My parents weren’t heavy drinkers, but they were regular ones. As I said, wine was normally on the table – they bought Spanish plonk for everyday use, both red and white, in big carafes. Probably the equivalent of wine boxes now. Wine tended to be less strong than it is now and glasses smaller, so the single glass that went with a meal was not all that much alcohol. If friends came for a meal, bottles of good wine were opened, of course.
My mother often used wine in cooking – they’d been early followers of Elizabeth David and were keener cooks than a lot of English people at the time. And, though desserts and puddings were rarely on the table, two of her specialities were trifle, heavily laced with sherry, and lemon syllabub, ditto, and I was allowed them from a fairly early age. I must have been about 14 when a wine glass was put out for me at dinner time. The uncompromisingly dry wine was an acquired taste and I only occasionally accepted a small glass to be grown-up, I can’t say I really liked it for the first year or two though I pretended to. Friends down the road often had pre-lunch parties on a Sunday. When I was smaller, I was given bitter lemon to drink. As my parents never had that at home, I thought it was the height of sophistication. From thirteen or fourteen, I was given sherry. This was probably Harvey’s Bristol Cream, so quite heavy and sweet and very much to my young taste. Two glasses of that and I was rolling home for my Sunday lunch, but it was never remarked upon, so I must have behaved myself.
It never occurred to me that this was at all unusual but I guess it was, relatively, in the mid-1960s, for a young teenager. My father would probably have a gin and tonic before dinner, which my mother disliked, so she would drink sherry. After they’d been to the South of France a few times, he developed a taste for pernod, which I remember because it turned cloudy when water was added. I wasn’t included in that and I’m not sure if I had anything at all. If I did, it would have been ginger ale or fruit juice, I should think.
What was not allowed – not forbidden, it just wasn’t an issue – was drinking any spirits, at least before I was sixteen or so. And as my father died when I was sixteen, they wouldn’t have been served at home after that, though I remember drinking both beer and whisky at friends’ houses. My mother developed severe migraines and one of the triggers was alcohol, so she had to pretty well give up drinking. Life was stressful and gloomy for all of us and sometimes she’d come in and say ‘I’ve had a hell of a day, I need a drink, have a glass of sherry for me”.
As I said, my mother didn’t like gin at all and she thought it was not a suitable drink for ladies, so I didn’t taste it until I was about eighteen. Then I went to some function with a family friend I called Auntie Jane. She firmly told me she was buying me a gin and tonic, clearly thinking it was time I had a proper grown-up drink. I remember having to hold my breath so I couldn’t taste it, to be able to swallow it at all, let alone with an appreciative smile on my face. Of course, a few years later when I tried it again, I couldn’t think what there had been to dislike.