Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Lenten Lantern and Other Stories

I did Lent this year, which is to say I gave a thing up for it. This is quite fashionable lately, from what I gather, among the secular: Lent is conveniently situated just long enough after New Year to put the failure of Resolutions behind one, and there's not a whole lot else going on. In fact it probably suits the unchurched better - as a Catholic friend of mine put it "whoever put St Paddy's Day during Lent needs shooting".

I'm not a Catholic (for the same reason I'm not a drag queen: it's all a little showy for my taste, and I can't sing, and I have no desire to go there anyway) but I did give up alcohol for Lent, as well as takeaways. The latter was a bigger deal, to be honest - my circumstances do not allow me much kitchen time so resorting to expensive and caloritastic dialouts is an ever-present temptation, whereas drinking is something I've only ever done for entertainment, like watercolouring.

After doing my Lenten duty I returned to takeaways, albeit nowhere near as often as before. Drinking however didn't come back so easily. Forty days is not that long, even if you include the Sundays (traditionally one does not, apparently, so that Catholic priests can still do Communion), but it was long enough to break alcohol for me.

I tried hard to get back into it. A very fine bourbon reserved from Christmas, a few real ales, my favourite summer Corona... none of them drew me back in, although the bourbon came close. Alcohol had developed its own discrete taste while I'd been away, a sticky chemical tang. Occasions arose where I found myself driving to a party so that I would have an excuse not to drink - a necessity because, without an excuse, people in pubs think you're deliberately trying to spoil their fun by not drinking, haunting them with your sobriety.

I found myself a while back trying to explain to a teetotaller why people drink. It's very easy for someone who has never imbibed to believe it is purely a drug addiction, a weakness of character, a fleshly desire for cheap pleasure that drives the rest of us.

It isn't, of course: drinkers drink because alcohol helps us to empathise. It's not a modern drug, but modern society seems to need social lubricants more than ever - getting to know and trust people enough to be able to love them ('love' as in 'love your fellow man', not the romantic sort) is a difficult and time-consuming process for which modern life leaves little room. Alcohol doesn't have its own sensation: it only allows a normal human emotion to surface more readily. To be drunk - the good kind of drunk - is to feel love for your fellow human, an unnatural position particularly for the young, or the British.

It became apparent as I tried and failed to become a drinker again that it had simply ceased to be worth it. I have drunk less and less over the last few years, more and more through social obligation and habit rather than desire - I used to drink when writing anything difficult, but even that only seems to work 50% of the time these days. I've grown up enough to love my fellow man broadly unassisted.

So, I stopped. Or rather, I remained stopped. I'd like to be able to say I've been X days sober but I honestly can't remember when my last drink was - it just wasn't a big enough deal to note. In a way I feel like I'm devaluing sobriety by giving up when I wasn't an alcoholic, wasn't suffering liver failure, wasn't caught drink-driving (I've never even driven with a hangover, let alone a drink), wasn't at the crescendo of some drama demanding a life-change. I just didn't feel like the upside was worth the downside any more, and stopped enjoying the taste.

I still like beer, don't get me wrong: beer has a lovely flavour but the alcohol (or, in the case of Becks Blue, whatever acidic crap they put in to replace the alcohol) spoils it. Thankfully things have moved on since Kaliber (remember that? I first drank Kaliber at fourteen: that'll date me) and some excellent European NA beers lurk in my local Tesco. Now I don't have to worry about being able to rise early for a run or a swim, or not being available if I need to give somebody a lift in the car, or about all those extra calories... it's not a revelation or anything, it's just a few less things to worry about. And if you say in the pub "I've given up drinking" then people generally respect it, even if they do expect you to drink J2O, which is a crime against flavour and common sense.

Oh yes, I have a new car. A 2002 SEAT Leon mk1, in black: £1,000 worth of neglected and poorly hatchback which I have spent several months restoring to glory. Her name is Lucia and she drives like a dream now, like a Golf in a much sexier dress: she's not Sylvia, but there's something of Sylvia in her, I think. I choose to believe that one's car reincarnates, like the Doctor.

A few weekends ago I was in Eastbourne again, Lucia tucked up in the NCP car park, me sat outside a coffee shop on the beach scribbling in a notepad (the next novel: the title is Take It and I will tell more soon). Clear skies, clear head. It felt good.

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