Sure, I can go without a drink: there was that one week at university

I have in my hand a piece of paper: a prescription for a five-day course of Metronidazole, a heavy-duty antibiotic recommended for the treatment of (among other ailments) gingivitis, or inflammation of the gums. A very nasty outbreak, in my case - a tingling, maddening pain that made eating anything harder than soup unendurably painful and sleep next to impossible.

Even stoking myself with twice the recommended dose of Nurofen Plus hardly made any difference. After four days of this, spent waiting for my dentist to get back from holiday, he took one look at my gob and, after going "ugh", wrote out the scrip. He then told me that I had better not drink anything while on the pills, as doing so would make me very sick indeed.

Was there a hint of Schadenfreude on his face as he said this? Is this my comeuppance for answering "lots" to the question "How much do you drink?" on the form one has to fill in about one's general health?

I stumble, a broken man, from the dentist to the Cock and Lion in Wigmore Street and order a large gin and tonic.

Cider house rules

I have, of course, managed for long periods without alcohol before. When a child, I would only have a medium-sized glass of cider to accompany the fishcakes, fish fingers and peas that was our traditional Saturday lunch. Nothing during the week. For a long time I never actually understood that the drink was alcoholic, and was baffled when there was debate between my parents about whether I should be allowed a top-up if I asked for one.

When I was 14 I would often go for days without my customary Guinness at the local, if the barman who didn't care that I was obviously underage wasn't on duty. At university I was off the sauce for five days - antibiotics, after another unfortunate dose of NSU. (I went through an appallingly unlucky streak of getting this relatively mild, but still painful version of the clap every time I had sex, which wasn't even very often at all. In order to seduce the women when I was there, you had to be a don, or incredibly rich, or incredibly charming and confident, or already a woman, and I was none of these things.)

I was amazed to notice how boorish my friends became after only a couple of pints. When I was drinking with them they were the most splendid and witty chaps imaginable.

And I went a month without booze in 2000 as a condition of saving my marriage after a bout of spectacularly bad behaviour during an epic hen night in Amsterdam to which I was the only man invited. I managed that month much more easily than expected, but God, it was boring.

So, sure, I can do without alcohol. Who needs it? A billion Muslims manage without it all the time. Many of my friends in AA get by without it with only a 12-step programme, the round-the-clock support of their peers and unimaginable reserves of self-control to help them. Life is exciting and glorious enough as it is. Who would want to dull their senses with an artificial paradise?

Anyway, I had a grand valedictory time last night - a bottle of 1997 Pomerol I'd been saving up for an occasion, roast pheasant (it must drive rich people crazy that you can get them for £3.50, about the same price as a Bacon Double Cheeseburger, and rather better for you, and tastier, too) and extremely pleasant company.

Gummy ache

Today I palpate the gums to see if the gingivitis is abating sufficiently for me to be able to duck out of the course. Well, it's not as bad as it was, that's for sure. I had to have mash with the pheasant last night rather than game chips or roasties, because either would have left the inside of my mouth looking as though it had been given a good going-over with a cheese grater.

At least I could sleep. But I can't pretend the gums are tickety-boo right now. It looks as though I'm going to have to man up and go to the chemist. I check the diary to see if I have any really groovy parties in the next five days. I don't. Nor do I have any really ungroovy parties, where stunning oneself with the grape is the only way to cope.

And it's not as if I don't know what to do with myself when sober. I spend every day as sober as a judge until about 6.30pm or so. All I have to do is carry on doing in the evening what I have been doing during the day. I could learn how to play bridge. I'd save about £40. I could reread Ulysses. I may even finish my book. I could . . . God, what the hell do people do in the evenings if they don't drink?


Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban