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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Sunday, 5 January 2014

Dry January


This is the strangest time of the year to be doing what I do.

With grim inevitability, we are told that we should all stop drinking alcohol for a month, just to prove we can.

Just as inevitably, those of us who decide to do so are met with sometimes extraordinary hostility by those who don't want to.

Both sides are now pissing me off.

Any reader of this blog knows where I stand on the cynical creep of neo-prohibitionism. My last blog post is just below this one if anyone has any doubt.

But I try to go dry for January every year, and have done so for years - since long before it became a piece of nonsense to beat people with.

I drink too much. I counsel that we should feel free to drink more than we are told. I rubbish the distortion of data that suggests we're all drinking ourselves to death. But even by my own more relaxed standards, I drink more than is good for me. I am two stone overweight and am on medication for high blood pressure, and this is related to the amount of alcohol I drink. It's an occupational hazard, and it's also more than that. Going dry for January is my way of proving to myself that I still control my relationship with booze. When I do it, I lose weight. I sleep better, and have more energy. When I start drinking again, my tolerance is lower and I drink slower and less frequently. And gradually, through the year it creeps up again, until over Christmas my alcohol consumption is excessive by any standards, and January provides a reset.

When I talk about this, it's amazing how many people seem to know more about my body and my psychology than I do. The neo-prohibitionists would argue that the above paragraph proves I'm an alcoholic - that if I need to stop drinking for a month, that proves I need to stop drinking altogether. Some idiots even try to say that dry January is dangerous because it encourages people to drink with abandon for the other eleven months of the year - a point of view that garners headlines every year despite having absolutely nothing to back it up.

On the other side, people tell me that detoxes don't work, implicitly asking me to ignore the evidence of my senses and the bathroom scales. Others seem threatened, like I'm betraying the cause of drinkers somehow. And then there are those who attack January abstainers for ruining the businesses of microbrewers and closing pubs.

This last point is particularly annoying. I appreciate that a campaign suggesting we all abandon pubs for a month might anger people whose livelihoods might be damaged by it. But beer enjoys a cyclical year. In December, pubs were packed. Some drinkers and publicans complain about the Christmas 'amateur drinkers' who turn up to their pubs, packing the place out and ordering in annoying fashion as they throw money over the bar. A few weeks later the same people complain that pubs are empty.

Given that pubs know a lot of punters take a breather in January, why not cater for them? Where are the specials on interesting artisanal soft drinks? The promotions on non-alcoholic cocktails? Why not put some detox-friendly dishes on the menu? We get very indignant about the idea that pubs are mere drink shops. We spend all our time saying that they are more than that, that they are important community centres that provide many benefits.  So in January why do we then act as if beer is all they can do?

Just because I'm not drinking for a few weeks doesn't mean I'll be going to the pub any less in January. I still want to get out of the house and see friends. But when I do so I'll most likely be drinking stupidly overpriced lime and soda, having viewed and rejected the range of excessively sugary, crap-filled soft drinks available, and wondering yet again why there isn't a single dish on the menu that isn't full of fat, cream or grease.

Dry January, like Christmas and 'NYE' before it, is a result of our desire for shared experience. We are social creatures and for the most part we enjoy the knowledge and experience that we are all going through something together. The rise of social media has intensified this sharing. Most of the time that's good. But it does also create a shared sense of obligation that some of us rebel against. A month ago newspapers were full of articles about What You Must Do To Enjoy The Perfect Christmas, and every one of them had comments below from people complaining that they didn't want to do Christmas that way, but somehow felt that they were forced to against their will. Why? Now, when Dry January is suggested we either feel we must go along with it as if it's the law or we get angry and ask 'Why the hell should I?'

It's part of the infantilisation of our culture. Being scolded on a regular basis by government, the NHS, and a media that invariably refers to the recommended guidelines on alcohol consumption as limits sits alongside advertising voiceovers that uniformly sound like a parent talking to a toddler, and food packaging and restaurant menus that talk in lower case sans serif fonts about things being yummy and nom.

We buy into this infantilisation. When we nip out for a cheeky scoop, or enjoy food that is tasty but not healthy, we invariably talk about being 'naughty', as if we are children breaking the rules. When everyone else breaks the rules with us we feel like we're getting away with it. When we're given rules we don't like and see others conforming, we start behaving like children who have been caught, or stamp our feet and fold our arms and say 'Don't want to.'

I say all this because I'm guilty of it, as much as anyone. There is an inner child in me saying "Go on, go for a drink. Because you can. You can get away with it." It's not a craving for alcohol per se, more a desire to transgress some rule that is entirely in my own head.

So here's my New Year's resolution, which I offer up for anyone else to share: be a grown-up around alcohol, and take responsibility for your own decisions. If you want a drink, have one, and if you don't, don't. Going dry for January is my personal way of resetting my relationship with alcohol. If you're someone who only drinks a couple of days a week you may feel you don't need to do this. If you're someone who drinks most days to a point where you're vaguely concerned it might impact your health, think about what else you might do to counter it. Or don't, if you don't want to. If you'd rather go dry for a different month of the year, or try to institute a regimen of at least two alcohol-free days a week, do that instead. If you're content that your lifestyle is going to be way more fun than anyone else's but means you'll probably die of heart disease in your late fifties or early sixties, that's fine too.

What's right for me probably isn't right for you, as we have different histories, hang-ups and habits. But we don't have to do anything - or refuse to do it - because others are telling us to. I'm going dry for January not because of some sly anti-alcohol publicity campaign, but because it works for me and has done for years. If we were all to simply do what works for ourselves, and not try to tell everyone else what a good or bad idea their course is, it would be a happy new year indeed.

14 comments:

Arthur Duncan said...

Absolutely spot on. I will be linking to this when I feel the need to explain my attitude. Thanks.

Claire said...

Good post Pete, it's about time people are a little more adult about alcohol. I rarely drink now, maybe once every 3 months, if that. But I certainly used to, and I am expected to justify myself to many who question my 'motives' (there aren't any, I'm just not that bothered if I have a drink or not any more). But I don't ever question someone who has a drink or twenty, but for some reason people feel threatened or suspicious of why I don't.

Anonymous said...

Great post Pete - and I'd like to suggest (from the point of view of gathering friends, some of whom need to drive) that we have a long way to go with improving soft drinks.

It's not just pubs, soft drinks are generally abysmal, but it hurts most in pubs when you (or a friend) is the designated driver. Or just, as you are in Jan, not having alcohol right now.

I think it would help everyone to be more of an adult about drinking if there were more non-alcohol drinks that tasted good.

Imagine, for example, a soft drink that complemented beer well, so after a pint together, when your friend decides he's having another one, you actually have something to switch to that tastes good, sits well in the stomach with your last pint, etc.

Jon Stroud said...

Very interesting article.

The "reset" concept is exactly how I feel.

Cooking Lager said...

What do you do with all the post Xmas booze? The half a bottle of left over sherry Aunt Ida didn't get round to finishing, or Alcopops your cousins didn't polish off?

if you're not spending the month polishing it off, can I have it?

Sarah said...

I'd already decided to give up beer for January (not wine or spirits mind, which I hardly drink anyway), mainly on the grounds that I was in danger of getting fed up with it (and in the vain hope of losing a bit of weight. Won't happen). I feared yourmpost wpuld be berating my choice, so I'm pleased to find myself in such good company.

Mark said...

I'm not comfortable with abandoning pubs for the whole of January. Partly it's a feeling that I'm letting the trade I love down at a time when they most need my trade, and partly because so much of my social life revolves around the pub. I frequently visit pubs and have to drink soft drinks because I like to visit out of the way boozers and have to drive there. What irritates the hell out of me is the almost total lack of choice of drinks if you're avoiding alcohol, and also don't have a kindergarten sweet tooth (ditto 99% of ciders available in pubs!!!). Coffee is usually the 'only' option that doesn't seem like buying a very expensive variation on the tap water I get very cheaply at home. What is there to drink in a pub if your taste preference is for something dry and 'grown up'?

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

Excellent piece as ever and spot on about the infantilisation of our culture, something that has bugged me for ages — it creeps into the language: ‘sleeps’, ‘peeps’ and ‘hun’ (as in honey rather than being in the trenches 100 years ago) are three that get on my nerves. Yesterday the Sunday Times Style magazine’s New Year diet thing was about giving up sugar and the weight will just drop away. Come Valentine’s Day it will be about sweet treats for your loved one. Diets are like pop groups, a new one comes along every other day.

As for drinking, I’ll probably have two to three alcohol free days during the week and go easy on the heavy duty imperial stouts (though given the cupboard is bare at the moment that’s an option made up for me) and to be more honest I’m more concerned with cutting back on meat and cheese (not cutting them out, though I might give cheese a break for a fortnight), drinking more water, going to the gym five times a week, from where I’ve just come back. Oh and yes to more interesting soft drinks, the last thing I want in the evening is coffee, it will interrupt with my sleeps…

pyo said...

something like "dry wednesday" is probably an ultimately healthier and more manageable concept than a dry january followed by 11 months of overindulgence.


As for soft drinks, wouldn't it make more sense to simply have 2 pints of 2.5% beer than 1 pint of 5% beer followed by a lemonade?

tanj666 said...

OK, I'll admit I'm an absolute facist about detoxes. They are nonsense.

It seems to me that cutting out the booze, perhaps having a more normal diet (no more chips/kebabs on way home from pub?) are the real things you're doing in January, in other words, it's a diet.

I admire people who can do this, radically alter their lives in such a significant way. I wish I could too. But I do like my odd few bottles of beer now and again, and the even rarer trip to the pub.

A beer-fast for a month is easy, I do it often, but hasn't lost me any weight yet...

J Mark Dodds said...

Good man Pete, a voice of considered reason.

Lot of good observations in the comments too. A concentration of grounded views.

We need a lot more of this spread around a lot more. The world we have created is eating itself up with fears about nonsense.

Keep it up.

Merideth said...

Cheers for this post! My husband and I have done a one month beer hiatus every year since 2009. It isn't always in January, but it is usually in the first few months of the year. Is it tough? Yeah, kind of, but that's because beer is our passion and so much of what we do revolves around it. Every year the reactions of others astounds me. The shock, dismay, and a deep questioning of our choice comes up every year. I especially hate the indignation with which people ask us, "WHY??!!" Also, people assume we can't or don't want to socialize because we aren't drinking. I agree that people need to mind their own pints and keep their opinions to themselves.

Richard said...

An urban social life, combined with a home brew hobby that is delivering dependably good beer on a regular basis, has me in the same boat.

Dont know if I would do a dry month, but I think mandatory dry days might be a good plan. My lifestyle is otherwise quite healthy, and my eating habits are good, its the beer putting the weight on and keeping it on.

I have gone dry before, and obviously been the driver on occasion, and my experiences mirror many of the commenters - weight falls off, and awful alcohol free options down the pub. It often means that you simply can't go to a pub.

Gary Gillman said...

It's good to go dry once in a while.

Quantity is important too though, not just frequency. One or two drinks is okay but the effect of two vs. four or more is marked and a bright line is crossed - sometimes you want to do that, but it shouldn't be habitual, IMO. (Strong beer facilitates a moderate approach, and it is unfortunate in my view that some taxation systems discriminate against them, because low-alcohol or session drinks lend themselves to greater abuse, arguably).

In the end, each has to decide for himself what is right.

One thing that rings true for all though (surely) is the aging factor: the older you get, the more you need to think about it, because bad habits catch up with you.

Gary