THIS is a travel book with a difference. It is the tale of an unrepentant alcoholic’s journey through drink as well as a tour of Lawrence Osborne’s favourite drinking places in the Muslim world and a few other places as well.
The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey by Lawrence Osborne
The Random House Group; 242pp; £12.99
It would be hard to follow in Osborne’s footsteps either geographically or in his level of consumption. The tour lurches around the world, in Islamabad in one chapter then in New York followed by the island of Islay in another. In between, there are interesting tales about the origins of vodka, distillation, fermentation and other drinking terms. This is justified on the grounds that “a drink cannot be understood without seeing where it came from”.
Drink is Osborne’s ‘staff of life’. He is open about being a willing alcoholic. Although he describes the decision to see how tracking down drink in Muslim countries might alter his habits as “a personal crisis, a private curiosity”, he has decided it is not so personal as to be kept quiet. That results in an unusual story.
Osborne’s alcoholic career began at his mother’s knee as she too was an alcoholic and when, at an early age, he began to steal his parents’ vodka, they didn’t notice. He progressed to being a school truant enjoying a drink in Soho. As a 15-year-old, lying in a field and the worse for drink, he would see how late he could leave it to jump aside before the blades of a combine harvester could amputate his limbs. This gave him a vicarious excitement.
His preference is to drink alone and we find him at the beginning of his journey, alone in Milan, having an uncivilised drinking session in a very civilised bar at the Town House Galleria. His next stop is Beirut in search of reasons why Muslims believe that drink is a ‘sickness of the soul.’ He believes their view might help him in his attempt to stop drinking. He makes an early excuse for himself, noting that the Koran does not explicitly forbid alcohol. It is drunkenness that arouses the Prophet’s ire.
Beirut still provides him with opportunities to drink in part because 40 per cent of the population is Christian but as the Muslim population grows, he fears for the future of Lebanon’s bars. Next is Batroun, the wine trading port which derives its name from the Greek word for grape. He meets up with a warlord Walid Jumblatt who sends him a magnum from his own winery which Osborne proceeds to drink in an afternoon.
Arriving in Abu Dhabi he wakens in a drunken stupor in his hotel within sight of the world’s eighth largest mosque. There are, however, opportunities to indulge his passion as “other people’s tastes have to be accommodated for the higher purpose of making money”. He notes a similar concession to economic realities in Dubai.
There is something distasteful about Osborne’s efforts to evade the drink laws and attitudes of other countries. In Islamabad, Osborne describes managing to become drunk as “a cultural adventure in itself”. With some difficulty, he finds an unmarked liquor store hidden behind armed guards and sandbags.
Eventually, the unredeemed alcoholic not only visits Istanbul but makes it his home. This turned his drinking tour “into an experiment of years”.
Turkey is, of course, the only secular Muslim country and so drinking is legal for all cultures. He favours the Pera Palace Hotel bar where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on The Orient Express.
It is hard to decide what to make of this book. Osborne set off on his journey to see whether the habits of the Islamic world would help him to dry himself out and to see “‘how non-drinkers live”. It became more of a challenge to circumvent other nations’ customs and laws. Neither this evasion nor his alcoholism make him someone to emulate but his travels and his erudite understanding of drink make it a good read.
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