Each Christmas they emerge from the slums of their own arrogance, wreaking havoc and causing chaos among those who can’t get out of their way. They may be husbands, sons, wives or girlfriends but, ignoring repeated warnings, they carry others in the slipstream of their selfishness, wrecking lives and destroying relationships. Still they persist though, never satisfied it seems, until they have left their baleful mark on the season of goodwill. In the two weeks prior to the Saviour’s Day these legions of the damned stalk our cities and our taverns. They are the amateur drinkers and accursed be their names.
During the rest of the year they rarely impinge on our consciousness. On those few occasions when they do it’s not them but rather their spoor that we notice.
Often this will be in the form of little yellow post-it notes stuck on a fridge door expressing exasperation at how scrofulous the office utensils have become. At other times it will be rather more serious. In Edinburgh several years ago, for instance, I was startled to observe the following note: “Will the phantom alfalfa and artichoke salad thief kindly purchase their OWN from now on!!?” Until then I had thought that Alfalfa and Artichoke were popular Christian names for the children of the capital’s elite.
They will rarely, if ever, join their colleagues for a drink after work and whine quietly when a sheet is put round for another departing colleague. At weekends they will most often be found up Munros or shopping for bicycle helmets and maths tutors. Occasionally they will feel they are sticking it to the man by flashing their lights at oncoming motorists to alert them to a lurking police speed trap.
This will give them such a feeling of rebellious exultation that they will drive the rest of the way home listening to Smooth Radio with the volume turned up. They will refer to Les Misérables as lezmiss.
At those times when they do venture a political opinion it will be to say: “I’m no racist, but we just can’t keep letting them in.” Consequently, at the end of the day, you will be impelled to throw yourself into the arms of the licensed trade to wash them out of your hair.
All of this doesn’t make them bad people, just different. What does make them bad is the two weeks before Christmas when they are afflicted by the curse of the amateur drinker and turn into gargoyles and grotesques, reeling and lurching under the influence of three white wine spritzers and a cheeky crème de menthe. For them this day has been in the planning for months. They have solemnly sworn to take the kids to the next three swimming lessons or they have concluded a reciprocal pet arrangement with the chap at No 23. Regrettably, the men (and it is mostly men) always seem to choose to wear a light suit on the day of their office Christmas lunch.
That is why you will always see blokes with a little map of France spreading out from around their crotches. After a 25th visit to the gents a chap is long past caring about his personal toilette.
The seasoned, year-long drinker ought to know the warning signs by now, yet each year we always seem unprepared. Suddenly, it’s the second Friday of December and an apocalypse clad in Marks & Spencer is about to engulf you. There are about a dozen of them and they always ask the bartender the same question as they sway through the door: “Is this the Horseshoe?”
Very soon afterwards a lady in the company will ask for “one of those Metropolitans”. Immediately upon entering the licensed premises they will accost the bar staff over the heads of other drinkers. Then loudly they will profess their irritation at how slow the service is, as if they are all Doc Holliday.
Pubs require to be treated with some courtesy when ingress is first gained. You don’t just breenge in and start throwing your weight about. A drinker knows always to approach the bar area slowly, all the time becoming accustomed to the dimmer light. He will take a little time to appraise the mood of the surroundings and check the faces at the bar for any signs of psychopathy. Only then will he attempt to place an order for a drink and perhaps invite the bartender to join him.
In these circumstances the amateur drinker is vulnerable. Bolstered by sauvignon blanc and Glayva he attempts eye contact with total strangers after bumping into them and then admonishing them to watch their step. Yet he possesses all the menace of a space-hopper. If a barmaid smiles at him he thinks he has scored and returns to his chums while doing that thing where he thrusts his right arm up underneath his outstretched left arm.
The amateur drinker also sucks all the joy out of swearing. Denied the opportunity to espouse expletives for the rest of the year he begins to swear with abandon. Many of us know that profanities artfully deployed can add depth and character to an anecdote. They are the sturm und drang of our language, freeing us from imposed verbal rectitude. But the amateurs keep fuckity-fuck-fucking like posh adolescents in a kitchen at a party.
Soon they become earnest and conspiratorial as they begin to share inappropriate matrimonial secrets with pink and giggly female colleagues in the hope that pity will be taken on them and they will be favoured with a sympathy winch.
There is though a limit to the patience of average drinkers when they encounter the once-a-year mob. And that was reached last week in a Glasgow city centre wine bar as we all listened to Dio & Iommi’s reflective rock interpretation of the Christmas classic God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen. “Get that racket off,” shouted one of the pish-stained brigade, “and put Bing on instead.” There were quiet reprisals.