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.”