In a recent poll of people's New Year resolutions, a mere 3 per cent of those questioned planned to limit their alcohol intake in 2005. I find this extremely hard to believe. In my experience, January has become the new Lent, and everyone is off chocolate, fags and certainly booze. The actual, official period of Lent is a bit too long to go without. Plus it clashes with the start of the Easter holidays, when you want to be having a few drinks. January, on the other hand, coming as it does after the excesses of December, is the perfect opportunity to give your liver a break and kid yourself that you are displaying terrific self-discipline at the same time. That we like to call this brief abstinence "detoxing" doesn't disguise the real motivation, which is a mixture of self-disgust and mild panic that we may never shake off the cold/headache/kidney pain we have been experiencing since the Christmas decorations went up.
The trouble with January being the recognised off-booze month is that it has turned Christmas and New Year into a legitimate binge opportunity. It's assumed that you'll overdo it a bit during the festive season, but if you are planning to Say No for an entire four-week period afterwards, then you deserve to behave as if this were your last chance to drink on earth. "I'm giving up in January!" you cry, every time you reach for the sloe gin. "Shan't be having this for a while, so better enjoy it now!"
Common sense tells us that we'd be better off reducing our intake, and now there is scientific proof. A study has contrasted a group of Northern Irish people who abstained from alcohol during the week and drank an average amount at weekends with a group of steady, daily drinkers. It concluded that the steady drinkers were healthier. But accepting the law of moderation would mean kissing goodbye the yo-yo drinking habit that has become the norm for so many of us. We are used to the rhythm of blind excess followed by purge.
And the purge part is weirdly fascinating. The first ten days or so are pure recovery, so you're really only talking about two weeks of conscious self-denial. Typically, in those weeks, you discover the benefits of being compos mentis before 11.30am, the wisdom of avoiding situations that are likely to be challenging, or dull, and the merits of cranberry juice. You also start buying food you wouldn't normally indulge in, clearing out cupboards that haven't been touched in years and compiling a mental checklist of people you realise you can tolerate only when under the influence. Days seem longer, small talk becomes a struggle, reading in bed is a lot more effective and finding your clothes in the morning becomes much easier. And, by giving up in January, you are entitled to the big comeback in February, so the last few days of the month are pretty exciting.