I first met alcohol in the late 1980s. It was the morning after one of my parents’ parties. My sister and I, aged nine or ten, were up alone. We trawled the lounge for abandoned cans. I remember being methodical: pick one up, give it a shake to see if there’s anything inside and, if there is, drink! I can still taste the stale, warm metallic tang of Heineken (lager; 5% alcohol by volume) on my tongue. Just mind the ones with cigarette butts in.

Other times we’d sneak a sip of Dad’s Rémy Martin VSOP (cognac; 40%) when he wasn’t looking, even though we didn’t like the taste. It came in a heavy glass bottle that he kept in the sideboard. He’d pour himself a glass at night, the ice cubes clinking as he walked to his small office to make phone calls. On special occasions – family birthdays, Christmas lunch – we even got to drink legitimately: usually half a glass of Asti Spumanti (sparkling wine; around 7.5%), served in the best glasses.

In my mid-teens I started to drink drink. It was easy enough to get our hands on booze, even though it’s illegal in the UK to sell alcohol to anyone younger than 18. The bigger chain pubs checked IDs, so we stuck to the ones we knew to be less stringent. My older boyfriend would buy me Archers (schnapps; 21%) and lemonade in the pub opposite the supermarket where I worked on Saturdays. Trips to music festivals and birthday parties always involved booze, invariably in violently flavoured and oddly coloured forms. Standouts include Apple Sourz, a neon-green fruit liqueur with an ABV of 15%, and Hooch, a classic alcopop that looked and tasted like lemonade but was stronger than many beers.

Yet it wasn’t until university that booze and I became properly acquainted. My memory of my first week is of social anxiety offset by cheap alcohol. It was a harbinger of the next four years. On Friday and Saturday nights, the air in Flat G4, Devonshire Hall, University of Leeds would be heavy with perfume and hair products vaporising from hair straighteners. The five of us girls who lived there would sit on the plastic-tiled floor of our kitchen, backs against cupboard doors, drinking from mismatched glasses and mugs. We were pre-loading: priming ourselves for the cheap spirits and pints that lay ahead with even cheaper vodka and red wine.


– Chrissie Giles


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