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In defence of binge drinking

The occasional alcoholic blowout is much to be preferred to steady, everyday drinking

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

Such an ugly word, ‘binge’. Why can’t we talk about ‘spree drinking’ or ‘frolic drinking’ or ‘extravaganza drinking’? But no, it has to be ‘binge drinking’, a term loaded (pre-loaded?) with connotations. Well you can stick your connotations: it’s binge drinking for me every time.

Or rather not every time. That’s the whole point: you don’t binge as a matter of habit, otherwise it’s not a binge. But the other thing you don’t do as a habit — and this is really what I’m getting at — is sit at home with a nicely acceptable Chilean merlot every night, tooting most of the bottle and patting yourself on the Boden-clad back for being totally in control. ‘Respectable drinking’ my arse; that’s just middle-class slang for ‘can’t get through a day without it’. Give me a good old-fashioned binge any day of the week, as long as that week doesn’t roll round more than once every couple of months or so. It’s a much more honest way of conducting your relationship with alcohol. It’s more fun, and it’s safer.

You’ll be relieved to learn, before we go any further, that none of what I’m about to argue will be backed up with statistics. Unless you’re the press officer for the British Medical Association, that is, in which case you’ll be disappointed, because it means you won’t be able to pick me up on my dodgy use of statistics. (Though no doubt your finger is even now twitching towards the keyboard anyway, ready to fire off a letter. At least that’ll stop you wagging it at us for a moment or two.) Instead of evidence I’m going to rely on gut instinct (given the subject, an appropriate phrase). The first thing to say is that binge drinking is nothing more than a pejorative new name for that noble British tradition, the sesh. The blowout. The Olympian bender. We’ve been doing it for centuries, and with any luck we’ll be doing it for centuries to come. Drinking too much is the only thing stopping us from drinking too much.

William Blake had it right: the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. ‘You never know what is enough,’ he continues in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ‘until you know what is more than enough.’ For most of us, however, knowing is only half the story: keeping ourselves properly on track requires periodic reminders. We need sessions in which gin, lager, Guinness, red wine and Southern Comfort (I’m not proud) take us unsteadily to the brink of Hades. Over the edge we peer, and are shown that most terrifying of sights: a middle-aged man sitting comfortably on his sofa of a Wednesday evening, happily onto his second Breaking Bad and third large Rioja of the night. All is good, he tells himself, all is fine. Only his liver, silently raising the white flag another notch or two, knows the real score.

‘Moderation in all things,’ people like that always tell themselves. But they ignore the problem of moderation creep. Today’s snifter is tomorrow’s livener is next year’s bucketful. ‘Little and often’ is another of their favoured phrases. They have no trouble at all sticking to the ‘often’; it’s the ‘little’ that proves tricky. Never mind responsible drinking, it’s responsible thinking you have to concentrate on — and how are you going to do that with a permanently fuzzy brain?

Just in case you’ve been watching too many News at Ten reports, perhaps I should explain what I don’t mean by binge drinking. I have never been shirtless in Kettering town centre at 3 a.m., vomiting into a rubbish bin before falling on top of a comatose woman in a leopard-print minidress who has collapsed holding her eight-inch wedges in one hand and a Smirnoff Ice in the other. (Not that I can recall, anyway.) My binges are rarely planned in advance; alcohol is a very psychological drug, meaning that when you try to get hammered you can’t. Rather I find myself, once in a while, falling joyously and epically into the arms of Bacchus. This can either be on my own or with friends, though only if it’s the latter do I let it happen at home. We’re talking the sort of intake that puts you out of action for most of the next day. The units required for this, of course, differ from person to person, even from year to year — these days, past 40 and sleep-deprived because of parenthood, I can sometimes get drunk just by reading a Jeremy Clarke column.

The benefits are huge. They start late the next day, when you’re back in action but still becalmed, enjoying that wonderful lobotomised feeling that insulates you from the worries of everyday life. Then for a couple of days after that you can’t even look at a bottle of wine, much less drink one. You happily go to the pub with friends and sip a Coke. Watching them poison themselves with booze, you feel virtuous. My benders often seem to happen on Fridays, which means they produce a teetotal weekend. This is particularly satisfying. Being the only non-drinker in a group at any time is good, but when it’s a Saturday or a Sunday you feel like Gandhi.

Then, when you do resume drinking, you’ve always got that faint reminder of just how dangerous alcohol can be, of how much respect it’s due. This helps you maintain your nights off, those weekday evenings when you could be persuaded into a Peroni from the fridge but resist the temptation. Because if you don’t, you’ll turn into the sort of person who drinks every day. And then into the sort who drinks a bit more every day, who responds to hangovers with that euphemistic solution the ‘hair of the dog’. What does that say about you, that you voluntarily want to get bitten by a dog? It says you’re now the type who’s one corporate restructuring away from the meths.

No, stick to the binges. They give you the fun of taking it up to 11, and the incentive to keep it at six the rest of the time. Forget the BMA, listen to your instincts. Binge drinking is the only sensible way to behave.

Mark Mason’s latest book is Move Along, Please: Land’s End to John O’Groats by Local Bus.

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