It would be going too far to say that I had an unhappy childhood. I had parents who loved me, a comfortable home, good schooling, some aptitude for sport, which got me out in the fresh air, and I never had a major illness, never experienced poverty, tragedy or even real sadness. But I never had any friends, either. And it is very hard to be happy without friends.
Actually, “no friends” is not quite right. I had one or two. But I had them sequentially. Never more than one at a time. Usually it was another undersized, twitching, antisocial loser like myself.
We would form a bond, huddle together at break time, pretend to be Wombles, Batman and Robin, “Pal” and “Chum” (after the dog foods), Willis and Botham, Starsky and Hutch… but it was only ever two of us, and it rarely lasted longer than a full school year.
If a friend moved abroad (like Nicky Diamond or Jonathan Nicholas), or was bumped up into the “scholarship class” (like Eddie Keene), or even accelerated a whole year (like Charlie Fulford), then that was that. I never had back-up.
Each break-up left me completely alone. Each September (after a long and lonely summer), I started from scratch, suffered endless rejection by group after group, and finally mopped up whoever else was left at the end of the line with me, when the big friend-making sessions were over.
What I really missed was a gang. I was never indispensable to any group’s fun and games. I was never the life and soul. I was usually allowed to tag along for a bit because I was intermittently amusing, but pretty soon I became irritating, and was given the cold shoulder – specifically a cold, dark grey, school-uniformed shoulder: literally, the group would close into a circle, and there I’d be, frozen out, wondering how to look like I didn’t care, as I wandered off to pick up a stray fellow loser to make friends with.
As my teens wore on, it grew worse. At 16, I had still never met a girl. Literally, not met a member of the opposite sex apart from my mother and sister. Still had no friends. Didn’t know where it would end.
But then, in the sixth form, girls arrived at our school. I got invited to my first party. On the way there, requiring courage just to get through the door, I bought a quarter bottle of Smirnoff at the newsagent on the corner, necked it in three gulps and when I woke up on the floor behind a sofa the next morning, I learned that I had stripped to my Y-fronts (with no friends, I had nobody to tell me I should be wearing boxers) and danced in a sailor’s hat, taken up smoking, had three fights, done a lot of snogging, now had a girlfriend of eight hours standing, and was the most popular guy in town.
That was 1985. And I have been drunk ever since. Haven’t you?
I mean to say, what miracle juice was this? Previously I was bookish, nervous, defensive, twitchy (I had a rapid repetitive blink and a horrible intermittent lip-stretch), infuriatingly talkative (to mask shyness and self-loathing), self-conscious, timid and mean.
Now, under the influence of the firewater, I was relaxed, fearless, louche, attractive, generous. Even, almost, magnetic.
I got into drugs next. Nothing fancy. Just thick, oily hashish (“red seal”) of the kind that flooded the London market in the middle Eighties as the Mujahideen ramped up production to fund its defence against the Soviet occupiers.
Smoking it made me miserable and nervous and twitchy again, but selling it – to the kids at school who were even squarer than I was – made me cool, sexy and popular, and funded my drinking.
In my gap year, while others travelled abroad, I got a dull nine-to-five job in London and spent my wages in a handful of pubs in Chalk Farm where I would drink seven or eight pints of Tennent’s Extra a night, before repairing to a mate’s smeggy basement to smoke joints for a couple of hours until I felt my blood alcohol was low enough to let me drive home.
And so at 1am, three times over the limit and now stoned off my noodle as well, I would stagger off to find my old Ford Escort, reckoning that if I was sober enough to find it, I was sober enough to drive it. When I found it, barely able to walk another step, I’d fall into the front seat and consider myself to all intents and purposes “home”.
Sunk into the yellow, furry seat-cover, I’d switch on the radio and the heating, light a fag, point her towards my parents’ house and step gently on the gas, reckoning that, like a faithful horse, she could find her way home without me.
That was an attitude that stayed with me well into my thirties: I learned to drink and to drive at the same time, and the two activities were inextricably linked in my mind. I never killed anyone. I never even hurt anyone. But I smashed a few cars, one kebab shop in Shepherd’s Bush and my nose on the steering wheel a couple of times.
I drank my way through university, like everyone else, the only difference being that I drove everywhere, too. By the early Nineties, drink-driving was becoming unfashionable and as I staggered out of parties barely able to see, my mates (of whom I now had hundreds thanks to my permanent pissedness and general druggy benevolence) would spread themselves across the bonnet of my car to try and stop me driving away. But off I’d speed, giggling and belching, as the cream of Oxford rolled off my front bumper.
After that it was journalism. Now, with a job to worry about, I started to think it might be time to drop the bottle and get serious about life. I was 23 or 24, settled with a girl, a flat, a new car. We’d cane a couple of bottles a night over pasta and a video, but otherwise I expected to wind it down.
But these were the last days of the old newsroom drinking culture. We were out of Fleet Street physically, but not yet spiritually. In my first week on a national paper, a senior executive randomly selected me to join him for lunch – a coveted honour.
We went to a wine bar in Shadwell and he ordered a bottle of Chilean merlot for £14 (fuck all even then). We drank two and as he ordered the third I began to wonder if we would be eating anything at all. Would it be gauche to ask? Was this some sort of test?
The answers were “yes” and “yes”. With the third bottle, he said, “I suppose we’d better have something to eat.” So he ordered two cheese sandwiches. I ate mine, he left his, we ordered one more bottle and were back in the office by 4pm.
And that was me, made in the business. While my own generation of newcomers to journalism were serious, socially diverse, clean-living paragons of modern media earnestness who ate sandwiches at their desk, drank only water and so never made friends with the big boys and found their copy left to rot forever on the spike, I was comfortable with the lifestyle of the pissed old public-school farts at the top of the chain and rose smoothly.
I could write my thousand words of daily bilge on two litres of the “red infuriator” in the quiet hour between 4pm and 5pm when the senior executives were having a nap. And they loved me for it.
I was unstoppable. I didn’t just drive and party pissed, I worked pissed. Why be sober? I pushed on into restaurant criticism, natural home of the middle-functioning dipso, where I drank freely and for free in a world where, even more than journalism generally, drinking is a badge of honour and non-drinking a mark of shame.
I was drinking, what, 160 units a week? One hundred-and-eighty? Seven or eight times the amount recommended by the government as acceptable. But what the fuck does the government know? Sure, that “settled” relationship I mentioned had ended. But that was because I was a boring, possessive, bullying, fat twat with no self-respect who fell over a lot and snored. It had nothing to do with drinking. Besides there were plenty of PR girls to shag – wahay! And you can’t do that sober.
In fact, I have never had sex with anyone for the first time sober. Have you? Has anyone? My numbers are nothing special, a bit better than Nick Clegg, but not much – and I have only ever done it the first time drunk. Is that unusual? Who knows?
The problem with being drunk all the time is that you end up feeling shit and sleepy at the most inconvenient moments, such as when the night is young and there is booze to be drunk. Which is why God invented cocaine. So that was my thirties sorted out.
Sure, my relationships were shorter now, generally less than two years and always ending in accusations of violence, abuse, sexism, drug-addiction, selfishness… but that was nothing to do with booze or drugs. That was just crazy women talking crazy shit like they always do.
Still, I eventually calmed down a bit, got some therapy, got a wife, got a kid, got another one on the way, got pretty much off the charlie (when your baby daughter’s favourite game is sucking your nose while you change her morning nappy, then the amount of crusted coke, speed, MDMA and strychnine you want still up it from the night before is severely reduced) and was hardly drinking at all.
Just maybe 100 units a week. Barely five times the recommended amount. Nothing. Almost no downside. Except obviously – being in my early forties – waking up more than half of my mornings feeling sick and headachey and depressed.
Finding the job of writing, alone in an office all day, increasingly difficult with the mild brain damage and biliousness that came with my totally harmless and normal lifestyle.
The future always looked complicated. The week ahead impossibly trying. Can’t do much on Thursday ’cos I’m out on Wednesday. Tuesday and Friday afternoons are dead because I’m lunching. Forget about December, I’ll be drunk. Forget about May to July – that’s set aside for drinking ice-cold rosé.
Some mornings, I looked at the future and saw, at best, 30 more years of health. For 10 of those I’d be drunk, then hungover for 10 more. So only 10 years left when I would definitely be happy and productive. Meh, whevs. Have
a gin and tonic and shut up.
It did occur to me that I could give up drinking, but then what would I do at night? How would I cope with boring dinner parties? How would I get in the mood for a night out? How could I review restaurants? How could I have sex with women? (Wait, I’m married, I don’t do that now.) What would happen to my friends? How long would it take them to realise I wasn’t fun anymore?
I wanted to clean up my act, but I didn’t want to go back to being a short-arse, Nobby No-Mates Jew-boy, alone in the playground, twitching like a gimp and watching telly alone on Saturday nights.
Cutting down a bit? Not an option. For me, a cold glass of premium lager is not a refreshing sharpener but a gateway drug.
I have never swallowed a mouthful of beer without thinking: “Ah yes, now, let’s get a couple of bottles of decent claret, then cocktails, a gram or two of quality biff and find some unfussy Doris in from the provinces to molest in the bogs.”
And then a few weeks ago I threw a little Sunday afternoon party, with a mate, for us and our children. I’d been drinking quite hard, in a nice way, for the last five days and was feeling a bit ropey, so I opened up with a half of Moretti at 2pm to get me on the right track, and then had another every 20 minutes or so for the next five hours so that
I was never actually drunk (that’s unseemly in a host) but so that I fell asleep at the dinner table later, and in the morning couldn’t remember anything about the party at all.
Except one thing: the arrival at the party of my mate Ben. The biggest drinker I’ve known. Always already drunk when he showed up for dinner, even lunch. Big drugs man, too. Tall and good-looking, but had fattened over the years and grown-bloodshot and tired. Argued with his wife all the time, but unquestionably the most popular guy I know. Easily 1,000 close friends. Always made me feel, even drunk me, a bit friendless and pathetic.
I hadn’t seen him for six weeks and when he walked in I didn’t recognise him. He was slim, his skin was clear, his eyes were bright, his back was straight, his clothes were new and his wife was smiling.
“What the fuck happened to you?” I said.
“Haven’t had a drink in six weeks,” he said.
And so I stopped. If Ben could do it, so could I. I only ever drank because other people did. So why not stop because someone else had? I would never drink again. Not in a self-pitying, monster hangover, if-I-make-big-promises-this-terrible-feeling-might-go-away sort of way. Just as a matter of fact.
In a moment, that Monday morning, my view of the future turned round. I was now ONLY 43, with most of my productive life ahead of me. Days would have 24 hours in them, weeks would have seven days. The articles I have to write would be done in half of the time. The books would be fun to plan, more so to execute.
The loom of a public-speaking engagement or live telly appearance wouldn’t fill me with dread. Every early morning wake-up to look after my kids would be easy. Every dawn would be clear and bright. Every day mine to make work.
I told a few people my plans and got a lot of “yeah, right, get back to me in three days”. A lot of “have a drink”. And a lot of yawns.
One old soak told me, “I tried it once but I couldn’t stand it – because when you wake up feeling shit and old and miserable you don’t have the booze to blame anymore.”
So I decided to stop telling people. It’s not interesting to anyone but me anyway. I decided to make it my little thing.
And two months on, pretty much boozeless, I’m chuffed as fuck. I’ve lost a stone without trying. I’ve had the first really good ideas I’ve had in 10 years. I row with my wife a lot less. I haven’t fucked anyone I shouldn’t have, committed any crimes (literally none, including driving and drugs misdemeanours) or cried for the longest continuous period since I was 17. It’s mental.
I really recommend it. All you have to do is… wait. This feels like time for a numbered plan.
The Rules Of The New Boozelessness:
Rule One: Don’t tell anyone. It’s nobody’s fucking business but your own. They’ll only either make you vomit with sympathy or tell you you’re a poofter.
Rule Two: Get in a load of Bavaria zero per cent wheat beer. At first, to a hardened beer drinker this shit tastes like a fat bird’s first syrupy piss of the morning. But you get used to it, and you need something ice cold and slightly bitter to crack at 7pm to tell you it’s downtime.
I’ve got so used to this stuff I literally look forward to opening one. And if I think of drinking one any earlier than 7pm, I stop and give myself a good talking-to, on the grounds that I’d better wait till I’ve put my kid to bed.
Rule Three: When you’re out with your mates, be first to get the rounds in (as I hope you are anyway). That way you can loudly herald a night’s drinking, come clinking over to the table with a dozen foaming pints, and only you will know that yours contains two bottles of Beck’s Blue non-alcoholic lager (perfectly drinkable).
Drink the top off it, and then as every further round arrives allow the usual muddle to ensue on the table. With a bit of “whose is this one?” and the occasional subtle bar trip to top yours up, nobody will notice you’re not drinking your pints.
Rule Four: In restaurants, YOU order the wine. Sing its praises. Taste it when the waiter pours (it’s nice to know what you’re missing) and shout, “God, that’s fucking DELICIOUS! We’ll be drinking A LOT of that!” Then leave your glass untouched.
Nobody will notice. Drunk people notice nothing.
Rule Five: Always have a “meeting” to go to or a “babysitter” to relieve, or a “Doris” to go and shag. The problem with not drinking, and the glory of it, is that you realise how, as 9pm strikes, all your friends just start repeating themselves.
You will miss nothing. And you’ll be tucked up in bed by 9.30pm with a nice book while they get fat, sick and miserable.
Rule Six: Never say “no” to drugs. Geezer palms you a wrap in the pub: go “cheers”, slip away to the bogs. Go into a cubicle alone (it doesn’t work if everyone’s piling in together, obviously), wait two minutes (for added credibility, poke a pencil quite hard up your nose so that five minutes later you get a little trickle of blood running onto your top lip), then come out again and ostentatiously palm the wrap back to him saying, “fucking front-row shit, that, man, nice one”.
Blink a lot. Tell everyone something you’ve just realised about how society works which is really, really mental. Say it six times. And then go home. Once the cunts have started on the shnozz, they won’t even notice you’ve left.
Rule Seven: Eat whatever the fuck you like: cakes, KFC, burgers, pizza… nothing can make you fat now. You’ll recover your teenage svelteness in three months, eating anything you want. It’s the great compensation.
On top of that, not being pissed, you actually don’t binge on carbohydrates in the way you used to, so you lose weight that way, too. I’d say you can eat kebabs as well, but that, sadly, is not possible sober.
Rule Eight: Give up exercise. Another of the great boons. You only ever ran to clear your head, sweat out the impurities, repair some of the damage and beat yourself up.
Now your head is always already clear, there are no impurities, there is no damage, there is nothing to beat yourself up for. Burn your Lycra! Running is for pissed wankers.
Rule Nine: Never tell yourself it is forever. If you never have another drink that makes you a teetotaller. Teetotallers are wankers. Giving up drinking doesn’t change that.
You’ll be having a drink again soon, like any normal person. (Indeed, quite often, when I’m doing the ordering-wine-but-not-drinking-it thing in a restaurant, I drink the odd half glass because it’s tasty, and to demonstrate to myself that I’m not some tragic AA wipeout.)
Rule Ten: Put shit in for Sunday. For all your life, Sunday was a dead day, a place for recovering from Thursday, Friday and Saturday. At best, a lunch of Bloody Marys with your saddo drunky pals was doable. But no more.
You have gained a seventh day of the week. A whole year of life, free, added now not later, for every six years you live. You can work, read, love, play, do whatever. It’s pretty weird.
Rule Eleven: In fact, put shit in for every day. You’re going to need stuff to do. Without booze, your boredom threshold drops dramatically. You can’t just sit around doing nothing any more.
And television won’t cut it. Sober, even porn is boring. So expand your interests, push hard with your work, build new things, achieve, create, you’re a fucking MACHINE, man, and you can do ANYTHING.
Rule Twelve: Finally: if cornered, if everyone’s looking, if you’re in danger of being unmasked (like when an undercover agent embedded in the Mafia has to kill a cop to keep his cover), then just have a fucking drink.
It’s not the end of the world. In fact, in the right hands, it can be rather nice.
Originally published in Esquire's February 2013 issue.