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Reviewed: The Wet and the Dry by Lawrence Osborne

Draining the dregs.

The Wet and the Dry: a Drinker’s Journey
Lawrence Osborne
Harvill Secker, 256pp, £12.99

A word of protest on behalf of my kind. This book is subtitled A Drinker’s Journey but most of us drinkers would look at Lawrence Osborne’s pattern of behaviour with fear and loathing. Osborne is an addict; his book slops over with a sour blend of self-knowledge, denial, delusion and 100 per cent proof rubbish. Clearly, A Dipsomaniac’s Odyssey wouldn’t make as catchy a marketing tool but what else is an attempt to drink your way across the Islamic world to see whether you can dry yourself out?

Osborne stumbles across countries squinting at Islam and Christianity through the bottom of a glass, ordering alcoholic beverages in dodgy hideaways, then ruminating with great style but varying degrees of sense about them. Vodka makes him “indifferent and supreme”; the heavy drinking of raki is “not joyous; it is brooding, internalised”. But, he adds, “raki also heals”. What does this mean? How does raki, a highly alcoholic Turkish spirit with a certain resemblance to absinthe, heal? Where was Osborne’s editor when he filed some of this stuff?

It is frustrating, because Osborne is well travelled, fearless and frighteningly well read. He tries manfully to get drunk in Islamabad and winds up in the bar of the Marriott, which was bombed in 2008 by Islamic terrorists; he narrowly misses getting blown up in a Thai border town. Between escapades, he quotes the 18th-century Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah, Edgar Allen Poe, the Quran and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.

When he is not making sweeping, unverifiable assumptions about the inside of other people’s heads (“No one remembers . . . One rarely thinks . . .”), he gives potted histories that are glorious reminders of what he can do: I particularly loved the story of the 17thcentury Ottoman sultan Murad IV, who conquered Baghdad, put down an internal rebellion and banned coffee and wine, only to die of alcoholism before he was 30.

Clearly, Osborne is a man of enormous abilities who is drowning his talents in drink. His grandiose claims for his drug of choice range from the wishful to the offensive. How is drink “a wedge of freedom in a land otherwise haunted by the men in black” and why the hell does the existence of Muslim alcoholics give him hope that the human race can be saved? For a western man drifting through Islamic countries, he is notably uninterested in the predicament of women. “It is unclear which offends us more,” he says early on, “the defacing of the women with the hijab . . . or the soft drinks that stand in for majestic bottles of wine.” Actually, Lawrence, it isn’t that unclear.

Sloppiness may be part of the drunk’s job description but it looks bad in print. The Nellie Dean pub is not north of Oxford Street; calling somewhere the world’s biggest biodynamic vineyard rather misses the point of this back-to-basics approach. Osborne will drink anything and, while he claims to know what is good, he is so prepared to drink what is bad and so uninformative as to what either tastes like that I’m not sure I believe him. He assumes esoteric knowledge, airily referencing Justinian or Brumelia without further explanation; similarly, he drops in autobiographical titbits, then wanders off. Even his mother, whose taste both for writing and for drinking he inherited, remains a far more shadowy figure than, say, Murad IV.

This is probably because what really draws Osborne are the apostates. He is not interested in cultures that exist without alcohol but in people who drink where drinking is forbidden – perhaps because, as a confessed alcoholic, he knows that he is in a sense one of them, no matter where he is. But despite the inability to stay in one place, he is too good a writer to leave us in any doubt where the real misery lies. The teetotalling Muslim remains as unfathomable at the end of this book as at the start; it’s the sodden infidel who stands revealed and the picture is tawdry as day-old dregs.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap