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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.