Hugh Reilly: Abstinence makes heart grow stronger

In the spirit of charity perhaps now is a good time to give it a rest. Picture: Getty
In the spirit of charity perhaps now is a good time to give it a rest. Picture: Getty
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Those enthusiastically immersed in Scotland’s traditional drinking culture might enjoy an alternative approach to alcohol, writes Hugh Reilly

MY NAME’S Hugh and I’m not a recovering alcoholic. I do, however, indulge in what internet dating sites term “social drinking” (this is, of course, technical information given to me by a tragic pal seeking Russian roulette-style romance on the web). When I lived in Scotland, I relished going out with my mates on a Friday, downing five or six pints and subsequently believing that I, bald and on the abyss of achieving clinically obese status, had somehow morphed into a roguishly attractive Brad Pitt.

With morning came the inevitable hangover. A 3am trip to the toilet offered evidence that lying prone would be my preferred position to watch lunchtime’s Football Focus. Like many who consume a week’s worth of alcohol units on a single evening, I promised to change my drinking habits. I never did.

I tried but, in Scottish circles, refusing to drink a beer or four whilst in company is a taboo. Coming out the drinks cupboard and admitting a desire to be “dry” for the evening arouses deep suspicion that you “have a problem” with alcohol. Stunned drinking buddies will rally round and convince you that experiencing a black-out is part of the fun of getting blootered. They’ll place a comforting arm on your shoulder and tell you that sticking one’s head down Sankey’s most famous porcelain product and retching uncontrollably is character building. It is a sad reflection on our alcohol-obsessed society that announcing that you’re a member of the Orange Order is more socially acceptable than proclaiming yourself to be teetotal.

This week, Macmillan Cancer Support launched the Go Sober For October fundraising campaign. The idea is that drinkers are sponsored by friends and family to give up their tipple for a month. The initiative is a spin-off from the Dryathlon organised by Cancer Research UK that put £5.6 million into the charity’s coffers.

With No campaigners breaking out the bubbly and defeated Yes campaigners drowning their sorrows, it would be fair to say that, in terms of timing, it’s not exactly a perfect storm with regard to guaranteeing the event’s success. However, as the balmy days of summer become a distant memory and dreich evenings follow as surely as night follows day, there is great temptation to pour out a G&T and relax. We justify a bit of late-hour boozing by euphemistically referring to it as a night cap, though for many it’s less a cap, more an outsized sombrero as the glug-glug-glug of spirits cascading into the ice-filled glass confirms that house measures are somewhat more generous than those served at the local hostelry. Sinking and savouring the liquor as it makes its habitual journey down the neck’s irrigation channel, it crosses our mind that this might have an adverse effect on our health. But this well-founded qualm quickly disappears when the depressant effect creates an eddy in the brain, leading us to sagely rationalise things, taking comfort that everyone else is doing it.

To read much of the media, one could be forgiven for thinking that self-inflicted alcoholic poisoning is a pastime only of those fine young people whose palates are tickled by Buckfast or swigging a cheeky plastic bottle of White Star cider. In my experience, it’s the middle-aged, well-educated middle class who drink themselves under the table. These white collar professionals validate their heavy drinking by invoking the classic mantra of “work hard, play hard!” Those who have retired on cushy pensions and have no mortgage, squander much of their large disposable income by pickling themselves in order to get them through yet another day of less than idyllic idleness.

I did not want to go down this toper route when I accepted an offer – a beseeching plea to be more accurate – from Glasgow City Council to leave my teaching post. For reasons still unknown to myself, I agreed to teach English in Bangladesh for one month. For anyone who doesn’t know this Muslim part of the Indian sub-continent, drinking alcohol in former East Pakistan is on a par with apostasy or being caught in possession of a Salman Rushdie bestseller. To be honest, I coped remarkably well without my Tennent’s lager fix but found myself climbing the walls due to the absence of coffee.

Living in a community where alcohol is not the social glue that holds people together greatly pleased me, I must say. I had experienced something similar a few months previously when on a four-week sojourn to a part of Spain that’s off the beaten track. Unlike Benidorm and other Blackpoolesque resorts, Torrevieja’s esplanade is not littered with chalked signs screaming either “Full English Breakfast!” or worse, “Elvis Night – 8:30 till late!”

In April of 2012, I decided to spend more quality time in this alcohol-lite environment and, truth be told, I don’t miss the heavy drinking culture of Scotland. My local pub is owned by a Spaniard who is an astute businessman.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays, he has a five-piece English group that ensures a heaving mob of expats invades the premises and drinks the place dry. On Fridays, when a Spanish singer pulls in a large number of the indigenous folk, tables are adorned with a sign – “Minimum consumption per person is €5”.

He takes this stark measure because otherwise the natives would happily sip a half-pint or a coffee for three hours and dance the night away.

Having seen how the Iberian half live, I hope as many Scots as possible will support Macmillan and enjoy the pleasures of a month without the demon drink. I’m not some ranting Rechabite or calling for a form of prohibition. I just feel that if thousands of my countrymen/women managed a calendar page without resorting to a daily snifter, they too would soon realise the health benefits that flow from frequent abstinence.

Cheers to that!