Drinking / Not Drinking

Posted February 24, 2016

For ten years of my adult life, in my 20s and 30s, I didn’t drink alcohol. For many people in my life at the time it was the most significant thing about me, it was what defined me. I drink again now, not too often to excess, but after posting 80 pieces to this Blog I see that there have been references to boozy nights out, and have decided to write this “Compartment”, to explain my approach to The Drink.

Giving up beer and starting again: a political motivation

I passed my driving test in June 1987, the same month that Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister for the third time. By this time I had been drinking (teenage parties, pubs with gigs, pubs without gigs, university days, early adult years) for nearly ten years. I made two vows: not to drink and drive, and not to drink again until That Bloody Woman was no longer Prime Minister. I kept both vows, with a hiccough at the beginning.

On 13 June 1987, three days after the election, and having driven to Guildford for lunch with a university friend and her parents, I was handed a glass of champagne, in honour of my arrival. Feeling rather conflicted (my vow was only three days old) I drank it anyway, but it was the last alcohol I drank until 2 May 1997, the day that Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister. So, technically, I was dry for 9 years, 10 months and 18 days (most of us feel okay rounding that up to 10 years).

There were some false dawns. On 22 November 1990, with Margaret Thatcher deposed as PM, I received phone calls inviting me out to celebrate, but didn’t feel like celebrating. My aim was to celebrate when the Tories were no longer in power, not when John Major took over. Some of my friends accused me of not sticking to my vow, but it was always about which political party was in power, not the person in Number 10. Foolishly, when asked to clarify when exactly I’d have another drink I said, “Okay, then, when Leeds United win the League”. Leeds are the team I have supported since I was a child. We had just been promoted after 8 years in a lower division, and the prospect of winning anything was as remote as it appears now, in February 2016 (about to complete our 12th season in the wilderness of lower league football). On 9 April 1992 the Labour Party, led by Neil Kinnock, lost an election they had seemed at times capable of winning, and on 26 April Leeds won the League. I drank Coca-Cola and Irn-Bru in celebration.

I wasn’t ready to go on the beer again in 1992, but by May 1997 I was. My mother died in April of that year. She was pleased that I’d given up drinking. Unlike many of my friends (some of whom didn’t even drink) she never said, “When are you going back on the booze again? You were always such a laugh when you were drunk.”

That first night I took it easy, four pints with some friends at a local pub, sampling beers like Wadsworth’s 6X and Theakston’s that were new to me. (Theakston’s Old Peculier, though, had featured in some drunken nights in my teens, at the King’s Head in Harrow-on-the-Hill mostly.)

The following night was something else, an early start sampling some of the new breed of alco-pops that had emerged since 1987 (big mistake), and then an extravagant amount of Fuller’s beer at the King’s Arms in Acton. That pub is no more, and two of my drinking buddies from that night (featured in my post Oily Fish) are no longer with us. Sunday 4 May 1997 saw my first hangover for over ten years. A friend came round to see the damage. By 4pm I had recovered sufficiently to “sit up and pick a bit”, as we say about patients on the mend, and we went to what was then called “Le St Pierre”, near St Peter’s Square Hammersmith, to meet some other, newer friends who had never seen me with a beer in my hand.

However grown up you were beforehand, you grow up a little more when you lose a parent. I was a different person when I started drinking again in my 30s, more grown-up, and still with a clean driving licence. (I have kept my vow of not drinking and driving.)

Current approach to drinking

I still drink but take time off it and occasionally think I should give it up completely. Maybe I should go dry again until this current Tory government has been voted out, but their assault on the poor and the way that they ignore facts in favour of opinion are far more likely to drive me to drink.

I gave up booze for large parts of 2012 but there were baptism celebrations, a wedding, a College Reunion, and big birthday parties (for birthdays with a zero at the end) and although I went 50 days at a time without a drink, June and October were my only completely dry calendar months. Apart from the sleep-deprived College Reunion weekend I didn’t drink enough any other time to have much of a hangover.

I gave up for the first ten months of 2013 but certain events that October, and the opportunity to catch up over a few pints with a friend I hadn’t seen for years, who was having a much harder time, led us to a pleasant few hours at Toucan Bar near Soho Square and a pint at the 12 Bar Club to round it off.

There have been some unplanned, foolish nights on the beer since I started again in 1997, but not many. Usually (like the good old days at the 12 Bar Club) the foolish nights on the beer are planned, as are the hangovers. I see myself as a Day Tripper, planning my excursions, and always travelling in company. I never drink alone.

I also restrict myself to beer, wine and champagne, the drinks that I enjoy the taste of. I have got to the stage in life where you don’t have to drink for the sake of it, or drink things that you don’t want to. Spirits rarely pass my lips (apart from medicinal hot brandy or hot whiskey, or gin and tonic in Spain) and neither do liquids like cider and alco-pops.

My hangovers may be planned but the severity of them can still take me by surprise. They are not linear. Sometimes, after 8-10 pints of Guinness, and anticipating a rough “morning after”, I feel fine; other times, after 5 or 6 pints of bitter I feel inexplicably rough. Hangovers are, for me, the worst thing about drinking again.

A few more observations about drinking

I appreciate that there are many people whose lives have been devastated by alcohol, either from their own drinking or from drunk family and friends. For these people there might be no good things about drinking, but fortunately none of my close family or friends could be classified as alcoholic.

Historically one of the good things about alcohol (beer and wine especially) has been keeping people healthy, bizarre though that may seem. When any human settlement grows beyond a certain size (5000 inhabitants seems to be the tipping point) we typically pollute our water supplies so that they become unsafe. In some parts of the world (India and China for example) the solution to this is to boil the water, and add tea-leaves for taste. In Europe we developed brewing. For many hundreds of years in European cities it was always safer to drink beer or wine than the local water – even children drank it, watered down (that’s what “small beer” is, beer for children). Nobody can say for sure whether we Europeans developed the ability to process alcohol because we have spent thousands of years brewing the stuff or whether we started brewing alcohol because we could already process it, but generally we can do it better than many Asian countries. (Around 40% of Japanese people cannot process alcohol.)

And after all these decades I have recently learnt two new things about alcohol, from a friend who is a doctor. First, don’t tilt a champagne flute when you pour champagne. Keep the glass straight and pour slowly: you get more bubbles that way. Secondly, for beer drinkers, if you drink beer up to 3.8% strength your recovery times will be much quicker and you’re less likely to get hangovers. I’ll try that next time I’m out for a few beers, but I’ve mostly given it up for Lent.

February 24, 2016