JASON ALDEN/EYEVIN
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Choose your gin and get fressing this winter

Gin has evolved from the home-made 18th-century rotgut that was the scourge of England’s poor to the tipple of colonial civilisation.

Why do we Brits make resolutions to dry out in stark January, when the days are grey and short and there isn’t so much as a new leaf to stimulate faith in renewal? Even the Australians, for whom this is midsummer, let the year settle before depriving themselves of alcoholic pleasure through the self-induced misery known as FebFast. Ancient Europeans had much more sense, creating a festival of upended priorities out of the year’s darkest point. The Romans had their Saturnalia, a week-long riot of drinking and festivities in mid-December; before them, the Greeks celebrated the epiphany of Dionysus, deity of madness, misrule and oh yes, wine, on 5-6 January. This later became the more respectable Christian Epiphany, though the notion of the Lord of Misrule or Abbot of Unreason, who inverts the mundane order, survives vestigially in the tradition of Twelfth Night (when misrule ends). Midwinter is a strange, unruly time, hardly conducive to a spell of extraordinary discipline, even without the weather. What January needs is unreason, to remind us why we cleave (in theory) to reason the rest of the year; and fortitude, preferably applied from the outside in. Both of which can usefully be found in gin.

I am not advocating a return to the Saturnalia; we need merriment without chaos, unreason but not insanity. Gin has evolved from the home-made 18th-century rotgut that was the scourge of England’s poor to the tipple of colonial civilisation, and now the many-splendoured glory of hipster watering holes: perhaps consuming it will help us to evolve, too.

To assess which gins might best suit the task, I arranged a mini-epiphany of my own. The Botanist was bracingly citrus, Tanqueray Malacca also lemony, but slightly too sweet. Hendrick’s, a gin I never know quite what to do with, had a cool spiciness that made me resolve to find more use for it. Sacred Gin, which I first tried in the creator Ian Hart’s living room, when he was still powering his distilling apparatus with the motor from his kids’ aquarium, offset the louring skies with aromas of clove and cinnamon: surprisingly exotic for something invented in Highgate. Gin Lane 1751 – named for both the street drawn by Hogarth, as an allegorical warning to the sodden lower classes, and the year of the act of parliament that attempted to make such disgracefulness illegal – had a creaminess that, far from recalling moonshine, demanded scones and jam. Warner Edwards remains my favourite ingredient in Martini, while Brighton Gin, served with tonic and a slice of orange, is as civilised as its home town was once seedy: this drink won the popularity contest.

The discovery of the evening, however, was the food match. Pillowy bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese or chopped liver, salt-beef brisket with mustard, chicken soup. Yes, folks, it turns out that the best way to line your stomach against mother’s ruin is with traditional Jewish nosh.

Which made me think. The Jewish New Year, which usually falls in September, is succeeded nine days later by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when religious Jews fast and repent of their sins. Rather than pagans’ excesses, or the self-flagellation of their modern equivalent, perhaps we should all try ten days of fressing (an anglicised Yiddish word, meaning to gobble or overeat), sopped up with judicious doses of gin, followed by a day of reflection, repentance and restraint.

This is almost the same as one dry month a year, but somewhat more realistic. If we want to reconcile ourselves to routine and moderation, swinging between excess and purity seems an odd way to go about it. A little reasonable unreason might make the year’s unpalatable truths easier to swallow; they certainly won’t be washed down with water.

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 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.