Magazine article The Spectator

'Gin Glorious Gin', by Olivia Williams - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Gin Glorious Gin', by Olivia Williams - Review

Article excerpt

Gin Glorious Gin Olivia Williams

Headline, pp.317, £14.99, ISBN: 9781472215338

Gin Glorious Gin: How Mother's Ruin Became the Spirit of London is a jaunty and diverting history of 'a wonderful drink that embodies the best of London', which is a judgment that would raise eyebrows even at closing time in Soho. It is not a remotely scholarly book. There are no notes or index, and on the second page Olivia Williams informs us that the first citation for gin in the OED is from 1714, as 'an infamous liquor'. It's actually from 1723, as 'the infamous liquor' -- mere details, but still. I stopped checking things after that.

It's essentially a book for people who enjoy gin but don't necessarily read books, or read them only while drinking gin; the sort of book Gilbert and George might have liked to have handy in their celebrated video installation, as they looked out of their window in Spitalfields, listening to 'Land of Hope and Glory' in their suits, drinking gin and repeating, 'Gordon's makes us very, very drunk.' Sometimes it reads as if written when the author herself was one over the eight, as when she refers to 'the medieval ages'.

It is diverting, though. I had not known, for example, that the term 'proofed' derived from the naval practice of mixing spirits with gunpowder to see if it still catches light, which requires a minimum ABV of 57 per cent. Nor that Clarissa Dickson Wright was the only person in recent history to have suffered from quinine poisoning, after 12 years of consuming four pints of tonic water a day, mixed with two bottles of gin.

The tide of 'blue ruin' that engulfed the rookeries of St Giles in the 18th century was unleashed by William III's liberalisation of gin-distilling in 1690, and documented in Hogarth's Gin Lane and John Gay's The Beggar's Opera . 'One may know by your Kiss that your Ginn is excellent,' declares the gallant Peachum to Mrs Trapes. 'I was always very curious in my Liquors,' she replies. When someone complained to Dr Johnson that beggars squandered their alms on tobacco and gin his humane response was to inquire, 'Why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence?'

In charting the spirit's social ascent from penny gaffs and Victorian gin palaces to aristocratic drawing rooms and the Queen Mother's handbag, Williams has frequent recourse to literature. …

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