Cheeky evenings passed around an old teapot

Drink - Victoria Moore does the John Hopkins test

"So what did you do then?" asked Tom, a new acquaintance, eyes stretched to exaggerate his incredulity. I had suggested that, as students, we hadn't drunk every night, as we do now. Matt, a university friend, and I looked perplexed. An answer was beginning to form in our minds, but it scarcely seemed credible. "We, er, sat around in the evenings and drank tea and coffee," hazarded Matt, chuckling nervously as he glanced at me for support.

Tom snorted in derision, then crowed like a mutant Peter Pan who knows that hot drinks are for boring grown-ups who have forgotten how to fly. "You - drank - tea - and - coffee?" he jeered. It seemed so unlikely that we were forced to weigh in with an economic argument to give ballast to the theory that we had not drunk wine or beer every night. We knew we couldn't have afforded it. But now we can, and the very extent of our incredulity that a cheeky evening could once have been passed around an old teapot only proves how dependent we are on alcohol now.

Indeed, "the Bridget Jones career women are drinking more than ever", warn newspaper headlines. Actually, it's not just the women. In the 18th century, cheap gin was the escapism of choice for the working classes. In the early 21st century, fine wines and bottled beers, champagne, well-made cocktails and branded spirits with mixers are the opiate of the professional classes. How thirsty we are at the end of our long days in the office, and how tired. Sit down to dinner with a barrister and a city banker, both tired to the bone from a permanent schedule of demanding mental work, and watch them drain a bottle of wine so quickly it barely touches the sides of the glass. See, also, how they unwind as they drink. The evening - what, in a sense, may be called their own patch of their lives - cannot take place without the help of alcohol to resurrect their shattered personalities.

It is no exaggeration to say that most of my contemporaries cannot remember the last time they got up in the morning and went to bed at night without a drop of alcohol passing their lips. It's not that they have to drink, mind - if they wanted to go a week without a drink they could quite easily - just that whenever they think of doing so the idea of a drink seems so nice that it seems a shame not to have one.

And alcohol has come to be regarded as panacea not scourge. A touch of the snuffles? Go home and have a stiff hot toddy. Period pains? A glass of red wine and a hot bath will ease them.

Many among the professional classes, their minds taut as a snare drum, bent on a relentless search for answers to the problems in their jobs, cannot sleep without a drink. "Do you drink to escape from worries and troubles?" is one of the famous "Twenty Questions" on the John Hopkins test for alcoholism. Answer yes to just one and there is a "definite warning" that you may be an alcoholic.

Ask any of my friends and they will tell you that drinking too much makes them wake up too early in the morning. Ask any of my friends and they will tell you that often, when they're not going out, they go home alone and have wine with dinner. Ask any of my friends and they will tell you that they always have alcohol in the house, almost always have a bottle of something on the go (if they haven't, it's because they finished it last night). Does drinking cause you to have difficulty sleeping? asks the John Hopkins test. Do you drink alone? Yes to three or more and "you definitely are an alcoholic".

Ask any of my friends and they will argue that their drinking habits don't mean that they're alcoholics, simply that they, in common with the rest of their social strata, like to have a drink after work. They can afford it. After all, they work for it. According to John Hopkins, we're all alcoholics.

But perhaps I'm getting this all out of proportion. I ought to calm down. Give me a drink.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone