Thirty Years of Temperance – some reflections September 2016

This is somewhat autobiographical, as are several of my essays, and I will begin with personal experiences. I last knowingly drank alcohol sometime in September 1986. The precise date does not matter remotely, but, for the record, I know that I was temperance on 13th September, when I attended a party and wondered whether I had made a sensible or sustainable move. Events late in August had made the possibility of heavy alcohol consumption quite likely, but I seem to have decided otherwise. I have definitely now lived for 30 years without personal consumption of alcohol.

Terms often vary in meaning, have changed their meanings over time, and may well evoke different responses in those who encounter and/or use them. My explorations into the meanings of words, with significant political implications, has centred round the work of the late Raymond Williams, whose Keywords was first published 40 years ago. “Temperance” is very much one of those words: its meaning had roots in religion, where it was seen as a virtue, but when the temperance movement emerged in the nineteenth century, it was seen very much as an organised means of eliminating the consumption of alcohol. Merely to discourage or moderate alcohol consumption was seen as a very limited aim.

The meaning of temperance originally referred to the idea of moderation, limiting one’s pleasures, taking these modestly. It is related to self-control and limitations, the opposite of excess and gluttony.

In principle, moderation could mean exercising self-control so that excessive alcohol consumption would not happen; however, I should make it clear that in this essay, “temperance”, “teetotal” and similar phrases mean total and permanent refrain from any alcohol consumption. The temperance movement focused upon alcohol consumption, and pressed, not for moderation, but for total abolition. To be temperance was to be “teetotal”, although there were variations – even some “teetotallers” would be against spirits, but not other beverages like beer or wine. It was a complex movement, that had varied political tendencies. Some employers favoured temperance in order to control workers, reduce wages, and limit alcohol’s effects on their productivity and reliability. Temperance formed a significant element in in early social movements that sought working-class advance, against the alcohol trade (the “beerage”, as it was known in Victorian England) that would encourage workers into drunkenness in place of opposition or insubordination, and inculcate personal poverty and alcohol dependence in place of political activism and social advance. Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, early Labour M.P.s, had been temperance activists. Reformers closer to the political centre sought to abolish alcohol consumption alongside policies to improve health, living conditions and education, generally with a view to the more successful working of capitalism along with the amelioration of individual suffering.

Religious organisations have generally sought to promote temperance as a personal virtue, but, in relation to alcohol, more usually as keeping pleasures within sensible limits rather than total abstinence. Some religions do regard total abstinence as essential qualities for adherents: thee include some parts of Islam, the Salvation Army, Mormons, Jains, and Sikhs. Others include many abstainers, such as Quakers, Methodists and Pentecostals. My mother’s religion, Roman Catholicism, by contrast, includes the drinking of wine by the congregation at every Mass, although there are RC teetotallers! Here the aim is less to remove the influence of alcohol on personal well-being, to improve productivity and loyalty, or to abolish an obstacle to collective social advance. Temperance is seen as one of several features of life, mostly relating to pleasure, that must be limited or prohibited if individual adherents are to abide by the rules of the religion. Cynically, one could suggest that to control members’ lives is to bind them more closely to the will of the religious body, promoting or heightening loyalty. To limit alcohol is seen to tighten inhibitions and to limit the temptation to sinful behaviour. Self-control and self-discipline can be seen as virtues in themselves. The effects upon others of behaviour under alcoholic influence can be severe, and religions that insist on abstinence may rightly feel themselves, in this respect at least, to be reducing the sum total of human unhappiness.

Outside direct political and religious aims, temperance can be seen, in a secular sense, as a valuable component of a healthy life. Excess alcohol consumption, to the extreme dependency of alcoholism, can clearly be damaging to health. Life expectancy data is less helpful here, since many people who are now temperance were alcohol-dependent in their previous life (and only total abstinence has, hopefully for good, suppressed that dependence and its consequences). Some studies have suggested that regular wine consumption may increase life expectancy (part of the “Mediterranean diet”), or that occasional binges do not always cause any ill-effects in selected numbers of (usually) generally healthy people. The promotion of individual health may involve temperance in the sense of moderation, applied to other concerns such as general diet, exercise, or psychological stances such as “positive psychology”. I may have to be excused for sometimes feeling a whiff of totalitarianism about the latter – but this must be left to another essay.

Across these sketches of political, religious and health involvements may be set a contrast between those who advocate abstinence for everyone, and the view that this is a personal choice for individuals. My own feeling is that this is a very much a personal choice, and, while I cannot feel that alcohol consumption is something that should be promoted, I would be very concerned about attempts to ban alcohol consumption. If nothing else, there are varied motives behind the promotion of temperance, and I would dissociate myself from those who would seek to exercise control over people in the name of their religion or various political persuasions, or some secular ideal of the healthy person with maximised “well-being”. That said, there are clearly contexts in which bans are appropriate – during my lifetime, drunk driving has shifted from something routine to something socially unacceptable. I do not, and probably never will again, consume alcohol, but I appreciate that many people derive pleasure from their consumption, and would feel deprived and unhappy without alcohol.

I do not disapprove of consumption by others, and remain embarrassed by an encounter that took place earlier this year. I was meeting up for dinner with a couple who had known me and my late first wife, and whom I had not seen for a decade. Once we sat down, they produced a bottle of wine for us to drink, but I quickly said “Sorry, I’m temperance”. At which the bottle was swiftly removed and put away, and my friends refrained from alcohol all evening! I should have pointed out that this was merely that I did not drink, not that I disapproved, and I should have insisted that they consume the wine over dinner.

So, why did I cease to drink alcohol 30 years ago? There was certainly no religious influence, and, in this case, no political motive. I can only confess to more mundane reasons. One was a vague concern that perhaps alcohol was not good for my health, and that I should try to manage without it, even when I had extremely bad news. Even more trivial was my feeling that I should try to see how long I could last out without alcohol. My first wife had told me that she had once attended a talk in which the speaker asserted that if you could go without meat for a month, you could go without it for good. She had tried this, in a vain attempt to secure her health, but she said that when she tried meat again after a time, she found it an odd experience. I thought that this process could be applied to alcohol. I had grown in a household in which alcohol played very little part, although there were ancestors who had suffered considerable personal problems through excessive (and rarely controlled) alcohol consumption. I myself did drink fair amounts in bursts, sometimes to excess, with consequent digestive complaints and headaches. It did have the attraction of reducing inhibitions, especially in company, so much so that I contemplated writing about the “alcoholic construction of reality”. So, to stop for a period was an experiment.

To avoid the proverbial quick visit to the pub was no problem in the first week, as I was busy in the evenings. However, the first social occasion, drinking orange juice at a party, was more testing. I did feel doubtful that I could enjoy such an occasion, and suggested to my wife that I might go home early. However, the party was run by a local drama group (since disbanded), and later in the evening people began to act up in various humorous ways. I found some of this amusing, and some not, but decided to mess around with a rather nonsensical monologue. I began to realise that my audience were much more appreciative than a sober one would have been, and that, being in greater self-control, I found what was genuinely amusing just as amusing as if I had been inebriated.

This made me realise that if one acted slightly drunk, one could get away with all sorts of behaviour that would seem foolish to a sober group. The loss of inhibitions did not need chemical stimulation, but could be self-induced. What made me determined to continue to avoid alcohol, however, was the behaviour of one party-goer. Somewhat older than me, and somewhat under the influence, he grew angry at my behaviour, and stormed out of the house, pointing his finger angrily across the room at me, citing “bloody drunks like you”. I think this gentleman has since departed to the next world, but if I have anyone to thank for my temperance, it was him, and it is a pity that he is unable to read this.

Through his reaction, I had realised that it is possible to get some of what one might seek from alcohol – solace, fun, loss of inhibitions, laughing at absurdity –without drinking it, and get home with a fuller wallet, a less disturbed stomach, and without the headaches or the annoyance that one’s behaviour might have caused. I thought I would carry on until Christmas and then resume alcohol consumption, but shortly afterwards my father died, very suddenly. This put my desire for solace and temporary oblivion very much to the test, and it was perhaps my mother’s murmur that my father had been very pleased to learn that I had given up alcohol, that made this abandonment permanent.

This may read like a testimonial – maybe even a smug one – to my personal virtue in giving up alcohol. Or, perhaps, to the virtues of being temperance from the outset. I have felt myself unusual, but an ONS 2014 survey found that about 20% of UK adults stated that they were abstinent. It indicated that 28% of London adults were teetotal, perhaps reflecting ethnic diversity (70% of those identifying as Asian or Asian British, but 16% of those in the UK classifying as White, were teetotal). I am one of those 16%; beyond those with religious objections, those too ill, recovering alcoholics, or the increasing proportion of younger people who have never drunk, there must be a hardcore, which includes me, who simply do not drink at all, but who did so at one time.

It might be good to be able to report that the transition from alcohol use to temperance was without difficulty, and thus to advocate and encourage others to become temperance. However, my experiences were not all without cost.

I can speak only for my personal experience, but it seems that for young (and not-so-young) middle class white men in Britain, alcohol consumption is an essential component of social life; without it, much leisure activity, especially the less-organised, would falter. The pursuit of excess was part that bravado which pervaded the identity of young men, and probably still does, albeit for educed numbers. It seemed to be part of that identity, and the bonding that it lubricated, that a mark of social success was the ability to pursue excess and yet not succumb fully to it. Being able to hold one’s drink, while counting the amount that has been consumed, was important, almost as a rite of passage to maturity. Someone who succumbed, and became too drunk too quickly, would be accused, through amused calls of “can’t stand the pace”. Stories abounded of the capacities of legendary figures, how many pints of ale (usually) they could consume, with one fellow-drinker referring to “getting the pints down” almost as a ritual standard in “going for a bevvy”. Later in life, in my part of the middle class at any rate, the “pints” might be replaced by more discreet glasses or bottles of wine, and perhaps spirits.

I encountered the problem that to become abstemious was to become isolated from the bravado, the crude glamour, even the argot, of drinking, and what seemed so central to the lives of other young men became less interesting. The bonds forged through mutual inebriation, through common meanings associated with barely controlled excess, and around the spaces and times of consumption, became broken or limited. Much of social life is about performance (something I am seeking to consider, bizarrely, in relation to pleasure boating!), and performance under alcohol is quite different from that without alcohol; for me this involved a certain loss of social confidence, but also restored inhibition. No wonder that gent at my first sober party got annoyed, at what he saw as an excess in which he could not participate. Unfortunately, what can be screamingly funny or daring under alcohol may appear merely foolish when sober, while tales of drunken behaviour are unimpressive to the abstainer. The latter is not (always) censorious or disapproving; like a form of music, say, that you simply do not enjoy, it proves impossible to join in. It is, ironically, difficult to find new kinship with other teetotallers, because that feature is all which most of that very diverse group hold in common. For me, it seemed like the end of one form of social life, a loss of common purpose, bizarre though that might seem to be. Not that drinkers ostracised the sober in my experience; it was merely that, without the lubricant, the engine of social life tended to seize up. Alcohol consumption places you in another country if you cease to imbibe. The massive changes in pubs and licenced premises over the past decade have made these more welcoming for the teetotaller; there is now no problem in asking for tea or lemonade, whereas I recall the faint snickers from bar staff over 20 years ago.

To this change of status can be added the loss of alcohol’s capacity to anaesthetise, to enable a temporary but welcome escape from everyday reality. Thirty years ago, this seemed a major allure, and a reason while solitary consumption could provide much satisfaction. Alcohol has the ability to heighten mood, so that if one is unhappy but seeks to feel happier, it will increase the feeling of happiness; if happiness is not sought, or if one is angry, it can drive despair into further depths or allow mild anger to become uncontrollable rage. If one seeks to escape…it helps to simplify the world, so that the obtaining of the next drink, or some form of excitement, or even the precise route home, takes precedence over the need to think about one’s present position. To remove that ability to escape, to have to attempt to replace this by dedication to single-minded tasks (like writing!), proved an unexpected consequence for me. We live disappointing lives in an indifferent world, and alcohol consumption can coat that truth with the illusion that more is attainable. When people are unhappy, they may seek to “drown their sorrows”, and when they have something to celebrate, they usually seek to heighten the euphoria before, as will happens, its inevitable fall. Alcohol’s promise is that of many drugs, of escape, private or public.

If this was an essay seeking to promote temperance, it would have to be deemed a failure. My experience suggests that to adopt temperance could mean the need to limit one’s social life, to become isolated, and to be unable to escape. Oddly, without any intention on my part, this comes close to the religious motives prompting temperance. These advocate self-control and self-discipline, avoiding excess, as virtues in their own right, albeit ones associated with worship and obedience. This resonates with my experience over the last 30 years, feeling a sense of unsought asceticism, one that can prove difficult to sustain.

I prefer to consider the political reasons for temperance, both in reducing misery and improving welfare, and removing diversions from the pursuit of a more tolerable world. The temperance component of the British labour movement had declined in the 1920s, once it was clear that alcohol consumption was only one of many social problems, although it exacerbated existing problems of poverty and deprivation and severely damaged health. In a better organised world, with poverty and want ended, the stress and fear of living reduced, it would be possible that the part played by alcohol would simply fade to insignificance. The need to escape an intolerable world might be limited (or replaced by better forms of diversion), while the status associated with consumption, might well have diminished. For that reason, although I am personally temperance, I would be cautious to advocate personal abstinence, although I would support anyone who moved in this direction. As the US found in the 1930s, Prohibition would be disastrous, but moves to develop alternative spaces and activities to those dominated by alcohol would be welcome. The reduction of alcohol is no panacea for other social ills, but its reduction might provide some progress, or be the consequence of progress.