None For the Road
by Stu Hennigan
“Alcohol is a way of life. It’s my way of life. And I aim to keep it.” – The Simpsons Season Eight, Episode Eighteen, Homer Versus the Eighteenth Amendment
I used to love Christmas. What other time of year allows you the license to be pissed at any time of day for a whole month just because some arbitrary bit of cultural groupthink gives you permission to? It’s a boozer’s wet dream. Nothing exceeds like excess, and for the thirty one days of December, year on year, that was the name of my game. The hyper-capitalist meltdown that accompanies it has always disgusted me; but when I was drinking I could let it slide because I was too wrecked to care and my mind was on far more important things, like where my next sesh was coming from. Now I’m dry the whole pantomime does my head in so I’m thankful that as I write this we’re a day and a half into 2024 and the shitshow’s over until next time.
I wish it didn’t have to be this way.
Where I come from, everyone drinks. Alcohol is our sacrament, imbibed for ritual bonding. We use it to cheer our successes, dampen the flames of our failures, celebrate birth, honour our dead. It helps us to relive old times, anticipate adventures to come. With glasses aloft we toast the ghosts of absent friends, invoke curses on bastards and bitches aplenty in the rapturous spirit of shared intoxication. Sounds alright, doesn’t it? And it is. But it’s the same culture that exploded my uncle’s pancreas at thirty, pegged my old man with a heart-attack at the same age, inflicted irreparable damage on other family members and friends at shockingly young ages, not to mention killing a few more. It nearly did for me too.
The first time I got pissed, I was five.
My maternal grandad died when I was a baby but my grandma, full of life and wine, said she was too young to be a widow and got married again a few years later. At the reception I was doing that cheeky little kid thing of asking people for a sip of their drink and the tipsy throng were happy to oblige, giving my lips the tiniest wets of Tetley’s, Carling, Cinzano, Liebfraumilch. All good, until one of my many great uncles, who hadn’t read the script, gave me half a pint of Guinness. I don’t recall drinking it, but I remember my bedroom spinning like I’d spent too long on the roundabout a couple of seconds before I went arse over tit from the top of the attic stairs to the bottom and puked black froth all over the floor when I landed. I can taste the morning’s scum on my tongue, tune into the feeling that He-Man had my head in his hands and was crushing it like an Easter egg. You’d think it’d put you off for drinking for life.
I grew up in the Working Men’s Club. My grandad Paddy was on the committee so he was in most nights. My old man spent a fair bit of time in there too, and we used to go as a family on Saturday afternoons after Padre finished his regular morning overtime. It was always warmth and babble and chat, smoke so thick you could’ve sliced the air like my mam’s chocolate cake. I loved the stale ale smell, the stink of human bodies, Tobacco Road on the jukebox, the coins clanging from the bandit, the cheering when someone dropped the jackpot or knocked a glass off the bar, the click click click of snooker balls and dominoes in the games room. Even when my age was in single figures, it felt like home.
I was fascinated by Paddy’s mates, grizzled, hard-bitten old-timers who seemed to live in the place, blokes with perpetual fags and pints of black and tan with names like Bopper, Capper, Coggy, Old Jock McTavish, Barmy Arthur. I wanted to be just like them, a fully-grown man with whiskers and beer breath and a funny name of my own. By the time I was old enough to buy them a pint half of them were dead, the ones that hadn’t been carried off by liver disease or kidney failure slain by heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer.
I started drinking habitually when I was thirteen, usually in my mate’s bedroom where his liberal parents let us get up to whatever mischief we wanted rather than hang around wasted on the streets. There’s fuck all to do when the nearest city is an hours’ train ride away so teenage boredom is particularly acute, especially for a lad like me who didn’t fit the Kappa, Reebok and CK1 profile of the rave kids who made up most of the local youth. Provincial towns breed an ennui that easily mutates into the sort of angst that can only be cured by getting totally out of your mind.
By seventeen I was drinking every day, sitting up all night quaffing Gaymer’s Olde English, handwriting a miserabilist autobiographical novel instead of doing my A-level homework. I had a part-time job that paid decent money, which I took enormous pleasure in chucking over the bar in the Rose and Crown with my mates every weekend. No one gave a shit about underage drinking then as long as you spent plenty of coin and didn’t cause any bother. Mostly, we behaved; but if half of us weren’t spewing in the canal by midnight the night had been a failure.
Why did I drink? I drank because I was lonely; because I couldn’t sleep; because I was out of step with everything and everyone, especially myself. I drank because all my favourite writers drank, so I was carrying on the tradition of my literary forebearers, wasn’t I? I drank because my favourite bands told me to. Richey Manic was far from abstinent, for one; and as for the Wildhearts……When Jim sang, I woke up this morning and got myself a beer I bitterly resented that I couldn’t do the same.
My first day at Uni in Manchester I got drunk in my room, alone, and stayed like that for the next three years. It was The Only Way I could deal with it. I drank because the city scared me, because I had no idea what the fuck I was doing with my life; I drank so I could be the heart and soul of any party instead of cowering in the corner on my jack; I drank because I was hungover and an eye-opener hit the spot. I drank because people expected me to drink; to kill the guilt I felt for drinking the day before, and the day before that, and all the days before them. Ultimately I drank because I drank, and didn’t know what else to do.
After I graduated I got stuck back at home and lost my twenties to the same boredom that plagued my teens, boredom being a euphemism for serious mental ill health, drug abuse and drinking that nearly killed me more times than I care to admit. Things settled when I met the woman who’s now my wife, moved away, got married, had kids, did all the stupid boring responsible adult shit I swore I’d never do. So I drank to deal with that, the tedium of suburbia, the combat fatigue of parenthood, the stress of being the breadwinner, the unrelenting monotony of life in the “real” world.
Years glugged by. I lost the taste but kept the habit. I fucking hated drinking, but I didn’t stop. It wasn’t that I couldn’t; it was just impossible to imagine a me that didn’t. I’d never known a sober Stu, and neither had anyone else. Who the hell would want to? Certainly not me.
Long story short, just shy of three years back some routine tests showed that there was something slightly off with my red and white blood cells, too big, too small, whatever. My GP said it was common in people who drink a lot, nothing to worry about – yet – but to make sure it was nothing sinister, how would I feel about not drinking for a month then repeating the tests? I said, if you tell me I can’t drink for a month, I won’t. Right, she said. You’re banned.
There was a single Morretti left in the beer fridge – a dedicated one for booze in my garage that my brother-in-law had rescued from a pub he was fitting out -, so I necked it after band practice that night and steeled myself for the task in hand. Not drinking was easy. The hard part was knowing that the follow-up appointment would reveal that the fat end of thirty years of hard-drinking and Class A’s had fucked my internal organs and I only had months to live. I was shitting it. But the results were okay; the cells had got bigger, smaller, whatever it was they needed to do. Could I do another month? I said yes before she’d got the question out and never gave drinking another thought. The third set showed my vitals were functioning perfectly, my blood normal, healthy. It was a miracle. Loaves and fishes. Water into wine. Lazarus reborn, brushing the soil from his grave clothes, coughing the dust from his lungs.
Time to cut your losses, sunshine, thought I. You’ve got away with it.
So here we are.
Never mind Dry January, for me, it’s Dry Life. So it goes. People ask if I miss it. Sure I do. I miss it like a toxic lover, one of those you know you should never have hooked up with but can’t help crawling back to because they give you something no one else can, though your relationship rages like water chucked on a chip pan fire and at least one of you is destined to end up dead or insane. As time goes on it gets easier; I can sit down the pub of an evening, nursing my cranberry and orange with a slice of lime while you sup your ale and tell me about the scrap at the cab rank Saturday night and how you woke up on the kitchen floor with your dog eating kebab meat off your face. Once of a day I’d’ve felt I was missing out. Now, my memory feels a pang, but Rational Brain says, rather you than me. Booze was a false friend to me, the ultimate pharmakon, the cause of, and solution to all life’s problems. It took three decades for the penny to drop; but I’m glad it did.
They say the reformed are the worst puritans of all, but it ain’t the case with me. I don’t begrudge anyone a bevvy, even the folk who drink, like I did, for all the wrong reasons. It’s not for me to tell them to stop; if that’s what they need to do, they’ve got to figure it out for themselves. In the meantime, I’ll buy anyone a pint and enjoy them supping it, like General Sternwood eying Bogart’s brandy in The Big Sleep, sealed with the frosted kiss of glass of glass and Paddy’s favourite toast:
Here’s to temperance, and down with drink.
Stu Hennigan is a writer, poet and musician living and working in the north of England. His book Ghost Signs was shortlisted for Best Non-Fiction at the 2022 Books Are My bag Award and Best Political Book By A Non-Parliamentarian at the Parliamentary Book Awards in February 2023. His short fiction, essays poetry and criticism have also been published by Prospect magazine, 3:AM, Lunate, Massive Overheads, Lune Journal, Broken Sleep Books, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, Visual Verse and Expat Lit.