Author’s note: This is written from a 2003/4 point of view. UK drinking laws are less restrictive these days, but we’re no better at it.
Oh, I don’t know, maybe it was spring. Around 2001, perhaps, I don’t know, I was drunk. Sprawled on a bench across the road from Mile End tube, somewhere near the yellow Tellytubby bridge with the bulging lawn on top. It was night – give me some credit, I’m not a daytime bench-sitting Special Brew enthusiast – but it wasn’t dark there on the A11. Cars swooshed by and streetlights glowed. Below the UNDERGROUND sign the station’s yellow lights, white tiles and delay notices promised warmth and the vague possibility of getting home.
I was at that enlightened stage of a night’s boozing – totally fucking bladdered – the stage where a calm lucidity comes over you. After you suddenly think What am I doing at this party? and leave, and wander through the cool air towards what might be transport, or music, or other people, or a kebab.
Or a bench opposite the station. In the crystal clarity of my drunken haze, lights were bright haloed sparkles set against the deep dark darkness. With Sherlock Holmes precise observation I watched people queue for fried chicken and thought about walking home. For the time being I was comfortable with my massive parka zipped up, sitting on my bench; although something was nagging. I twisted round to look over the back of the bench and, because it seemed appropriate, puked a mighty surge of mostly whisky into the flowerbed there.
I remember reading an interview with Death from Above 1979 (that’s a band from Canada); they were amazed by British drinking. I think they’d played Loughborough, and they said “Everyone in Britain has a drink problem! You’re all like Hey guys, I’ve just discovered this stuff called “beer”. We’d better drink it all in case it goes away!”
Well yes. Closing time, isn’t it? We drink heavily and quickly because we’re going to get kicked out at eleven. That’s why we’re such a liability abroad, we don’t know how to pace ourselves. We go at the local holiday pop cerveza as if we’ve only got a few hours’ grace, but no – it’s three in the afternoon and the landlord isn’t even going to start thinking about closing until three in the morning. If we ever go to unrestricted drinking hours the whole nation will shut down. Maybe it’ll work if it’s introduced at the start of winter; there’ll be a few hypothermia fatalities, but things should be back on track by spring. Then the good old-fashioned British summer holiday will enjoy a revival; partly ‘cause we won’t have to go overseas to drink all day, partly ‘cause we’ll all be skint.
I don’t usually drink ‘til I’m sick, but then I don’t usually drink whisky either, but there it was. It was OK after the first few swigs, and it alleviated the slight tension I felt at being dragged to a stranger’s flat by a bunch of students. It was fun, I definitely remember having a laugh, but at some point that little warning light marked LEAVE clicked on, so I left. There were a few questions the following Monday – “Hey, hey, you were there! Yeaaah, I was like Whoa man, there’s Steve! Coool…Oh my God, we were all drinking some fucking awful shit whisky. Oh…shit, man, I’m not touching that shit again. Gave me the hangover from fucking Hell…Yeah, yeah, you were there, what the fuck happened to you, man?”
I continued sprawling on the bench, still enjoying the lights, but feeling that post-puke motivation. Itchy feet, gotta be travellin’ on. I’d only been living in the area for a few months, but how hard could it be to find my way home? Mile End tube would be on the same side of the road as Whitechapel and Aldgate, right? Right. So I reckoned if I walked that way for a while I’d come to Cambridge Heath Road, where I’d turn right, and that would turn into Mare Street, and Bob’s your uncle. Orrr…I could be Clever, and take a roughly diagonal path, cutting the corner, maybe come out somewhere near Rude Mercs. Or was it called Rude Wercs by then? They simply inverted the big M on the frontage. Easy, anyway.
Off I went, taking the first right turn after the station and weaving onwards, jinking left and right but maintaining an overall this way path, pausing occasionally to peer at fascinating things like bits of graffiti and electric lights. I reached the main road sooner than I expected.
Cambridge Heath Road is not the pastoral idyll its name hints at. In fact it’s more…it’s just not, OK? But it’s not whatever the arse this was either. This was a speedy, dirty dual carriageway, the kind of road that has footbridges over it and a central reservation strewn with broken glass and other car materials, and dented Armco. Cambridge Heath’s not exactly pristine but it’s on a human scale, you can cross it without feeling like you’re playing Frogger and you only have one life left. Just to my right a shitting great flyover loomed over a roundabout, and I began to suspect I was in the wrong place.
Nevertheless, I started walking in a direction. Forwards. Although this obviously wasn’t the right road, this would be the right way to go if it was, so, forwards, and, yeah, anyway. The night remained clear, the lights remained fascinating, and I strolled on. I bought a pint of milk at a petrol station – full cream, you know, for sustenance – and glugged it as I walked. Some time later I decided that continuing along this way probably wasn’t going to get me home, so I crossed an asphalt-surfaced footbridge and found myself in an late-seventies-looking housing estate. It looked OK, like the new estate built onto the end of the street where I grew up, on top of The Mudhills, lots of yellowish brick, low, sharp-edged walls and stocky square pillars that were just there to knack cars, I reckon. We called it The New Estate. So. Onward.
At the end of the road was another road, which went this way, or that way, and I realised that this was a crucial decision. I stared and stared at the name of the road, thinking Mmm, yeah, if I had one of those books with all the roads, I could look it up! I could look up the name that’s on this sign, and then I could see where I was! Yeah, you know, those books with all the roads. Well, it wasn’t particularly cold, but I was slovenly, and my hands were shoved in my parka’s deep square pockets, and it slowly dawned on me that the leafy-edged slab in my right hand was a fucking A to Z.
I sat on a sharp-edged yellow brick wall under an orange streetlight and looked in the index, following the page and grid reference back to a proper rat’s nest of roads. Zeroed in on my position like a laser-equipped space platform and realised I’d been heading pretty much directly away from home. I rotated the book to get my bearings, lost sight of my target, rotated the book back, stood up and rotated myself and finally set off in a more correct direction. It wasn’t the right direction, but it wasn’t 180 degrees out of whack, so it was an improvement.
Does your breathing get louder when you’re drunk or does your hearing become sharper or what? Senses turn inward, so you can see, hear, taste, smell and feel the addled crap in your head, not more clearly, just MORE. I snorted onwards through the smallest hours, each step knocking on the bottom of my skull like floating logs on the hull of a boat. Occasionally the lights of the next petrol station or all-night shop suggested another pint of milk, islands in the darkness like those paintings by that bloke, Dennis Hopper. Snort, gulp, knock knock knock. A big boat, small logs.
Civilisation of some sort on my left; to the right, a wide open space, a big black patch of nothing, with a structure of bright lights on the far side. Something industrial, not a factory, a works. A cement works? Is there such a thing? The sight reminded me of Boys Don’t Cry (the film, not the song) – didn’t she work in a factory? It was a proper hole, but the way it was shot made it look like a jewel box. I think the view sharpened me up, because – Empty space? Unused land? What? There was no such thing, not within walking distance of my house – sensible walking distance, that is – and while the whole scene was undeniably pretty, I was also undeniably in the wrong place, and it was time for me to get my shit together. In the absence of street names I just kept on keepin’ on.
I sort of overshot. I’d approached my target in an elegant arc, near enough, but I must have stopped paying attention or had too much momentum or something because, while I’d started off going north and west I was now somehow south and east of my destination. So I hairpinned and before long I was following an old iron fence, heading confidently homeward as the sun rose over Victoria park.
I got out of bed around 2 PM. Thinking I’d better establish some facts before I started spinning yarns, I pulled the A to Z out of my parka pocket and worked out exactly where I’d been. I used a length of cotton to trace my route as it wriggled from page to page and back again. Well! The simple path back to my place from Mile End station would have been a one-and-a-half mile dogleg, but my chosen course looked more like the outline of the Graf Zeppelin. Pulling the thread straight and laying it across the map showed that I’d walked seven and a half miles. I liked it, it was a good figure, that extra half mile gave it veracity. I like to tell stories, but I like to fact shit up too. Yes, seven and a half miles, do you want me to show you on a map? Of course you don’t, nobody wants that.
And the best thing? Of course there’s a Best Thing! Not only did I get a story out of my stupid wandering, but because I’d walked and walked and drunk pints and pints of milk and didn’t go to bed ‘til after four – I didn’t get a hangover. Ha.