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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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.