I drank beer for the first time in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and it was rather good. I was staying at the only hotel in Pyongyang which took tourists and there wasn't much else to do. Every night, members of my tour group would gather in the hotel bar and chew over that day's government-sanctioned sightseeing.
There was no wine, and while there was a surprisingly well-stocked selection of single malts (that particular Scottish export clearly has nothing to worry about), a single or double dram would have been prohibitively expensive. So beer it was. I forget the brand or its name, but it was North Korean. I knew no better, but my travelling companions assured me it was good.
I'd never been a beer drinker. At university (and thereafter) I'd stuck to spirits, mainly whisky, gin and white wine. I'd say I was a moderate drinker. I drank socially but rarely at home. I bought wine to take to parties, not to store in a cupboard or fridge. I was glad I didn't drink beer because I saw what it did (or what I assumed it did) to my male contemporaries' bellies.
This, of course, was when I was a hard-up freelancer. Most of the booze I had was free and provided at political events and parliamentary receptions. And I was grateful for it. Drinking, naturally, rises steadily with socioeconomic status, something confirmed by a plethora of academic surveys. Contrary to stereotypes, unskilled workers on low pay are less likely to drink as frequently and heavily as professionals.
And as a somewhat reluctant recruit to the middle, professional classes, I've recently been coming to terms with my own drinking habits. I first noticed something was up (or rather my then flatmate did) a couple of years ago. I was, in retrospect, belatedly processing a lot of flak (digital and otherwise) that had come my way during a decade of freelance journalism. I found it hard to talk about it through a not entirely unjustified fear that no-one would take it seriously. I was easily putting away a bottle of wine every evening. This was never enough to make me hungover in the morning, though it didn't exactly make me feel bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I periodically woke up at around 6am and got into the habit of taking a couple of Ibuprofen before going back to sleep. A sort of pre-emptive strike against any morning grogginess.
My brother's partner gently pointed out that I was probably imbibing the recommended 14 units of alcohol in the space of two evenings rather than over a week. I took corrective action and, fortunately, was sufficiently self-disciplined (when necessary) for that not to have been too difficult. I didn't stop drinking completely (shudder), but I did limit myself to a couple of glasses a night. Still slightly too much, but a huge improvement on previous consumption.
Paradoxically, lockdown 1.0 was beneficial in this respect. I started ordering gin, Campari and vermouth online to make my own Negronis. I had only one an evening, perhaps a second once every other week. I lost a lot of weight and felt immeasurably better. I was happier too, the pandemic having put my post-journalistic anxiety into useful perspective.
My new regime ticked over quite steadily until last autumn, by which point I'd moved into a new flat in Peckham. This kept me busy for several months, but once I'd settled in, bad habits loomed back into view. I'd convinced myself that I couldn't gain weight through drinking liquid, which of course was nonsense. By Christmas, I was consuming close to a bottle an evening or the equivalent. Mixing became the norm. A transition was underway between enjoyment and dependency.
I could blame lockdown 2.0 and 3.0 for this, and they certainly didn't help – too many solitary evenings at home and little else to do. At the beginning of this year, I noticed advertising for alcohol-free gin and wondered if this was a canny commercial response to lockdown alcoholism. Surplus disposable income also facilitated the transition. With a couple of clicks and various spurious discounts, I could have a box of 12 bottles delivered to my front door within 48 hours.
One week, I mistakenly ordered a bottle of dealcoholised white wine, a third of which remains undrunk. This did not seem to me the way forward. I also heard a chatty radio feature on BBC Radio 4 – a medium which must have a decent number of middle-class drinkers tuning in – about how to cut down. Listeners had suggested all sorts of wheezes including gins and tonic without the gin, watering down with soda water and breaking up glasses of wine with tumblers of water.
Whatever gets you through the night. Happily, for the past few weeks I've managed to restrict myself to two small glasses of 'table' wine an evening; I even take care to have exactly 125ml for each. I'm more au fait with precisely what one 'unit' of alcohol actually means, something I'd never engaged with before. I also make a point of never drinking anything before 9pm, and I've switched to red instead of white – better for one's weight.
Don't get me wrong, this diary is not meant to be an alcoholic's confessional, but if I'm being honest, I probably wasn't a million miles away from becoming one. It remains a work in progress, but viewed as a challenge it becomes almost fun in a Mary Poppins
-like way. I'm still working up to having one alcohol-free evening a week. This, I needn't warn you, might not happen.
David Torrance is
an author and contemporary historian