Thursday, July 8, 2010


In interviews, the late, much lamented Dennis Hopper used to tell how when he was at his nadir in Taos, New Mexico, in the 1970s, his daily intake of alcohol consisted of half a gallon of rum, plus a fifth of rum on the side in case he ran out, plus 28 beers. With this and 3 grams of cocaine a day he could stay more or less “sober,” and if he wanted to get drunk he’d do shots of tequila.

I don’t doubt that this is true, but it seems a very specific sort of drunk who keeps track of exactly how much he drinks. A very specific one too, who drinks exactly the same amount every day. Was it always 28 beers? Never 27? Never 29? Didn’t he ever feel the urge to drink vodka rather than rum?

I don’t know what, if anything, Hopper ate during this period but I guess his calorific intake was high enough to keep him fed, if not exactly well-nourished. Those 28 beers alone must have contained a good 4000 calories.

I was reminded of Hopper, while reading Barbara Holland’s book The Joy Of Drinking. She says that in 1787, two days before they drew up the American Constitution, the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention took a break and went to the tavern next door, where they drank “54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, 8 of whiskey, 22 of port, 8 of hard cider and 7 bowls of punch so large that, it was said, ducks could swim around in them. Then they went back to work and finished founding the new Republic.” This is Barbara Holland, below.

I’m not sure if any of the delegates kept track of what they drank, but we know this chapter and verse because the bill has been preserved. I can’t help wondering if there were a few hangers on who drank at the delegates’ expense, or if the tavern padded the bill a little, but even if so the guys must certainly have put it away. We know for sure that several of the signatories of the Constitution were gout sufferers – John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton among them - and I imagine quite a few others too.

The Guinness Book of World Records long ago stopped keeping records on the quantity of alcohol people drink, but a recently published first edition facsimile lists two champion drinkers: Auguste Maffrey of France - 24 pints of beer in 52 minutes, and Dionsio Sanchez “a Spaniard” – 40 pints of wine in 59 minutes. This is Auguste, below.

I’ve been wondering if these people count as “binge drinkers” a term that comes with various definitions. By some standards 5 drinks “in a row” for men, 4 drinks in a row for women, counts as a binge. By other definitions binge drinking requires drinking a lot of alcohol rapidly with the deliberate intention of getting drunk. Clearly Hopper, the founding fathers, Auguste and Dionsio must have had far more than five drinks in a row, but none of them seems to have done it with the deliberate, and certainly not the sole, intention of getting drunk. They were just drinking what they always drank.

Incidentally my friend Hugh reckoned it was time to cut back on drinking not when he had too much to drink and woke up in the gutter in a pool of sweat and remorse, but on the occasion that he had fifteen pints of beer, then quietly got on the bus and went home and got up in time for a lecture the next morning.

Now, nobody in their right mind is going to suggest that binge drinking is a “good idea” but according to some new research done at Brown University, the next day effects of binge drinking aren’t nearly as bad as you might think. Science Daily reports, “The study found that intoxication in the evening did not affect students' next day scores on academic tests requiring long-term memory, or on tests of recently learned material. Binge drinking did, however, slow participants' attention/reaction times and worsen mood states.”

In other words, the constitutional delegates would still have been perfectly able to draw up a constitution, they just might have been a bit grumpy while doing it. Dennis Hopper, of course, would probably have reached for his gun.

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