Thursday, 10 February 2011

Stirred But Not Shaken by Keith Floyd

Somewhere in our flat there is a copy of the brilliant Floyd on Hangovers, a potted history of drink, boozy escapades and spurious cures for over indulgence. Unfortunately, I can’t find it anywhere, so until then, here is Floyd’s autobiography, Stirred But Not Shaken.


Floyd sets the scene at the start of the book with an evening of Bacchanalian excess; there is bare knuckle boxing, glorious roasts, and lakes of whisky and port. At the end of the night, after staggering to his room, he finds himself lying flat on a hard mattress, wired up to tubes and a ventilator. When he can eventually speak, he asks the people milling around his bed about the party:

I said to them, “How did you enjoy the dinner and boxing?” Silence. I said, “Well surely you were there. It was a great night. I mean, there was betting, there was the port, there was the whole baron of lamb, and then there was the dawn. How do you manage to have such a place in what appears to me to be a hospital?” It was a hospital.

After an alcoholic collapse, Floyd had been suffering hallucinations in intensive care brought on by the drugs keeping him alive and a nasty attack of the DTs. As the doctor kindly pointed out:

“...Drink again as you have before and you will die.”

Floyd started off his professional life as a cook after leaving the army. After several briefly successful ventures in the West Country that all ended in financial disaster, he found himself doing a one off cooking slot on a regional television broadcast at the beginning of the 1980s. It snowballed from there.

For better or for worse, Floyd, and his director David Pritchard, invented the modern TV chef. Before Floyd, everything was a bit staid and formal; Floyd took food out of the studio and into the great outdoors, chatted to the film crew, and most famously, had a constant prop of a glass of wine. Despite his reputation as a rogueish guzzler, he claimed never to have drunk once while filming his series, and the glass of wine was to give him something to do between the action:

I had a bottle of wine on the prep table intended for cooking. But in the absence of any direction from Pritchard, when I ran out of inspiration and words, I said, “I think I’ll have a quick slurp,” to buy valuable seconds to recompense my thoughts.

Despite his insistence that he was never sozzled while on the show, he was shifting a lot of whiskey in between filming:

Increasingly, however, I found myself staying up all night, unable to sleep because I was worrying about how it would go the next day. Slowly and, it seems, inevitably a bottle of whisky was becoming my crutch: a companion that would help me through the hours from midnight to dawn.

This seeped into his home life, and by the time his TV career was over and his fourth marriage was collapsing, he was drinking like a pissed fish:

As far as booze is concerned, I thought I could knock it on the head quite easily. But on the other hand, I felt under pressure with Tess and I couldn’t help myself... Our relationship was deteriorating rapidly, and our life was one long round of screaming matches interspersed with my complete alcoholic blackouts, and romance had long gone. The fairy tale we’d once lived turned into the grim reality that I can now talk about, but it pains me to do so. The fact is I kept a bottle of Scotch in my bedside table. In the mornings, when I awoke I had to have – I didn’t have to but felt that I did – a few large glasses of whisky before I could get downstairs.

The near death experience (his third admission to hospital suffering from the effects of drink and malnutrition – sadly for Floyd, he had come to hate eating) seemed to make him turn things around and late in life he found love again with an old friend and was ready to go back onto the television. A programme was produced for Channel 4 and at the time the book was published he had several new opportunities lined up. He died of a heart attack the night the show was broadcast.

Floyd was a culinary inspiration to millions of viewers who, like me, regard him with great affection. This rambling memoir sounds like a long afternoon at the bar with the man himself and I could hear his distinctive voice rattling off the anecdotes as I read it. I feel it would be appropriate (raises glass) to leave the last word to him:

Sometimes I worry about what I’ve left out. And sometimes I worry about what I’ve put in. but for now, as this book fades to black, I’ll have another pastis. Thank you and au revoir.

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