I think the late comedian Malcolm Hardee – never knowingly under-promoted in this blog – felt I was a social misfit deserving of a certain amount of pity because I do not drink, do not smoke, have never taken recreational drugs and never go round talking about my sex life, such as it is.
Of all these, I think the one which most unsettled Malcolm – and unsettles a lot of people I interact with – is the fact I do not drink – well, maybe at births, deaths and marriages where not to drink a toast would be impolite.
A friend of Malcolm told me:
“I didn’t trust you at first because you don’t drink, but now I know you’re a bit on the mad side, so it’s OK.”
One inevitable conclusion people wrongly reach when I tell them I don’t drink is that I must have been an alcoholic at some point.
The first of two explanations, though, is that I never really enjoyed drink.
In my late teens and early twenties, in pubs I drank lager because it was less bitter than… well… bitter. And, in restaurants, I drank red wine. But both were more a social convention I went along with, not a pleasure.
I suspect most people started to drink because it was a social convention. And also because it is an excuse. People say it relaxes them or makes the conversation flow or is a ‘social lubricant’.
What they more often mean is that it gives them an excuse to behave in a way they would otherwise not feel they could behave in. Drink is an excuse to do what you want to do. I never felt that need in the sense that, if I wanted to behave in a certain way, I did.
If I want to tell someone they are a cunt, I tell them. I do not need drink as an excuse.
It is not something I would necessarily recommend socially or in career terms.
But I have never understood the wider psychology of drinking. People say:
“Oh, I had a great night last night. I can’t remember a bloody thing. I passed out.”
I have always thought, when something like this is said:
“Well, if you want to affect your brain to such an extent that it shuts itself down to try to avoid the damage and you think losing consciousness is, in itself, a good thing, then it would be quicker and cheaper to insult a professional boxer and let him punch you in the head for 30 seconds.”
I do not see the attraction of not remembering what happened nor of passing out.
My memory is bad enough already.
As far as I remember, I have only been drunk twice.
The first time was in my parents’ house on Hogmanay. I was OK when I was with people downstairs. But, when I went upstairs to bed, my legs gave way.
The second time I can not clearly remember the trigger, but the result was walking unsteadily home along Haverstock Hill in Hampstead and a searing headache the next morning.
There was one other near-drunk experience one Christmas or New Year when I was making my way home. It was in the early hours of the morning; it was dark; I was alone; there was thick snow on the ground; and the street had sodium street-lighting.
I was sick. My mouth poured out vomit into the snow.
I staggered on a few yards then realised that, in among the diced carrot and assorted foodstuffs and phlegm, I had puked out the tiny pink plastic plate to which were attached my two false teeth.
The sodium street-lighting made all the snow on the ground look orange. My vomit was yellow-orange – made uniform orange by the street-lighting. Everything was the same colour. I could not see my vomit in the snow. I had to go on to my hands and knees, very close to being totally drunk, and move my hands slowly and as carefully as I could through the surface of all the snow on the yards of pavement behind me until I found a patch that was warm and wet, not cold and wet. It took a long time. It took so long my muddled mind was worried that, by the time I found the spot, the warm puke would have cooled to the same temperature as the snow and I would miss the vomit patch.
That, pretty much, is what I think of when I think of getting drunk.
The only drinks I actively like are champagne (drowned in orange juice) and vodka (equally drowned in orange juice).
Two double vodkas (drowned in orange juice) sharpen up my mind; though three double vodkas slow down my mind.
But I do not drink them now.
Which brings us to the second reason I no longer drink.
There was a period when, through happenstance, I ended up working with and sharing a flat with a very bright TV director. He had been in the cream of his Oxbridge year and, twenty or so years earlier, he had been scooped up by a major British TV company along with some other very fine – and later very successful – Oxbridge graduates.
We would sometimes watch University Challenge on TV. Just idly, not showing off, he could answer a high proportion of the questions; I could answer maybe one or two if I was lucky.
What I am saying is that he was a bright cookie.
But he had been drinking socially for about twenty years. He had the sort of job where you almost had to drink socially every day.
He would drink wine at lunchtime; beer after work before going home; and spirits at home in the evening. Sometimes, he would start a sentence and not finish. He might say,
“Of course, I remember when the main…”
…and then drift off then, 30 seconds or a minute or so later, start another unrelated sentence.
His mind was, not to put too fine a point on it, fogged and fucked.
Around the same time, I had professional dealings with the press officer at a major British film distributor. He was the same. He was maybe in his late 30s.
He had obviously been very bright at some point. Maybe in his early 20s. He still was bright. He had obviously had a very sharp brain at some point. But he no longer had a sharp brain. He was a press officer. He had to meet and greet and schmooze and smile and drink day-in, day-out. And it had fogged and fucked his mind.
I decided to stop drinking.
I never much liked beer.
I never much liked white wine (except fizzy champagne drowned in orange juice).
Red wine, to an extent, depressed me.
I did not like spirits (except vodka drowned in orange juice).
So I stopped. I just told everyone I did not drink. They thought it was odd, quirky, downright mad. But that was their problem.
I did try to drink to drown my sorrows over a girl once – straight vodkas in excess. But it was ineffective and expensive. To a logical person brought up a Scots Presbyterian, the first point was a major factor. But perhaps, to a Scot brought up among Jews, the second point was the clincher.
The irony is that I do not drink but I now have a beer belly.
I have never smoked but I now have a smoker’s cough.
So I do not get pissed but I am now pissed-off.
Life. Don’t talk to me about Life.