John Mullin: Into the smoke-free zone

By stopping for a month ' and then returning to old habits ' you may be fuelling complacency. Picture: Getty
By stopping for a month ' and then returning to old habits ' you may be fuelling complacency. Picture: Getty
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Time limited campaigns urging us to give up the fags, or the booze for a month and get on our bikes may not have the health benefits some claim but they can still be game-changers, writes John Mullin

It’s that time of year. You can’t really escape ads imploring you to Stoptober – an NHS initiative to encourage you to kick the fags in October – and it’s a wholly admirable wheeze with zero applicability to me. I – he announced smugly – have never smoked.

Experts fed up with hammering home the negative impact of smoking and drinking are now encouraging short-term cessation. Picture: Getty

Experts fed up with hammering home the negative impact of smoking and drinking are now encouraging short-term cessation. Picture: Getty

Well, not since the age of ten, when a copper – no doubt attracted by the blue fug of quickly puffed out cigarette smoke, and the small fires ignited with the excess matches from a box of BlueBell (average contents: 52) – clouted me round the lug in Cumbernauld woods.

Today, I’d probably be one of those sad-faced victims in the papers, righteously complaining about assault and seeking hefty compensation. Different times.

He told me he was off to tell my folks – yes, I was stupid enough to give him my real address. Compare and contrast with my partner in crime, Ian Hegarty, who did a runner.

I went home and – too quickly, you might think – ‘fessed up, ensuring several more clouts, and weeks of very poor dad jokes about being carted off to prison. Plod, of course, never appeared.

I often imagine him going home and laughing mischievously if he could have seen my naive admissions. More than 40 years on, I would like to shake his hand, for what he did that summer’s day of the World Cup in Germany saved me from a life in smoking’s clutches, and all that that might bring.

The drink? Now that is a different matter – and it, too, now has Stay Sober for October – a Macmillan push for boozers to shun alcohol for the month and raise funds for cancer research.

There’s a real fashion for this stuff now. If it’s not avoiding the drink or stopping smoking, then it’s growing a ‘tache to counter prostate cancer (November).

That one originated in Australia, and leaves the resolutely smooth-shaved watching, heart sinking, as normally sane workmates transition to wildly competitive testosterone-driven maniacs for the hairy upper lip. The more outlandish the growth, the more satisfied they seem to be.

October seems to be the new January re the drink – presumably on the basis that you cleanse ahead of the battering your liver is likely to take over the festive period, rather than after. I do both.

I first took a month off the booze in July 1995. I assumed it would transform my life. You know: clearer head, better sleep, a few more bob in your pocket.

None of that. Nor did I lose weight, for I began to crave chocolate in the evenings, presumably to make up for drink’s empty calories.

It was an odd time: from nowhere, I found myself married. Perhaps my guard was down.

You might reckon that would put me off for good, but no. As you read this, and as you contemplate starting the Macmillan initiative, I am finishing my third month off the drink this year already. And still it doesn’t make me feel any different. So why do it? There are times to try to break the cycle, or, with the current abstinence, having just bought one, to begin to ride it.

I played 11-a-side for the first time in ten years this summer, and loved it. There was just one problem: the day after, I felt as if someone had taken a gun, and shot out both my Achilles.

Age, of course. Never had a moment’s problem with either of them before. But I was unable to walk for a week, and coming down the stairs in the morning was a groaning, heaving, thumping effort. Jogging, my preferred form of very limited weight control, was out.

A bike it was, then. I did have a pretty nice one, bought on a Work-to-Ride scheme a few years back. It was expensive-ish too, a flying machine.

Sadly, at the point at which I wished to re-acquaint myself with the saddle, my wife had not long started using it, having realised mine was much lovelier than the horrible thing she rode. Problem? She had left it unlocked. You know the rest.

She would be better peeling off several hundred quid each month and flushing them down the loo. It would save time.

A little skint, I decided to buy second hand. I like this process – of visiting places you wouldn’t normally go, and meeting new folk. I still have fond memories of buying my diesel-free VW in 1992, and the woman who sold me it.

This summer’s venture led me to a vaguely sinister block in east London, where for £230, I got a rather brilliant 40-year-old Swiss Cilo bike. It goes like the wind, and, even better, attracts admiring glances from cycling aficionados.

But I wasn’t used to the drop handlebars. After struggling with the not unimportant matter of how best to pull the brakes, I somehow did my shoulder in, and it is now too painful to ride.

Hence, the pledge for this last month. It was the only way, I hoped to keep my weight under some sort of control. This is always a triumph of hope over experience – rather like watching Scotland play – for I never shed so much as a pound.

The upside? Well, I have a new job, which involves different disciplines I know little about, with new computer systems entirely foreign to me, and unfamiliar – and very young! - colleagues upon whom I’d like to make an impression as dimly competent.

In my pomp, journalism was a very social trade. I took great pride in working through that omnipresent fug of a not-too-debilitating hangover. Used to give the others a chance, I reasoned.

No longer. So staying off the booze is a regular thing for me now. Where once I did find it hard, now it is a doddle. True, my social life is dull these days – much harder when you were actually invited to things, and that makes it easier.

But beware. By stopping for a month – and then returning to old habits – you may be fuelling complacency. The challenge is about drinking sensibly when you are on it, and is one to which I have never risen.

Step aside, folks. Roll on Thursday. Just as you may be about to board yours, this particular teetotal wagon is about to come careering off the tracks. Cheers!