So I cautiously pour out another glass of Cosmina Pinot Grigio (a very nice Romanian white, £4.99 special offer at Waitrose) and hope the wife hasn't been keeping count, when she says,
'Did you start that bottle this evening?'
'I certainly did not,' I reply, jumping a bit and slopping some of the precious grog over the side of the glass. 'It's been around for a couple of days'. The imputation is clear, though, that even if it has been around for a couple of days, the contents are going down too fast. I, naturally, reckon otherwise, and actually start rehearsing a self-serving little speech in my head about drinking at the end of the eighteenth and start of the nineteenth centuries, in order to make my position clear.
'You do realise,' I say to myself, 'that whatever you may think of my drinking habits, William Pitt the Younger (1759 - 1806) was famous for his ability to get through six bottles of port a day and remain functional, and one or two heroically constituted drinkers of that period were believed to manage twice that much. Yes, the bottles were smaller than today's - nearer half a litre than three-quarters - and the alcohol content of Regency era port was lower than today's stuff; more like that of a hefty modern table-wine. And after all, you couldn't drink the water, and tea was for ladies. But the quantities were still prodigious, infinitely more than I could ever manage. And you started first thing, you didn't wait like a slavering dog for six o'clock in the evening.
'Breakfast,' I continue, wordlessly, 'for even a relatively self-denying drinker might be accompanied by claret or ale, or perhaps a hock and seltzer to settle the stomach. A glass of sherry or madeira was taken in the middle of the morning, any outdoor activities would require a brandy bottle along the way, and then, by five in the evening, the Champagne would come out. And that would be followed by other types of wine, port, brandy, and possibly more Champagne to round the day off. French wines (other than Champagne) were often frowned upon as being too prissy for the determined English drinker - quite apart from being increasingly difficult to come by as the wars (Revolutionary/Napoleonic) with France dragged on and the stuff had to be smuggled across the Channel. Iberian wines - port, Madeira, sherry - were much more to this nation's robust tastes.
'Those on reduced budgets or with unscrupulous wine merchants,' I also observe inwardly and no longer quite to the point, 'were quite likely to find that their 'Old port' had been artificially generated by adding supertartrate of potash to some immature slop; and that their fine wines were routinely acquiring a nuttier flavour thanks to bitter almonds, which contained prussic acid. Still,' I note, coming back into focus, 'It didn't stop the drinking. Apparently, Pitt the Younger and his pal, Henry Dundas (later Lord Melville), turned up at the Commons just at the outbreak of war in 1793, pissed as whelks, giving rise to this humorous couplet:
I cannot see the Speaker, Hal, can you?
What! Cannot see the Speaker, I see two!
'Everybody drank', I conclude silently but with increasing self-righteousness, 'even Jane Austen, who, when staying with smart relatives at Godmersham in Kent, wrote, in 1813, I am put on the sofa near the fire, and can drink as much wine as I like. The sainted Jane Austen, this is, clearly determined to get outside a bottle before anyone came round and started asking her what her consumption was likely to be for the day. It wasn't until the arrival of the Victorians with their monomaniacal prudery that all this had to come to an end, and - '
I realise that the wife has got her back turned to me. The interior monologue stops. I swiftly pour another glassful and then make great play of screwing the cap tightly back on the bottle, just so she can see.
I did, of course, start the bottle this evening.