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2 February 2022

I’m not drinking and I can’t sleep. I wonder: am I living my best life?

This question prodded an existential nerve for two sober nights in a row, and I didn't like the answers that much.

By Nicholas Lezard

Once again, I am going through a period when, after a series of increasingly late nights, I have lost all sense of time. This can happen to the person who does not have to go to an office. My technique is to go round the whole clock until you are once again on normal social time, but it is not a fail-safe one. Bedtime at 11 last night resulted in insomnia from 1.10am to about 6am, during which I had plenty of time to examine the dark reaches of the soul.

Normally I leave my unconscious to do this while I’m sleeping, but as it wasn’t available I had to do the job myself. I also had plenty of time to wonder if my two-day no-alcohol regime had anything to do with this state of affairs. The reason I wasn’t drinking wasn’t because of illness, or any desire for healthiness: it was simply and straightforwardly because I couldn’t be bothered to go out and get any. If that’s not proof I’m not an alcoholic, I don’t know what is. Either that, or I am an alcoholic, but one who has an even greater problem with bone idleness.

One of the things that gets me through the night is going to the kitchen and making snacks – which means putting on the radio, which at that time of night means either Radio 3’s Through the Night or the World Service. The other night I chose the latter, largely because I wanted to know whether Ukraine had been turned into a heap of radioactive ash. I like to time these kitchen visits and news catch-ups with the headlines. Instead, on or around the hour at 2am, 3am, 4am and 5am, I heard the same vox pop from Kyiv, in which the general mood seemed to be one of what you might call modified bravery, in which people are a bit wary but not letting it stop them from going about their normal business.

“We’re living our best life,” said the same interviewee at 2.03, 3.03, 4.03 and 5.03. Each reiteration of this clip prodded an existential nerve in me. Am I, I wondered, living my best life? With my new, boozeless mental clarity, I did not like all the answers that much.

In one sense, yes. I remember, when I was younger, being struck how the only furniture Ludwig Wittgenstein would have in his rooms at Cambridge was a deckchair. (I’m assuming a desk, a desk chair and a bed as well. But who knows?) I was impressed by the austerity, and when I moved into the Hove-l, that was the only extraneous item of furniture, apart from one of those cabinet-bookcases that go in a corner. The deckchair was a gift from my friend S—, who lives round the corner: its fabric is a reproduction of the old Penguin cover for Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Perfect, I thought.

I have not sat in it once. Instead, it has served mainly as a sort of wardrobe, with jackets hanging off the back of it and a problematic mixture of clean and unwashed laundry on the seat. As I look behind me to check it out, I also see an empty wine bottle on it. This is not my friend S—’s fault. So in a way my deckchair is even more austere than Ludwig W’s: I bet even he had a nice sit-down in it from time to time, like some depraved Roman emperor.

What else is good? Major compensations right now are that my freezing kitchen means I have, essentially, a walk-in fridge, the way some people have a walk-in wardrobe, so that perishable items can sit en plein air for ease of access. And that, living alone, I can fart with impunity not only when I must, but at will. (I am reminded of the superb paragraph on the subject in Beckett’s Molloy, which ends with “Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it.” The whole book is worth it just for that bit.) The last time I was in a relationship, I remember not only the good times, but an awful lot of self-restraint, almost monkish in its intensity. This also applies to other, politer eructations.

During my first alcohol-free night, I passed the time in bed by eating almost half a box of Curiously Cinnamon, the breakfast cereal previously known as Cinnamon Grahams. Is this also living one’s best life? I have discovered there is no ideal cereal to eat in bed. Bran Flakes and Special K are right out: the crumbs go everywhere. Curiously Cinnamon, I have observed, maintains its integrity but leaves a sticky, powdery residue on one’s fingers, which becomes tiresome after a while. One either has to suck the flavouring off one’s fingers or go to the bathroom to wash them, as even I draw the line at wiping my fingers on my sheets. So the jury is out on Curiously Cinnamon (which is delicious, though).

But I think I have done with the whole no-drinking thing. I am pleased that I did not start climbing the walls or getting the shakes, and particularly that I didn’t think “sod this for a game of soldiers” and go to the all-night shop round the corner. But spending the dark, still watches of the night contemplating my life while sober for two nights in a row is quite enough, thank you.

[See also: As I walk from Brighton into Hove I seem to pass through an invisible portal]

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This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under