The way we were: Great British sybarites

Four extracts from letters, memoir and diaries on the powers of drink
November 17, 2010
Johnny Depp as bon vivant Lord Rochester

Lord Rochester writes to his friend, Henry Savile, 22nd June 1674

Oh! That second bottle, Harry, is the sincerest, wisest and most impartial, downright friend we have; tells us truth of ourselves, and forces us to speak truth of others; banishes flattery from our tongues, and distrust from our hearts; sets us above the mean policy of court prudence, which makes us lie to one another all day, for fear of being betrayed by each other at night. And I believe, the errantest villain breathing is honest as long as the bottle lives…

From the Reminiscences of Captain Gronow (1862)

Twisleton Fiennes, the late Lord Saye and Sele [1769-1844] was a very eccentric man, and the greatest epicure of his day… Every country, every sea, was searched and ransacked to find some new delicacy for our British sybarite. I remember, at one of his breakfasts, an omelette being served which was entirely composed of golden pheasants’ eggs! He had a very strong constitution, and would drink absinthe and curaçao in quantities which were perfectly awful to behold. These stimulants produced no effect upon his brain; but his health gradually gave way… I shall never forget the astonishment of a servant I had recommended to him. On entering his service, John made his appearance as Fiennes was going out to dinner, and asked his new master if he had any orders. He received the following answer—“Place two bottles of sherry by my bedside, and call me the day after tomorrow.”

Evelyn Waugh writes to Nancy Mitford, 28th January 1946

My little trip to London passed in a sort of mist. Did I ever come to visit you again after my first sober afternoon? If so, I presume I owe you flowers. I left a trail of stunted and frightfully expensive hyacinths behind me. On the last evening I dimly remember a dinner party of cosmopolitan ladies where I think I must have been conspicuous. Were you there? I awoke with blood on my hands but found to my intense relief that it was my own. I sometimes think I am getting too old for this kind of thing.

Richard Burton’s diary, 9th January 1967

I’ve decided to go on… the “Drinking Man’s Diet,” to see if I can lose a few pounds gently. This morning in pyjamas I was 185 pounds which is 13 stone 3 pounds. I’d like to be about 12 stone 7. During the last film [Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?] I was invited to be fat and I now have quite a pronounced high belly. I can’t bear it…

We had a late lunch at La Cascade in the Bois de Boulogne. I stuck to my diet and had a whisky and soda before lunch followed by half a dozen oysters, a steak au poivre, a salad with French dressing and a hefty lump of cheese. I drank Lafite ’60, about two glasses, and two or three brandies after the cheese, with sugarless and creamless coffee. Later that night I had a couple more whiskies and soda. Apart from water that’s all I took in all day. This morning the scale showed a loss of between four and five pounds. I was very surprised.