These days I get to go to the pub about as often as my son decides to have a lie-in (for the non-parents that means virtually never).
It wasn’t always so. I used to have an active social life and regularly enjoyed bars.
Back then the names of beers were easily recognisable – Harp, Stella, Smithwicks.
Now, on the very rare occasion I’m at a pub, I find myself squinting at the logos on the taps and the bottles in the fridge gamely searching for a brand I recognise amid the myriad of brews with strange names such as The Headless Leprechaun or Goat Manure.
My relationship with public houses changed when I essentially gave up alcohol about four years ago. My decision was based on the logic that having a very young son and suffering from hangovers mixed about as well as gin and milky tea.
I felt I needed my full reserves of energy to cope with the incessant demands of looking after a toddler rather than the soft leaky-tyre state of physical exhaustion that drinking the night before inevitably brought.
There were other reasons for deciding to abstain from alcohol. I wanted to become healthier, both in mind and body. I had grown tired of struggling to hold conversations in crowded, noisy bars and then desperately searching for a taxi to take me home at the end of the night (few words are more demoralising to hear after midnight than ‘Nah, I’m booked mate’). I was utterly fed up of pissing in dingy pub toilets, fighting my way back to my table and then realising I needed to go again the moment I sat down.
And, the reason which I seldom mentioned but which was perhaps most profound of all, I simply didn’t much like myself when I’d had a few drinks. All of the worst elements of my personality became magnified – the anecdotes were exaggerated, the comments became more cruel and I had a unhealthy tendency towards dark moments of morose introspection – when under the influence.
It’s probably not overstating the mark to say that most of the actions which I really regret in my life were carried out after alcohol had been taken.
If I had the opportunity to remove such a negative influence from my life, it seemed logical and obvious to take it.
So I made the decision to banish alcohol.
And here’s the thing. It turned out to be much easier than I had anticipated and I found that I didn’t really miss it at all. My wife still enjoyed her glass of wine on a Friday night but I wasn’t struck by the inclination to wrestle the goblet from her hand.
I simply fell out of the habit of drinking, to the point where the action of opening a bottle of beer became as alien and unlikely as sticking a large carrot in my ear.
I never described myself as teetotal and didn’t beat myself up if I decided to have a glass of wine at a wedding or a cold beer on a warm day on holiday. I just found, that for the most part, I didn’t bother.
Naturally I found myself attending fewer social occasions and, when I did, I was always the designated driver. Being in a bar or restaurant when you are sober but surrounded by very drunk people is often humorous but occasionally disconcerting or even threatening. More often it just seemed less bother to stay at home.
And this became my habit. While I have tasted alcohol on a few rare occasions I have not been drunk or in any state close to it for four years.
However, last night I did go to a bar and I drank. The occasion was a catch-up with two former colleagues from my newspaper days. Although none of the three of us work in the daily news market any longer we’ve all loosely stayed in contact and had been trying to organise a get-together for close to a year. Finally we managed to set a date which was mutually convenient.
My original intention had been to drive to the bar and home again at the end of the evening. As I prepared myself I did wonder what my old mates would think about me not drinking. I’ve not been out with them since I’ve been abstemious. Indeed the last occasion I drank with these mates was the very last time I was drunk. A heavy night in their company finally persuaded me to kick the alcohol habit.
I readied myself for some good-natured ribbing but assumed they would be understanding and supportive.
And then fate intervened. Shortly before I was due to depart a nasty traffic accident brought the roads between my house and Belfast to a standstill. I was faced with the unwelcome prospect of being stuck in traffic for a sizeable part of the evening when I should have been catching up with old friends.
So I abandoned the idea and jumped on a train. Ten minutes later I was in Belfast City Centre dandering towards a pub I had never visited before in my life.
I met my friends at the bar. One immediately asked me what beer I wanted. Perhaps I was already a little bit intoxicated by the pleasure of seeing former colleagues so I just went along with it. I asked him to select an ale for me and was quickly given a dark bottle which contained liquid which looked like goat’s piss and tasted and smelled quite foul.
However, I stuck with it and soon we retired to a table in the corner and were blowing the dust off some of our favourite insults about each other. By the second or third bottle the goat’s piss had started to taste a little better. It was clear my mates were drinking a lot faster than I was but they didn’t say anything when I sat out a couple of the rounds.
Having not drank seriously in several years my resistance to alcohol was severely diminished. Soon it was a case of, as I think Wilde put it, alcohol, being taken in sufficient quantities, producing all the effects of being rightly pissed.
My head began to swim pleasantly. However, I was wary because I know it’s a small leap from there to spending the evening with your head down the toilet. I slowed down.
And the three of us fell into a routine of drunken banter. Most of this was built around anecdotes from the period we worked together in newspapers (‘d’ye remember the time when….’)
Frequent parts of the conversations were hilarious. But it was, I think, laced with a trace of poignancy. Poignancy borne of the fact that the common experience that had bound us all together is now gone, that in a very narrow sense our professional lives are not as interesting or fun as they once were. We’re all in different places now. In the end it became like that Bruce Springsteen song where the characters all sit around talking about how great things used to be.
It was my first drunken conversation in a long time but it was just like all the rest, looking backwards rather than forwards.
And then it was over. Except it wasn’t.
I had left myself plenty of time to walk back to Great Victoria Street station to catch the last bus home to Hillsborough. But one of my friends was travelling in the same direction and floated the idea of a last pint in The Crown. I was pleasingly drunk at this point and idiotically agreed.
We supped the pints and talked nonsense agreeably until my mate looked at his watch and we concurred that the position of the hands proved beyond reasonable doubt that I had missed my bus. This meant I had to wait forty minutes to get the last train to Lisburn.
Eventually it arrived and was full to capacity. I had to stand the whole way while a group of drunken women on their way home from a night out danced, tripped over each other, laughed and sang chart songs.
When I reached Lisburn I tried to phone several taxi companies but was met each time with a voice of exasperated amazement that I would be so foolish as to expect that a taxi may be available.
Eventually I conceded that I would have to walk. It is probably about four miles from Lisburn train station to my house. When I reached the outskirts of Lisburn it began to rain. Heavily.
As I got to the countryside a couple of times I had to disappear into a darkened field to relieve myself. I trod miserably and wet along a lengthy stretch of the A1 where there are no streetlights and it was so dark I could not see where I was placing my front foot.
At some point after 2 am I reached my house and collapsed, exhausted into bed. I was very sober by now.
When I woke this morning, my feet still aching, I checked my phone. I had a message from one of my mates.
‘Great night lads. Let’s do it again soon 👍‘