‘I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me,’ said Sir Winston Churchill. I know what he meant. For more than 35 years, from the moment I could legally drink, I’ve sought solace, relaxation and celebration in Harvey’s best bitter, Château Latour or 18-year-old Macallan whisky. (There was a Cinzano-and-lemonade period in my late teens, but even the memory of it makes me vomit.)
What I’ve learned about alcohol is that it can either massively resolve problems, or massively worsen them. But it has undoubtedly played a significant role in many pivotal moments of my life.
Top of this list would be a dinner party I once attended in 1993, hosted by Rupert Murdoch. It was held at the Stafford Hotel in St James’s, opposite Rupert’s palatial London flat. He’d asked the then Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie to assemble a small group of the paper’s executives with whom he could break (very expensive) bread and chew the political, social and sporting fat. It was like a meeting of the Gambino family, only with marginally more dangerous individuals.
These included deputy editor Stuart ‘Human Sponge’ Higgins, leader writer Chris ‘Smiling Assassin’ Roycroft-Davis, features supremo Neil ‘Wolfman’ Wallis, his deputy Sue ‘Token Woman’ Carroll, sports editor Paul ‘Ruthless’ Ridley, and political editor Trevor ‘Sinisterly Smooth’ Kavanagh.
I was running the Bizarre gossip column at the time, earning me the moniker Piers ‘The Showbiz Kid’ Morgan. Some wag kindly sent me a bogus email from Kelvin saying: ‘Dress down, Rupert’s a casual kind of guy; be provocative and take him on if you don’t agree with what he says; have a lot to drink because he will want to see if you can take your liquor; and if you get the chance to pull a waitress, take it — he likes a man’s man in his executives.’ Even when I realised it was fake, I still thought the advice bore some credible merit.
Our host crept in with no fanfare, scaring the crap out of us. I’d heard this was his second deadliest weapon after the extended periods of silence he deployed on the phone when he disliked what an editor was telling him about the contents of that day’s paper (the longer the silence, the less impressed he was).
Dinner was fun. Rupert was in a good mood, and drinking his wine enthusiastically. So I followed suit. Others remained noticeably more abstemious.
The conversation was relaxed but challenging. I could sense him probing the table for the next creative genius and coming up woefully short. Some were too clever-dick, throwing around their great views on life like overexcited Jehovah’s Witnesses. Others were quiet to the point of reverential, forgetting that Rupert doesn’t often appoint Trappist monks to editor posts. I was 28, ten years younger than anyone else, and couldn’t believe I was even sitting there, so felt I had nothing to lose. Carpe diem and all that…
As the wine continued to flow, so did my tongue in an ever more emboldened, noisy manner. The key moment, although I didn’t realise it at the time, came towards the end when the waiter asked if we would like a liqueur.
Kelvin went first, saying no — because he was on the wagon at the time. The others misguidedly followed his lead, assuming that was the safest course of action. When my turn eventually came, I asked the waiter what he’d recommend.
‘Peach brandy, sir,’ he replied firmly.
‘OK, one of those then please,’ I said.
‘Make that two,’ chirped up Stuart Higgins.
Then a loud, Australian growl emanated from the head of the table.
‘Make that three!’
Rupert, it emerged, loved peach brandy. A month later, I was appointed editor of the News of the World, and Stuart Higgins was made editor of the Sun.