Off the sauce

Richard Herring isn't drinking, and it's keeping him awake at night

So I made some new year resolutions. And unlike most of you I have stuck to them.

The main one was to give up drinking alcohol for an, as yet, unspecified amount of time. I usually do this for January, but this year feel I want to go for longer. And an insane, yet increasingly influential part of my brain seems to think I should try and get through 2008 without booze passing my lips. You may call me a dreamer… and in binge drinking Britain I might well be the only one.

Is it just me, or is everyone crapulous?

Now don’t get me wrong, I love getting pissed. This isn’t some sanctimonious, holier-than-thou conversion to the Temperance movement. In any case I don’t think there is any Christian justification for giving up the sauce – no-one liked a drink more than Jesus (check out Matthew 11:19 if you need convincing) – the Catholics think He was such a dipsomaniac that His blood was made of the stuff.
I don’t think you should give up drinking, I am not going to try and convert you to anything, I just want to see what difference it will make to my life if I stop.

I don’t think I am an alcoholic, even if my mum worries that I might be, and feel I am safe as long as I have a friend who is on the piss more than I am. So maybe that’s just a matter of semantics (as Al Murray the pub landlord says, “We don’t call them alcoholics, we call them ‘Publican’s Friends’”) and I am concerned by the extent which liquor dominates my social life. Since the age of 13 , when my friends and I would sneak up Cheddar Gorge with bottles of sweet, fizzy, Woodpecker Cider (Hereford Lightning) I have been a regular suckler at the teat of Bacchus. Now as a stand up comedian I spend most of my nights working in pubs and as a writer have the opportunity to while away the day-time hours too (as Douglas Adams observed, “Why do writers spend all day in the pub? Because they can!”) On my nights off how do I unwind? Whatever I’m doing there is usually a drink or two involved and being my own boss if I get plastered on a Tuesday and want to stay in bed on Wednesday, I don’t give myself a hard time about it.

But the hangovers have been hitting harder over the last few years and I worry about the damage that I might be doing to my body. I have still been drinking like I am a 20 year old, but my 40 year old body finds it harder to repair itself and my 40 year old mind has suddenly realised that I am not immortal. Of course that doesn’t mean I have to give up completely, but I don’t really see the point of drinking a couple of drinks and then stopping. Surely getting drunk is the point. I would rather hang out with a teetotaller than a moderate drinker. They are the worse people on Earth. And I am including serial killers in this. I am very much an all or nothing kind of guy.

I see this as an experiment, in which I am my own slightly unwilling guinea pig. What effects would a year of abstinence have on my health, my productivity and my social life? Would my friends disown me? Would it make me too boring and self-conscious to have any kind of fun? Or is it ridiculous for me to undersell myself that much? Surely I am capable of being entertaining and relaxed without a belly full of Guinness. Aren’t I? I am very sober as I write this and am seriously wondering if I am boring the pants off you.

If only being boring could do that, because my major worry about twelve months off the Jesus Juice is what effect it will have on my sex life? Surely booze is the most important lubricant for any single man. Only by being blind drunk for the first month or so of seeing someone can help you overcome the embarrassment of all the horrendous things you are supposed to go through together. Sober sex must be awful – I imagine. How would anyone know? I will tell you if I find out. But prospects look bleak.

So nearly a month in, how do I feel? So far, so goodie goodie. I have lost over half a stone in weight (though have been eating properly and exercising daily, though of course, not drinking helps with both those endeavours), I am filled with a new found energy and productivity has increased about ten fold and I am experiencing the strange and forgotten emotion of contentment.

I am, it is true, socialising less (but then I think I was going out way too much before), but generally have still enjoyed myself when I have gone out, realising that as long as I myself am not self-conscious about the booze embargo, then no-one else really cares. I have been having some trouble sleeping, without the comforting knock out effect of being trolleyed, with my over-active mind whirring around with brilliant comedic ideas at 3am. I have also been having some horrific and vivid nightmares, perhaps a rebellion of my brain, aware that if it doesn't get booze soon it will no longer have the excuse for the abnegation of responsibility. So like the caretaker in a Scooby Doo show, it is creating nightmarish ghouls to try and frighten me off this healthy course and back into the bar.

There also seem to be a lot more hours in the day, proving the old adage that you don’t live longer if you don’t drink… it just feels like it.

With another tour on the horizon, I am almost certain that I will come crashing off the wagon before I next write for you, my dear New Statesman website patrons, but the voice at the back of my head is telling me to keep it up.

As long as I don’t have to stop taking heroin I think I will be fine.

Richard Herring began writing and performing comedy when he was 14. His career since Oxford has included a successful partnership with Stewart Lee and his hit one-man show Talking Cock
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.