After dry January why not become tee-total?

I’ve completed my dry January without a molecule of alcohol passing my lips and found it easy. So why do I drink at all? Should I return to drinking?

Alcohol is a poison, a depressant. It cheers initially only because the first part of your brain it depresses is what Freud called the super-ego, the boring part of your brain that makes you get up in the morning, do your duty, and clean your teeth. Alcohol nearly killed my brother and my mother. It succeeds in killing some 100 000 Britons a year and causes the mayhem of divorce, suicide, murder, family breakdown, bankruptcy, domestic violence, crime, rape, and general boorishness.

When I drink I can often feel the poison in my body, particularly at night: reflux, broken sleep, bad dreams, a sense, perhaps imagined, of the poison occupying the cells of my brain, liver, and spleen. Sometimes in the morning I’m aware of my brain being dulled. David Eddy, one of the cleverest people I’ve ever met, told me that his brainpower increased 10% when he stopped drinking. And every so often I’d have a hangover, not usually nausea and headaches but a feeling of life being diminished, not just as good as it could be. As my brother says, if you have to ask whether you have a hangover you have a hangover.

It might seem strange not to drink in the dank, dark days of January. Surely that’s the time for a whisky in front of the fire, a beaker of the warm south, or a full pint of beer after a frosty walk. But January follows the vulgar, seemingly mandatory excesses of Christmas and New Year, and it seems holy to start the year with an unpolluted, unpoisoned body. I’ve felt a brightness, a light step. I’ve slept better, dreamt sweeter dreams. Not once have I started the day heavy and dulled.

So why return to drinking alcohol? My brother quotes some philosopher as saying that the only serious question in philosophy is “Why not kill yourself?” “Why carry on drinking alcohol?” is a minor version of that question; I remember a psychiatrist saying to me that the aim of alcoholics was to kill themselves slowly; heavy drinking is chronic suicide.

Come on then, Richard, answer the question. Stop shilly-shallying. You’ve almost convinced yourself not to drink. What are your arguments for carrying on poisoning yourself?

Because I like it. That sounds lame. I need to dress it up more. A fine red wine–a claret, Burgundy, Rioja, Gigondas, Fleurie, Barolo, New Zealand Pinot Noir –is a thing of beauty, and of infinite beauty with each bottle having its own charms. And when I drink whiskey, usquebaughe, the water of life I feel myself to be upon the Scottish hills, smelling the pines, amid the heather, looking across the sea to islands of magic.

And I like the initial glow, that pulse that goes through me–and will go through me this evening–when I take that first mouthful of red wine. And I like the conviviality that follows. In fact it’s the social aspect of drinking that is the strongest urge to drink. Think of a dry wedding, an awful, cheerless occasion–a great contrast to a wedding fuelled with alcohol.

But there are times when I drink alone. I think of the board meetings in Bangladesh. After a day of complexity and wrangling and my drive through the horrors of Dhaka traffic I need a cold beer badly. And alone in my Venetian palazzo I would drink a fine red wine from the Veneto, read poems, watch the moon over the dome of Santa Maria di Miracoli, and feel a deep contentment.

So tonight I will drink the finest claret I can find in my cellar but continue with no alcohol three days a week–and I enjoy those days alcohol-free days almost, but not quite as much, as I enjoy my drinking days. As I read in Moby Dick this morning: “ truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast.”






6 thoughts on “After dry January why not become tee-total?

  1. I heard JJ Norwich read this last night – from A heroic poem in praise of Wine written for Duff Cooper by Hilaire Belloc. Very over the top, but reinforces your argument about dry weddings…..

    “Wine is best.

    But what are these that from the outer murk
    Of dense mephitic vapours creeping lurk
    To breathe foul airs from that corrupted well
    Which oozes slime along the floor of Hell?
    These are the stricken palsied brood of sin
    In whose vile veins, poor, poisonous and thin,
    Decoctions of embittered hatreds crawl:
    These are the Water-Drinkers, cursed all!
    On what gin-sodden Hags, what flaccid sires
    Bred these White Slugs from what exhaust desires?
    In what close prison’s horror were their wiles
    Watched by what tyrant power with evil smiles;
    Or in what caverns, blocked from grace and air
    Received they, then, the mandates of despair?
    What! Must our race, our tragic race, that roam
    All exiled from our first, and final, home:
    That in one moment of temptation lost
    Our heritage, and now wander, hunger-tost
    Beyond the Gates (still speaking with our eyes
    For ever of remembered Paradise),
    Must we with every gift accepted, still,
    With every joy, receive attendant ill?
    Must some lewd evil follow all our good
    And muttering dog our brief beatitude?

    A primal doom, inexorable, wise,
    Permitted, ordered, even these to rise.
    Even in the shadow of so bright a Lord
    Must swarm and propagate the filthy horde
    Debased, accursed I say, abhorrent and abhorred.
    Accursed and curse-bestowing. For whosoe’er
    Shall suffer their contagion, everywhere
    Falls from the estate of man and finds his end
    To the mere beverage of the beast condemned.
    For such as these in vain the Rhine has rolled
    Imperial centuries by hills of gold;
    For such as these the flashing Rhone shall rage
    In vain its lightning through the Hermitage
    Or level-browed divine Touraine receive
    The tribute of her vintages at eve.
    For such as these Burgundian heats in vain
    Swell the rich slope or load the empurpled plain.
    Bootless for such as these the mighty task
    Of bottling God the Father in a flask
    And leading all Creation down distilled
    To one small ardent sphere immensely filled.
    With memories empty, with experience null,
    With vapid eye-balls meaningless and dull
    They pass unblest through the unfruitful light;
    And when we open the bronze doors of Night,
    When we in high carousal, we reclined,
    Spur up to Heaven the still ascending mind,
    Pass with the all inspiring, to and fro,
    The torch of genius and the Muse’s glow,
    They, lifeless, stare at vacancy alone
    Or plan mean traffic, or repeat their moan.
    We, when repose demands us, welcomed are
    In young white arms, like our great Exemplar
    Who, wearied with creation, takes his rest
    And sinks to sleep on Ariadne’s breast.
    They through the darkness into darkness press
    Despised, abandoned and companionless.
    And when the course of either’s sleep has run
    We leap to life like heralds of the sun;
    We from the couch in roseate mornings gay
    Salute as equals the exultant day
    While they, the unworthy, unrewarded, they
    The dank despisers of the Vine, arise
    To watch grey dawns and mourn indifferent skies.

    Forget them! Form the Dionysian ring
    And pulse the ground, and Io, Io, sing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marvellous. Many thanks, Kate. Have you read Hilaire Belloc’s Path to Rome? He describes how he walked in a straight line from where he was born to Rome, and my memory is that he took nothing with him except two bottles of claret and a revolver.


  2. I’ve just completed my first Dry January. I’ve had other dry months before, and always feel so much better for it. It’s such a great feeling to wake up and know that you can get on and do things, instead of having a hangover holding you back. I don’t think I’ll completely give up, but it’s nice to know that I can control it, and not the other way around.


  3. From Joshua Symons:

    “The UK has such an alcohol abuse epidemic and it’s sad that mental health is not being mobilised as a higher priority to reduce the burden of this disease. I see friends that are still shackled by even mild consumption, it slows them down just enough to keep them from achieving their ambitions. I haven’t drank in many years but those years have been the best of my adult life. Of course one cannot infer causation from cessation and there are many things that have contributed to the overall improvement of my life. I have a more engaging job, an amazing new partner, academic studies and a general reconnection with myself. Yet those improvements were a combination of both luck (after all it was the most notorious alcoholic who said “luck is better than skill”) and taking my hands off the rails so I could actually move forward with pace when the moment called. Alcohol simply has nothing to offer me anymore, which is why I rarely miss it. All that being said, I can imagine that an inter-taxi bicycle wine delivery service would probably be the most popular thing ever for expats in Dhaka.”


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