed by your cultural surroundings, not the chemical reaction in your body.

If you surround yourself with happy people, booze makes you happy. Surround yourself with aggressive people, and you’ll end up in a hospital, or prison. If like me, you prefer sitting in a pub with a book and glaring at people trying to share your table, then you go home educated, if somewhat depressed.

Today alcohol is a social tool, except on Sunday’s in church, but at a time when religion dominated social lives, it was also religion that relied on its intoxicating effect to persuade people they were communing with god — and in some cases, it was perfectly honourable to commune with the toilet bowl afterwards.

While the book leaps around from country and century, it’s a surprise to learn that USA’s ill fated attempt at banning the drink wasn’t in fact an attempt to ban the drink. As is usual with the colonialists, things got a bit carried away.

The Egyptians had an approach to booze that would get nods of approval by the teenagers of Newcastle, while London’s 18th century Gin craze has nothing on even that.

If you’ve watched any medical themed drama on telly, in addition to real life not having any dragons, it turns out that depictions of the ale-houses are about as accurate as you would expect from a medieval themed TV show.

But rather than leaving you feeling dejected about how much we thought we knew being wrong, this book’s an effervescent romp through the history of how cultures looked at drinking beer.

It’s ten thousand years of hangovers in 250 pages that are littered with jokey aperitifs.

A Short History of Drunkenness by Mark Forsyth is available from Amazon, or Waterstones, but probably not many pubs.


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