Navigate to Community section

The Hangover

Why I’ve never been a very good drinker

Jay Rayner
March 03, 2020
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine

My first-ever alcoholic drink was, objectively, disgusting. It was created for me by my mother one evening during the early stages of a dinner party, when I was nine years old. The worst thing about it is, Claire was trying to be a good parent. She was trying to be kind. Into a small, tight-waisted liqueur glass she poured a measure of advocaat, the bright-yellow Dutch concoction made with eggs, sugar and brandy, which is, depending upon your point of view, either a soothing boozy custard or as close to alcoholic phlegm as makes no difference. Into this she poured a depth charge of cherry brandy, its deep-red colour expanding out of the yellow against the glass and settling in whorls and spirals on the surface. This she called blood and pus, and I took her word for it. She had been a nurse. She knew about these things.

It’s obvious, isn’t it, that she knew little about drinking. Nor did my father know any better. Des and Claire were part of a generation of Jews born in London’s East End who regarded drinking as something the others did. Tumblers of whisky before dinner and cognacs after were for the non-Jews. The Jews did cake. They got high on sugar and arguing. I do not recall my parents ever going to a pub for a drink. Lunch maybe, and only then in one of those country pubs that did its very best to disguise its true nature by the careful use of tablecloths and waiter service. But never for a pint. They had a drinks trolley. What did you expect? We lived in the suburbs, for heaven’s sake. It was stacked with cut-glass decanters filled with whisky, sherry and gin, for they understood there might be social obligations, that offering a drink was part of the contract. The contents were so rarely touched that over time the darker spirits tended to lose their colour due to the sunlight through the windows, next to which the trolley was parked. There was a bottle of sherry on there too, a sweet Bristol Cream. Claire would have a glass of that, but only once a week. If they served wine at a dinner party, it would be a blunt, overly effervescent German sparkling that they bought by the caseload because it was a bargain. They kept it mostly for the huge lunch parties they liked to throw, and they would always offer to dilute it with orange juice. As a kid it seemed odd to me that anyone would choose to drink the sparkling stuff neat, because proper, sophisticated people would surely always choose Buck’s Fizz? Also, it was nasty without the orange juice.

I cannot recall ever seeing my parents drunk, and yet when I was nine, and often afterwards, my mother would pour me that blood and pus. Alcohol could only become an issue, she said with an authority that could not be challenged, if it was shrouded in the adult mystery of the forbidden. Far better to get me used to it early by offering me a drunken version of pudding, the sort of alcoholic drink I would never again encounter.

Not that she needed to worry. When the time came, I put my back into it.


When I was ten years old, my family moved house and I moved school, to somewhere a forty-minute coach ride away from home. This meant that for two years I had no friends. It wasn’t that I was unpopular or smelt; I simply didn’t know anyone who would either like or dislike me. When I was twelve, my parents sent me to a summer camp run by the youth section of the Reform synagogue movement, to which we belonged, despite my mother’s deep suspicion of organised religion. She really must have been desperate to send me there. The local synagogue—indeed, any place of worship—was too great a source of prejudice, of bigotry and judgement of the sort that caused so many of the people who wrote to her so much pain. “I hate the idea of sin,” she once told a television interviewer. She was hardly going to have much time for a form of worship that couldn’t exist without some concept of sin.

My dad was less dogmatic. I think he was hedging his bets on the whole God business. “You only regret what you don’t do,” he said, as if he’d weighed the evidence. We would be members of the local synagogue, so that my brother and I could get bar mitzvahed at thirteen. Think of the party, he would say. There would be salmon with hollandaise sauce, with blintzes to follow. Later, there would be pastries. Many, many pastries. Think of the fountain pens. It would be an orgy of leather wallets and encyclopaedias and envelopes filled with cash. But there were other benefits of synagogue membership. Hence, when trying to find me friends, they chose the summer camp: 200 Jewish kids aged twelve to sixteen accommodated in a minor British public school miles from anywhere, with a full programme of adventure activities, sports and pointed lectures on the Holocaust. Because what’s a summer holiday without getting to watch the Richard Dimbleby report on the liberation of Belsen?

It worked. I returned home with a profound sense of unease and a tight circle of just 130 friends scattered all over London who would wander the city in a pack every Saturday night.

When, in 1981, a few of them announced they were going on a tour of Israel with the same Jewish youth group, I asked if I could go too, despite having no particular interest in either Israel in particular or Zionism in general. I was certain that Harrow and Kenton were my homeland, and that I would be miserable living in a desert state. I’ve never been that convinced by sand. It’s unreliable. But as a holiday it could be a laugh, and it was. We climbed to the top of Masada at dawn to watch the sun rise over the Negev. We bobbed high in the Dead Sea, as was obligatory. We camped in the Sinai while somebody played “The Sound of Silence” very badly on a guitar. We worked as plum-pickers on a kibbutz. We tried to snog each other. Some of us failed. I failed.

One Friday night we stayed at a hotel on the shores of Lake Galilee that smelt of stewed vegetables. That’s where I discovered there was a different kind of drinking, far removed from blood and pus. I got drunk for the first time. By which I mean properly drunk, so that the flat ground pitched and the clicking of my tongue against the roof of my mouth became a proof of life. It was on a bottle of Israeli brandy. Just those two words together sound wrong. What the hell was anyone in Israel doing making brandy? Up to then the only Israeli alcoholic drink I’d tried was Palwin No. 9, a red wine with the texture and flavour profile of cough medicine, but none of the efficacy. Nobody drank it because they liked it; they drank it at Passover, because ritual demanded that they should. Israeli brandy tasted like it had been made by the paramilitary wing of the Palwin company as a warning to others. All I recall is the harshness of the burn and the conviction that I just had to push on through, that this is what you did on the cusp of adulthood. It made the playing of “The Sound of Silence” on the guitar better. Of the night I remember not much, save that a crowd of us sat by the lakeshore so we could hear the waters lapping and our voices bouncing about the emptiness.

The next morning came. That I remember. I remember the pneumatic drill inside my head, which I quickly identified as a hangover, to be endured amid the Israeli summer heat, and alone. This was not something you referred to a responsible adult. Their job would be to disapprove, and I didn’t need that on top of the pain. I remember the scramble for the shade of a tree outside and the smell of hot pine needles and the hope that soon it would stop.

That’s the thing: My memories of drunken nights are all hazy, a blurred film running too fast through the gate. But hangovers, those I remember. There was the one a year or so later, during a Jewish youth group tour of Europe by coach. We had stopped in Florence and had many rooms in a cheap hotel overlooking the cathedral. Ours hosted a party. I know I mixed Cointreau and Asti Spumante, by which I mean I put them in the same glass repeatedly and emptied the glass repeatedly, so that I felt the booze work its way up my body from knees to chest, until I rolled off a bed and landed on my face. I found myself still there the next morning, cheek down on the cooling marble, as dawn broke through the open shutters. My head hurt.

There was the hangover that I incurred at university trying to make a student radio show about the Otley Run, a pub crawl from one end of Leeds to the other through twenty different venues. I recorded myself getting drunk on half-pints of cider at each stop. I drank ten pints of cider and then … nothing. But oh, the hangover.

There was the one the day after a New Year’s Eve when I drank Moscow mules.

There was the amazing one I managed to inflict on myself at a Muslim wedding, albeit a secular Muslim wedding.

There were the ones that followed the champagne parties thrown in the early 1990s by friends of mine who were wine writers. Four of them would get together and call in a bottle of vintage and non-vintage from thirty or more champagne houses. They would open the lot during a Saturday afternoon, tasting and spitting out no more than the top 100cl. Then they would fill a bath with ice and invite us all round to finish the job. The bar was the bathroom of a semi-detached in Colliers Wood. We drank until we couldn’t, knowing by then what the consequences would be. The next day we would swear that we would never do this again. We always did.


The fact is this: I’ve never been a very good drinker. I don’t mean that I’m a lousy drunk. I think I’m a great drunk, which is to say I’ll never be your or anyone else’s problem. I don’t get shouty or uninhibited. I don’t try to put my underpants on my head or stick my tongue into anybody I shouldn’t. You can wave me out of the door alone at the end of an evening and know that I’ll make it home without being arrested. And I’ll know exactly when the time to leave will be. I’ll go from “jolly” to “had enough” in a shallow breath.

I also hate being around people who are completely lost in the bottom of a bottle. Inebriated people make me anxious and uneasy, as if something very bad is about to happen which will result in a mess that I will be required to clean up. Also, compared to some who make their living around food and drink, my capacity for booze is limited. I know people who can swap from white to red, from cocktails to digestif and back again without pause. I am not that person, and I am disappointed in myself for it. At some point in my thirties a phrase came into my head, probably when I was recovering from the night before, and it was this: I hate hangovers more than I like being drunk.

Excerpted from Jay Rayner’s Last Supper by Jay Rayner. Published with permission of Faber & Faber. Copyright © 2020 by Jay Rayner.

Jay Rayner is an award-winning writer, broadcast and musician, and the restaurant critic for the London Observer.