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
Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.