Uncle Peter: a life in booze

Bit of a change of pace today. This is something I wrote based on the life of a relative who died a few years ago. 

Uncle Peter wasn’t really an uncle. The day he called to invite me to lunch at his club in St. James’s was the first time he described himself as such. I told him I could take off an hour and half at most from work. ‘Nonsense my dear boy, we won’t have started eating by then,’ was his reply.

We agreed to meet the following week. I took a day’s holiday. He specified that I wear a business suit. The nearest thing I had was a shiny mohair number that I’d bought from a charity shop. The trousers were extremely tight. It was the kind of thing you can picture John Travolta wearing in Saturday Night Fever. That day the weather was sweltering and, as I sweated, the suit gave off a strong smell, a mixture of mothballs and the previous owner’s armpits. The doorman at the club looked at me sceptically. I almost asked for ‘Uncle Peter’ but at the last moment remembered his surname. I was shown in. The bar was full of men in impeccably conservative grey flannel suits. They looked up at me. My stinky old suit suddenly felt very tight on the crotch. The whole thing had been a terrible mistake.

Then Uncle Peter arrived. He was a handsome man in his early 60s with a big face like a friendly bear. He suggested we drink Pimms. He asked the barman to make it in pewter tankards with ginger ale and a shot of gin in each. ‘Pimms hasn’t been the same since they lowered the alcohol levels.’ I took a sip. He was right. I’d always found Pimms to be an insipid drink but with the gin and ginger ale, it was delicious. He drank his quickly and ordered another, it was a very hot day. He then acknowledged the waves, nods and ‘Peters’ from the other men in the room. ‘This is my nephew’ he said pointing at me, and they all smiled if not warmly then not coldly. 

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Peter hunting boar in Poland, before I knew him

We were the last to go through to the dining room. We began with a bottle of Sancerre to accompany our smoked eel followed by the house claret.  I can’t remember what we drank that with. Peter apologised for the quality of the red wine: ‘if I was still working I would have ordered Chateau Palmer’. Afterwards we sat in the lounge drinking Green Chartreuse with a QC who was dying of bowel cancer. 

They told me stories about the wild days of the club in the 1970s which were hard to follow but contained memorable lines such as: ‘do you remember that time when you fell asleep on the mantlepiece?’ or ‘and then I threw a stool at the Belgian ambassador’s chauffeur.’  Apparently the new members were terribly boring; Peter told me that when he was practising law, his working day would start work at 7am, he’d work until 1pm and then spend the rest of the afternoon at the club. 

That first  time we went to lunch, I hardly knew him. Peter appeared in our lives all of a sudden but very quickly it seemed like he’d always been there. My aunt had moved in with him when a house she was meant to be buying fell through and she found herself homeless. She had intended to move to France to eek out her meagre pension. 

She was a real aunt, my mother’s older sister, a rather grand lady in her 60s. She spoke like Katharine Hepburn but with rolled ‘R’s in the manner of her home city of Aberdeen. Years came out ‘yars’ and stereo was ‘steerrrrreo.’ In my teens I found her rather embarrassing and would try to avoid going for lunch with her. She’d never married. There had been boyfriends and proposals but none were good enough for her according to my mother. 

Though they never explicitly stated it, I gathered that she and Peter had been lovers back when he was married. Eventually she did buy a place in the Languedoc but carried on spending most of the year with Peter. They had rekindled their romance by this stage. He became her, I suppose the only word for it is, boyfriend. Not a very good word for a man of his age though there was something boyish about him. He brought out a girlish side to my aunt too especially when he teased her. She didn’t take teasing from anyone else. There are holiday photos of the two of them in the France, next to a huge plate of oysters and bottle of Picpoul de Pinet, looking like a couple of teenagers. She was nearly seventy at this point. 

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Peter and my aunt Marianne on their wedding day

Peter lived in a flat at the top of a building near Marylebone High Street. The next door’s flat used to belong to Ringo Starr. It was five floors up and there was no lift. The first time I met him, I was still recovering from climbing all those stairs when a beaming Peter, cigarette in hand, handed me a negroni. I’d never had one before. It tasted like the most alcoholic thing imaginable. Peter made them very large. We had two and then moved on to wine. I noticed that he got into a panic if he saw anyone’s glass getting low, ‘Maria!’ he’d bark at my aunt, ‘look at his glass, it’s almost empty.’ With the constant topping up of glasses, I  became very drunk. We all did. My aunt forgot to put the food on so we just carried on drinking. Again I began to have trouble following the conversation; Peter though just became more loquacious, his stories funnier though increasingly convoluted. 

Eventually supper was ready. Something involving duck, as I recall, but by this stage we are all much too far gone to care. The giddy atmosphere was only spoiled by a chart on the wall of the kitchen from Peter’s doctor with a step-by-step program to wean him off the drink. At the end it said ‘and then no alcohol again ever!’ This statement was underlined three times. It was really the only sign that he had a problem apart from the sheer amount that he drank. That and the odd lustrousness of his hair. Funny how alcoholics can be like that. You’ll see some old geezer on the streets, looking like he’s on his last legs, but with hair that most middle-aged men would kill for. About an hour after eating a look of deep melancholy came over Peter’s face and my aunt signalled that it was time for me to leave. 

Whenever I met Uncle Peter, we’d always drink. He loved old-fashioned boozers of the sort that are now dying out in London. One of his favourite pubs was a notorious place on Hackney Road called the British Lion. It was the sort of place where men in football shirts stand outside smoking aggressively and glaring at passers by. It didn’t intimidate Peter though. Whilst my aunt was at the nearby flower market on Columbia Road, Peter would drink Stella Artois with a whisky chaser and talk about racing with the locals. 

Despite his cravat and panama hat there was a classlessness about Peter that disarmed people. It helped that he knew his horses (though the time he gave me a list of tips for Cheltenham, none of them placed. ) He’d owned racehorses in the past. One of the happiest photos I have of him is with one of his horses at Aintree, whispering into its ear and looking absolutely at peace with himself. 

Peter loved all forms of gambling. He claimed to have paid his way through law school by playing poker. Later he gambled professionally in Las Vegas. One evening over drinks he leaned over to me and said: ‘if you want to stay up all night playing cards, never, ever take cocaine, promise me you won’t take cocaine, I’ve seen people lose their lives on cocaine. When I wanted to remain awake gambling, I stuck to whisky.’ He paused for a couple of seconds, then added ‘and Benzedrine.’ 

I laughed but when I look back now, I’m not sure his stories were meant to be funny. He wasn’t a raconteur, his conversation was always in earnest. One story in particular stayed with me: when he was at boarding school, Peter saved up and bought a bottle of whisky at the local pub. He told the landlord it was a present for a teacher. Peter then went out to the wood, built a fire and drank the whisky. A look of pure happiness came over his face as he reminisced. I asked him who he drank it with. ‘Oh no’ he replied ‘it was just me, the fire and the whisky. Mmmm bliss!’ There was a melancholy there so profound as to be unfathomable. Drink was the only thing that helped. He once managed to remain dry for a year whilst living in America, doing physical labour and taking antidepressants but he found life without alcohol intolerable.

Eventually the trips to the pub, the club or the East End became rarer and then dried up completely. It was all those stairs. He became housebound and, bored and irritated, he would drink more. He stopped eating. In the space of two years, he aged about twenty. The big bearish face became gaunt. The flat began to feel claustrophobic.  Far worse was the smell of stale alcohol and decay. The only trips out were to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington when he would have to be carried down the stairs on a stretcher. 

Increasingly when I saw him, he talked about death. He would promise us paintings from the flat and then not remember next time we saw him. He wanted me to join his club. It was important to him that someone from the family continued the tradition. His own children had no interest. What kept him going was the thought that on his 70th birthday he’d have a big party there. It would be a last hurrah or as he described it, ‘one almighty piss-up.’ 

This didn’t always seem such an unlikely prospect. Some days he would rally and be like the Peter of old, full of stories and bonhomie. Fortunately one of these up days coincided with his marriage to my aunt. The ceremony was conducted in the flat which was packed with friends and family. Even Peter’s children attended. There was a seemingly endless supply of Pol Roger champagne. We all drank whilst Peter held court in the corner like a Mafia Don. Everyone came over to pay their respects but also, without quite realising it, to say goodbye.

The last time I saw him, my aunt invited me to share some foie gras she’d brought back from France. I came over to the flat with my wife and recently-born daughter who Peter doted on despite her terrible baby acne. He dug out some good claret, Chateau Gloria, though he stuck to whisky. For an hour we ate and Peter drank. 

He looked terrible. His skin yellow as if it had been rubbed with turmeric. Strange noises emanated from his stomach. Soon he grew tired, excused himself and went to bed. He didn’t rest quietly though, throughout the evening we heard him crying forlornly for my aunt to make him a negroni. He sounded like a frightened child.

He died the following week. Years later now, I still think of him often. Though I try to recall the Peter of our first lunch together, I can’t forget that the lost frightened voice of that last dinner.  And on a hot day, I order Pimm’s with an extra shot of gin though I try to limit myself to one. 

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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3 Responses to Uncle Peter: a life in booze

  1. Jyrgenn says:

    Interesting person, beautiful story. A good drinker, obviously, one who cherished the good stuff. I’d have loved to have such an uncle (whether a real one or not). It reminds me of that other story you wrote about the boozy lunches once common in the publishing industry — he would have fit in perfectly. I guess I would have, too, and it is a shame I did not get to experience that era (nor publishing).

    Him holding court like a Mafia Don reminds me of my mother-in-law on her 85th birthday party. She was too frail, in between, to receive the guests standing up, so she sat at a chair near the entrance of the hall while they came in. And lots came, as she was very popular, highly respected and loved by all. They stood in line waiting to get to her, paid their respects, congratulated, and moved on to take their seats. I think most knew or assumed this was the last time she was able to hold court like this. She died not two years later.

  2. ben williams says:

    Beautifully recalled, written and shaped.

  3. Ben says:

    This is a fabulous bit of observation, of feeling and of writing. Extremely finely judged. Many of us will have known a Peter, and have resolved not to be one.

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