I don’t need to go to rehab, I just need cheering up

I emerge from five days without alcohol with a glossy coat, shining eyes and a tail thumping the floor with excitement and good, rude health.

No, I don't. Everything is exactly the same, apart from this: I am a bit grumpier. Or should that be a lot grumpier? Either way, I realise that this is a direct result of watching QI, the popular television series starring Stephen Fry. With a glass in my hand, I'm not bothered by him. Oh, look, I would say, on the rare occasions that I turn the telly on, it's Stephen Fry, the self-pitying man with the monstrous ego who was funny 20 years ago and almost good when he played Jeeves. What's he up to now? Nor am I, in the normal course of events, bothered by one of the guests on the show, Clive Anderson.

I worked out Anderson's shtick the second he first appeared in public life: I get it, he's the completely unfunny comedian. Amazing how he flourishes. (I suppose he's popular with other comedians because they all know that they're funnier than him.) Anaesthetised yet made convivial by Shiraz, I can happily rub along in a world where these people and their jolly friends make huge sums of money by entertaining the unfussy. All I have to do is not turn on the television.

Ill tidings

However, in a world where I have to abrade myself raw against experience without any palliative and turn on the television out of sheer boredom, I find myself getting into a bit of a strop. My daughter, who has a wise head on young shoulders, maintains that QI stands for "quite irritating", but as I lie on the chaise longue in the Hovel, nailed to it, as it were, watching the show, stupefied with exasperation, I begin to wonder whether it should instead be called FI. I even start to find Alan Davies a royal pain the neck - and thinking Alan Davies a pain in the neck is, I gather, a thought crime that can get you a custodial sentence if you have the misfortune to run up against a stern-minded magistrate.

So, television, opiate of the masses, is ruled out. I try Radio 3, opiate of the elite. This is even worse. Although still nominally under the control of the charming Roger Wright, its programming seems now to be almost wholly determined by morons who think that the musical output of Classic FM is a little challenging.

Every time I turn the radio on, I have to snap it off again after a few seconds in disbelief at the easy-listening bilge that's coming out of it. When I was a radio critic, I could have nipped this kind of thing in the bud with a few well-chosen words. Now, one just listens, impotent, aghast.

So the clock ticks on, the evening proceeds at a crawl and deserts of vast eternity spread out before me. Not even smoking helps. As the Guardian columnist Zoe Williams once memorably remarked, smoking without drinking is too dry, just as drinking without smoking is too wet.

I decide to get ill. This really is the way forward. A heavy cold furnishes all the excuse I need to retire to bed and batten down the hatches. I surround myself with books and don't move for four days, except once when I drag my carcass out to see a performance of my great friend Kevin Jackson's vampire rock musical Bite, which is most entertaining and he says he'll buy me a bottle of wine if I mention it in this column. Then it's back to bed.

Mind over matter

Naturally, at the end of this trial, I have to think about my relationship with alcohol. I am clearly dependent on it in some fashion - having bored myself and everyone around me to tears on the subject for the past five days is a bit of a giveaway - but until I start hitting the bottle before 6pm or finishing bottles that aren't very tasty, I am reluctant to call myself an alcoholic, though by all means apply the description to me if it makes you feel better.

The term is, after all, elastic, and unless one stands up at an AA meeting after having hit rock bottom, it tends to conjugate as a verb
construction only in the second and third person. (Auden's lines haunt me: "Is this a milieu where I must/How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!/Snatch from the bottle in my bag/An analeptic swig?")

I was once marched off to the doctor by my wife, who was convinced that I was quite definitely a dipsomaniac. The quack came out with an extraordinary admonition: "Don't stop drinking completely all at once. Your body will go into shock."

Wow, I thought, that's pretty heavy, man. I know now that that advice was complete bollocks. It wasn't the body he should have been worried about. It was the mind.

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 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?