Tuesday, 21 June 2016

I'll Drink To That

"Never drink on an empty stomach.....always have a couple of beers first...."

So came the sage advice delivered dead-pan by my dad to my impressionable pre-pubescent self, as I sat listening intently to his pearls of wisdom. My sister and I were drinking warm Coca-Cola through straws from hourglass bottles in the smoke-filled Hither Green Working Men's Club, a regular weekend haunt of his.

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Karen and I wore matching heart-print dresses, knee-high socks and ugly Clarks T-bar shoes, swinging our legs as we sat crunching on cheese and onion Golden Wonder whilst Dad chugged back lager and chatted to my uncle and grandfather above the music being belted out by the red-faced organ-player in the background. Mum was at work: this was working-class Daddy Day Care, Eighties-style.

The set of Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights was modelled on such clubs, characterised by men-only bars, endless naff-prized raffles and dated Seventies decor, right down to the gold metallic-strand curtain shimmering beneath neon strip lights.

This particular South-East London venue was a classic example: sticky lino floors, polystyrene ceiling tiles, pork scratchings (then considered a nutritious snack) and live darts being broadcast loudly on big boxy televisions held on brackets. Standard.

I gazed around at the sea of guffawing men, right arms tilting pints heavenwards in unison, sharing jokes, pausing intermittently between gulps of lager to sling a handful of KP dry-roasted peanuts into their open mouths. They seemed to be having a whale of a time. Thus began my introduction to the world of drinking.

Another educational gem, delivered with a wink by Dad as he expertly arranged his tie in the mirror on a weekday morning following a boozy City-based client dinner:

"You see Sam, you don't want to be wasting your day off feeling rough. Always get paid to be hungover."

Fast forward a decade and my early experimentation with alcohol was executed in the much the same way as the science experiments my classmates and I carried out at school.

First, we'd come up with a theory, our hypothesis: to get deliriously happy-drunk with the minimal amount of apparatus, monetary outlay and with the least adverse chemical reactions.

Next came the method: siphon off small quantities of various contraband spirits, mix in a conical flask (or failing that, an empty water bottle), add friends, then decamp to the local park to await the results of the chemical experiment. No bunsen burner or tripod required, yet the outcome was often explosive. Colours became brighter, jokes funnier....then the world spun more quickly on it's axis and it was time for a lie-down.

Conclusion: careful and precise measurement of inflammable liquids is required in order to achieve the desired effects of euphoria and giggles, as opposed to green-gilled quease and room-spinning unease.

It was evident following a few miscalculations and mishaps involving lifts home from St John's Ambulance instead of taxis and the ensuing parental fury, that this delicate balance was going to take practise, but being resourceful teens we were unconcerned. We were in no hurry. We knew that what we'd begun with alcohol was a long-term commitment, not some casual fling. We were prepared to put in the legwork to make the fledgling relationship flourish. And flourish it did.

By our mid-to-late teens most of my friends and classmates at school were regulars on the local pubs and clubs circuit. It was the obvious place to meet socially; trendy coffee chains weren't yet the norm - drinking was just what we did, a hobby. It was what everyone did. No big deal, right?

By the time we understood the long-term ill-effects of alcohol it had become a deeply-ingrained habit, a part of who we were. The demon drink was like fast-growing ivy, coiling it's suffocating fronds around our vulnerable minds.

It's often implied that those who like a regular tipple are brash and coarse: arrogant, braying City boys or lairy lager louts. In my experience, the opposite is often the case - crippling insecurity and low self-esteem are masked by a few drinks to loosen up, as the shy self-medicate their way to a more confident, dazzling version of themselves: the dispirited turn to spirits.

"You look great" whispers Smirnoff...."Go on, hit the dancefloor" urges Chardonnay. "You're so witty!" gushes Hendricks and tonic, twirling her cucumber curls flirtatiously as she encourages you to dominate the conversation.

As a young adult, there's a tendancy to binge. As Oscar Wilde once said:

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes"

I'm inclined to agree. In the hectic heyday of my twenties my busy social life involved several pub meets a week, whereby multiple drinks would be consumed (on an empty stomach, naturally) in quick succession, since we had to squeeze our jollies in between unsociable working hours.

To be fair, any working hours were deemed unsociable in those days, since they invariably got in the way of our fun - eating into our precious partying time - which was rather rude and inconvenient, I always thought.

No wonder hard-working folk binge-drink, in the same way that we binge-watch box sets: even relaxing has to be shoehorned into our tight schedules then approached head-on with gusto; there's simply no time to waste.

As one rumbles into middle-age, it becomes more socially acceptable to drink less, but more often. It's not the done thing for a wrinkled-up raver to go on a mid-week mashup to break the monotony of the nine-to-five treadmill...although a drip-feed approach to drinking (say, a few glasses of red a night) is considered fine. But is this option less damaging? The jury's out (out down the pub, I'm assuming).

Some argue that having weekdays off then saving up your units for a weekend blow-out at least allows the liver to regenerate itself in between sessions. A canny caner's version of the 5:2 diet, if you will.

If a middle-class mum has a few glasses of expensive Merlot to unwind every evening and doesn't guzzle them all on a Friday night in town, rounding off the evening with a greasy kebab in the back of a cab, is that better for her body....or just her reputation?

Being Brits, drinking to excess is almost expected of us. It's in our DNA. To decline a double-vodka in favour of a sparkling water is frowned-upon, a sign of weakness rather than the strength that is actually required to say no.

Those who don't drink are regarded with suspicion, then dismissed as either a crashing bore, health freak (same thing) or recovering alcoholic. The only time it's acceptable to turn down a mojito is if you have a foetus in situ. Never having been pregnant means I can't recall turning down a drink.

So here's the deal. Rather than seeing soft drinks as a bit, well....soft, I'm going to try for a dry July. For the first time ever (save for my fertility treatment days) I'm going cold turkey. Not a single alcoholic beverage may pass these parched lips.

I'm not saying it'll be easy, but I'll give it a bash. I'm curious to see if I'm miraculously bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, sharp of mind and glossy of coat after this period of enforced abstinence. A better, more productive version of myself, furiously tapping out the modern-day equivalent of War And Peace using all those lovely brain cells I haven't lost through drinking. Hazard lights will no longer be required to steer me through the regular early-morning brain-fog.

Will I shed my Pinot pounds? Alcohol is full of empty calories, so at the very least I should lose a chin or two, no? Why does a night on the sauce never end in carrot-stick cravings, I wonder? It's always a crazed 2am cheesy carb-fest.

And after a month-long detox, surely the retox will be all the more enjoyable?

Or - how's this for a feat of imagination - perhaps having gone a month I'll decide never to go back, to remain a committed teetotaller, like my mum...or the Dalai Lama. (They're the only two non-drinkers in existence, as far as I'm aware).

Will my frayed nerves be able to cope without reaching for the wine bottle? It remains to be seen.

Only time - or the loose-lipped lush down the offy - will tell....

This post has also appeared in The Huffington Post UK

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