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Why does one drink?

in The Way We Live Now

Pissed-off Toff explores the numerous benefits of abstemiousness … and then asks the big question: Why does one drink?

I have a friend – let us call him Alexander – who lives in South Africa. Once in a while we talk on the telephone, and a few days ago he told me how he had successfully cut out the booze for the previous two months, and how much better he felt and looked. What follows is a short account of his health-enhancing Odyssey.

Not, I hasten to say, that Alexander has any problem with drink. Yes, there were a couple of years when, as a broker in the Far East, he drank too much and became rather chubby as a result. But this was entirely a function of the environment in which he found himself, and in which a sociable G&T or two or three were the norm at the end of every day on the dealing floor, with the weekends being reserved for one drink-fuelled beach party after another. 

For the last twenty-odd years, however, he has been happily married; he has a loving wife and three healthy children; the wife hardly ever touches the juice, and Alexander himself drinks only very moderately – a glass or two of wine at the end of the day, perhaps; this being equivalent to about 3 units of alcohol, the same as in one of those little 25cl bottles of wine that they give you on aeroplanes. In other words, he drinks a small fraction of the quantity consumed by any number of fully-functioning members of society that I can think of.

Why, then, did he feel the need to give up? And to go on a punishing diet, too?

The answer was simple. The economic climate in South Africa could hardly be worse. The place is a bog of corruption, and the country is on its knees. There are several power-cuts every day, each one often three hours long. If Alexander’s own business survives, it is only because he has cut costs to the bone and now runs things entirely by himself, hunkered down and hoping for the best.

“I realised that there was nothing more I could do,” he said. “The economy is outside my control. Then I thought: Well, I can go on a diet, lose some weight, and get fit again.” In other words, when one area of his life was out of his control, he would make up for it in a different area in which he did have control. Thus, for the last two months or so, no alcohol, no carbs, and regular demanding runs in the nearby mountains.

And the results are clear … thrilling, even. Having lost 10 kilos, he is back to the same weight as on his wedding day; his waist size is down from an almost porky 38 inches to a super-trim 34 inches; and for the first time in a long time, his stomach is completely flat, and he fits into tailor-made suits from previous years which he had been thinking of giving away.

“Any improvements in … er … other areas?” I ask with a cough, referring to the nuptial chamber. “Thank God that’s never been a problem,” he replies. But he now sleeps like a log. He has masses of energy. And he’s more optimistic.

It all sounds to good to be true. So how hard has it been?

Cutting out the post-work glass-or-two of wine at home was easy enough, he said, and became easier after a fortnight or so, when the change in habits was beginning to establish itself. The new regime also became easier – again after a fortnight or so – when he started to see the results. “You get into a virtuous circle,” he explained.

There was another thing, too. Just once, on the occasion of an important celebration, he had some champagne; and whereas he would normally have been knocking the bubbly back, he found that one or two glasses were quite enough. He didn’t want any more.

But he does admit that after two months of no carbs and no alcohol, he’d kill for a pizza and a chilled beer to go with it. Plus, for dinner one night his wife and he had a sizzling steak straight off the barbeque, and it wasn’t the same without a glass or two of red wine. Oh, and when he’s sitting on the veranda at the weekends, looking at the sun going down, the experience isn’t quite complete without a relaxing drink to hand.

What keeps him going, though, are the results. There’s also a university reunion on the horizon, for which he will be flying to England, and despite not being a vain man, Alexander has a competitive streak and is much looking forward to turning up looking a million dollars.

* * * * *

Shortly after last Christmas, I too had a similar, though less prolonged and less virtuous experience. All my friends were away on the ski slopes or in the Bahamas or in Andalucia, and I was stuck in London, alone; which served me right, granted the misguided life-choices I have made. I was, however, determined that some good should come of this situation, and so decided to have a couple of alcohol-free weeks. With no social occasions to tempt me off the straight and narrow, how difficult could it be?

The answer was: surprisingly easy; or rather, surprisingly un-difficult. It was, I realised, largely a question of making the decision. And just as with Alexander, the results came in almost straight away. My sleep was calm and dream-free. I woke up early, refreshed and full of energy. I felt happier, more relaxed and more even-tempered. I felt proud of myself. And almost immediately, I looked better, too, and my skin started glowing with health. It is no exaggeration, I think, to say that I even started becoming a nicer person.

Actually, I’m telling a little fib, because the period was not entirely alcohol-free. Every day I went for a two-hour walk, and half-way through it I would stop off at a pub in Kensington and have a half-pint of bitter. That’s just one unit of alcohol; nothing, basically; and in my book it doesn’t count.

Among the numerous benefits, one was particularly gratifying. It so happened that during that period I didn’t play the piano. I don’t know why, because I generally try to practise on a daily basis. Then, wandering into an auction house in Chelsea, I saw a nice Bechstein grand for sale, and asked to try it out. 

I could hardly believe what happened next. As though by magic, my playing had become confident, calm and note-perfect, even at high speed. I was ‘in the zone’, entirely in control, my fingers flying over the keys with absolute command and fluency. This was what I had been striving towards for years. After only a short period of virtuous living, the benefits of many hundreds of hours of hard work suddenly made themselves manifest, with compound interest.

Since no-one was objecting, I settled down to give a brief concert; nor is it inconceivable that I showed off a little. One of the pieces I played was Bach’s Prelude XXI in B flat major. Here is the great Andras Schiff performing it on YouTube:

Shortly afterwards, my piano teacher – a concert pianist of rare talent and technical ability – came round for our next lesson. “You’re playing at a different level,” he said. And it was all because of one thing: no booze. Whereupon, I’m afraid to say, we opened a bottle of chilled Chablis.

* * * * *

Why, then, does one drink?

Most of all, perhaps, drinking is part of the search for pleasure, which is a universal human urge. At the end of a stressful day in the office, a whisky-and-soda at home or a convivial pint of bitter in the pub famously works wonders; just as drink oils the wheels of any social function.

That much is a statement of the obvious. But it brings us straight away to the central fact about alcohol, which is that it is a mind-altering drug. Unlike the contentious idea that ‘alcoholism’ (a fluid concept, no pun intended) is a ‘disease’, there can be no dispute about this. It’s a medical fact; not a disputed theory. 

Alcohol is an anaesthetic, the effect of which is to induce a temporary feeling of mellowness and relaxation. When, at the end of my fortnight of virtuous living, I had a glass of Chablis, I could feel the alcohol entering my (by now pure) blood-stream; I could feel it ‘hitting the spot’, to use the familiar and entirely appropriate expression. It was a physical sensation, leading straight away to a slight but pleasurable change of mood.

Drink, in essence, is the search for an emotion, a sensation. Thus its power. Naturally enough, the quest for pleasure all too often becomes a habit, perhaps an ingrained one, whereby six o’clock means drink time, time to relax and wind down after a hard day’s work, or even after a day doing nothing. I’ve often discussed this with friends, some of whom would be very unhappy if, come six or seven o’clock, they were not able to pour themselves a whisky to mark the end of the day and the beginning of the evening … just as they could not conceive of roast lamb and roast potatos without red wine; and just as I could not conceive of a meal with a friend – still less a dinner party – without wine.

So what do we have so far? The search for pleasure; a convivial habit; a ritual. Thus far, no harm done, surely. But now we come to the darker side.

* * * * *

You are bored, perhaps you are lonely; you lack aims or purpose, you see no way forward. The bottle beckons. You have difficult decisions to make, difficult things to do or to face up to. So you procrastinate. “I won’t do that now,” you think. “I’ll have a drink and think about it while I have another look at” Here, in psychological parlance, is drinking as a classic ‘displacement activity’ in which the avoidance of necessary action becomes an activity in itself. There’s also booze’s happy bedfellow known, again in psychological jargon, as ‘pure damn laziness’.

Then take gluttony: the excessive – or perhaps nowadays we would say ‘compulsive’ – consumption of food or wine. This, of course, is one of the seven cardinal sins, as originally conceived of by the desert father Evagrius in the late fourth century AD and later re-elaborated by Pope Gregory I. In fact, the good Evagrius did not think of gluttony and the other items on his list (eight of them, originally) as sins, but as temptations, which he referred to as demons or spirits. Only later were they upgraded to ‘sins’. And, God knows, temptations are far more present and powerful in our modern consumer world than ever they were in the remote Egyptian desert; and sins far easier.

So … boredom, inertia, procrastination, compulsive consumption: these lead us to what I am convinced is the prime motivation for the widespread addiction to alcohol in our society. And that is escapism; the urge to forget – if only momentarily – the burden of existence; the search for oblivion … again, temporary, before the awful reality of life returns with a vengeance.

In a fascinating 30-page paper entitled The Roots of Addiction in Free Market Society, the Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander argues convincingly that the steady growth of addiction to drugs and to compulsive habits such as drinking, gambling, overeating and overspending is a natural result of the destruction of what he calls ‘psycho-social integration’ in modern industrial and post-industrial society. Put another way, these behaviours stem from an almost unbearable sense of ‘dislocation’ or ‘alienation’ that was first manufactured on a mass scale by the Industrial Revolution.

“Addiction to a wide variety of pursuits is not the pathological state of a few,” he writes, “but to a greater or lesser degree, the general condition in western society.” And whilst I have little time for communist academics, it is difficult to dispute Eric Hobsbawn’s observation that from the early 19th century onwards “mass alcoholism, an almost invariable companion of headlong and uncontrolled industrialisation and urbanisation, spread ‘a pestilence of hard liquor’ across Europe.” For the alienated worker, Hobsbawn points out, alcohol was – to quote the old saw – ‘the quickest way out of Manchester’. Alcohol, in other words, was consumed not for pleasure, but for escape.

* * * * *

Let us now return to the original question, which is: Why does one drink? 

Could the answer be really quite simple? Could it be that the happy man drinks for pleasure, the unhappy man for release, and the desperate man for oblivion?

In any case, I see that it is now gone six o’clock. Time, therefore, for a soothing gin-and-tonic, nice and strong, with the ice tinkling inside a capacious glass …

Or perhaps best not?

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