The other day, contemplating with dread the approaching Christmas, envisaging myself staggering from armchair to armchair across a sea of plastic toys, weighed down by excesses of every kind and hazily trying to remember why the Christ child chose to be born in days of twilight and silence, I suddenly recalled the Christmases of my childhood. In the England of the Fifties, booze was forbiddingly expensive, and it was only at Christmas that our house was stocked with it: sherry, port, gin, martini and advocaat. My sisters and I would tiptoe into the living room in the early hours and quietly pull out the stoppers. And we would sniff from these bottles the entrancing perfumes of another and better world, a world in which quarrels were smothered by laughter, and in which the ruling principle was gift.
Most evocative of all was the scent released when we unscrewed the cap from the Gordon's Gin: a month's worth of savings for our poor father, and treated with reverence by our mother as she sparingly served her blue-rinsed friends. If someone had asked me to define the Odour of Sanctity, this would be it - the delicate and all-caressing spirit of the juniper berry as it sped from the bottle and took possession of the room.
Remembering this, and the furtively stolen sips that we children managed when the grown-ups were out of the room, I cannot help regretting that booze has become so cheap, so commonplace, and so abundant. The mystery of gin hovered around our childhood, took on this evocative and spiritual form at Christmas, and made us see our parents in another light, as people who, by virtue of a magic potion that had cost them all their spare resources to acquire, could turn their disgruntled neighbours for a few precious moments into cheerful companions and genuine friends.
In a way, I have retained that innocent perspective on the world of alcohol: a late starter, not drunk until 17 years old, I did my best to make up for lost time. A year in France made wine a familiar companion, and a lifelong disreputable friend. I have been merry on countless occasions, with countless drinks, and with countless people whose names and natures I have forgotten. But there remains, at the back of my mind, the vision of alcohol as something rare, luxurious and transcendent, a visitor from a higher sphere of peace and delight. Indeed, it is this vision that sees me through the hell of Christmas. I make believe that the old hospitality of my parents is still in place, that this whisky, port and Sauternes that I lavish on the neighbours is costing me some equivalent of those bottles of industrial gin and sherry on which my parents lavished all their meagre savings, and that I am repairing the wounds of the year and the griefs of ordinariness just as they did.