Monday, June 29, 2009

Things to do in Dublin When You're (Not) Drunk.

I am, I have realised, the walking emodiment of Mr Burn's search for 'something so rare that mankind has searched for it since the dawn of time' - a sober Irishman. As a Celt who used to drink, but now doesn't, I have come to learn that not drinking alcohol places you at a little bit of an angle to things when one is in the Emerald Isle. To spare you the My Booze Hell story, suffice it to say that like almost everyone else I know, I spent most of the Tiger years blowing my new found Pot of Gold on whiskey, before realising that if I continued in this vein, I would end up as one of those tedious boozy gents-of-a-certain-age that one sees propping up bars all over Dublin: The boring old Irish boozer with a twinkle in his eye and a well-worn anecdote or two in his pocket, who will tell you a story about that time he went drinking with Shane McGowan if you'll only buy him a pint.

It was unlikely of course that I or any of my friends would have ended up sitting insensible in a pool of our own wazz at a train station, most of us so-called Tiger Cubs (I know, Im sorry) were from far too decent backgrounds for that ever to happen. It was more likely that like countless millions of talented Irish people before me, I would have ended up having an uneventful, frustrated life of dissipated talents whose central lynchpin was drinking booze. Chances are you have at least two or three friends who have ended up or are on their way towards such a fate. Mercifully for them, nobody in Ireland would be so rude as to stage interventions or hustle them into a van and drive them to rehab - The downward spiral is usually laughed off with a wave of the hand and a sigh: "Ha, ha, he's a legend that one!"

So, having discovered over the past two years what Ireland looks like through the bottom of a 7up glass, I feel its only my duty to scoop up what little urinal cakes of wisdom I have gleaned from the well-piddled on bowl that is the Irish drinking scene: This, if I may presume, is my advice for those considering a booze-less life in Ireland that doesnt involve joining the Moonies or becoming so alienated you feel like climbing the Spire with a sniper Rifle:

(1) Pubs Really Are Incredibly Boring Places:

A sacred cow of a certain sentimental sort of drinker is that pubs are lively places full of anecdote and sparkling conversation, where revolutions are forged, dreams dreamed, poems conceived and novels born. In some way the alchemy of alcohol manages to turn a dingy little room full of people making small talk into a literary salon full of fascinating agile minds. By and large the conversations that people have in pubs are a good deal more boring than the conversations they have elsewhere, due to the volume of other people's conversations, the music, and the fact that alcohol makes you not give a toss about boring the arse off other people.

As a non-drinker, that is what a pub is and for the most part it is to be endured. If possible try and steer things towards pubs that have other things to do in them: A live band, a dance floor, a stripper, a fistfight or a game of darts, are all reasonable ways to keep your mind active while the drunks around you are emptying their minds of whatever uninteresting silt has gathered in them over the week.

(2) House Parties:

Now this is where it's at. House parties actually are fun. Therefore you dont need to alter your brain chemistry with fermented fruit juices in order to enjoy them. Not only do they cost almost nothing, they are usually far closer to the spirit of what the drinking life is supposed to be all about: At house parties you can usually meet and talk to new people very easily, which, despite the propaganda, actually happens quite rarely in pubs/clubs. You can usually dance (to good music) and there is a far better, less posey vibe at most of 'em.

Plus the people at a house party are filtered for your delectation: If its a friend's party, chances are its full of the sort people you'd actually like to meet: Not the random collection of social driftwood that washes up at the doors of whatever nightclub you've ended up in. Plus, at a house party, if you get bored, you can simply pack up and go to another room and talk to somebody else. Try that in a Dublin pub where the 10 square inches of floor space you've conquered to place your feet on has to be guarded like it was Tokyo real-estate.

(3) Fun Things Are Still Fun:

Music, gigs, dancing, festivals and good conversation with interesting people are actually more fun when you don't drink than when you do. Its just that as an Irish person, you've probably spent most of your life not really giving a fuck where you go on Saturday night as long as there's a bar.

Also, it is nice not to have to approach your night as if it was a chemistry experiment, as you are forced to do when you're a drinker: "O.K. Ill have one beer at 8, before the support band, and another at 8:30 before the main band comes on, so Ill have nice little glow on when the first song starts: Then Ill have to go for a whizz at 9:00, have another 2 beers before they finish the set, so that I peak somewhere about the last song, but Im not too drunk to chat up girls at the end, but not too sober either as Id feel self-conscious, which will hopefully give me a window of about two pints to see if there's anything fun happening afterwards, and make sure I dont pass the Magic Pint that gives me a filthy hangover the next day." It is actually kind of liberating not to have to think in those terms.

(4) Things That Aren't Fun Aren't Fun:

One of the magic things about the old electric soup is the way it papers over the cracks between human beings, even if the cracks are of the order of The Marianas Trench. When I was drinking I could probably have sat at a table with Hitler and said "Ah well, 6 million aint so bad, sure we all make mishtakes, ya wannnotherdrink?"

When you don't drink, people that are irritating/boring/objectionable/sexually unattractive/murderous fascist dictators, remain so. You thus have to be far more selective about who you hang out with than you used to. You actually will find it annoying to talk about Rugby for 2 hours with some D4 arse-wipe, whereas before you'd probably have thought "Am n't I a wonderful expansive social chameleon for talking to this guy who's completely different to me. What an interesting experience this is!"

This experience, can, of course lead one screaming back to Auntie Ethanol, as the terrifying realisation dawns that things which one had previously considered the apex of fun, are actually really dull. This of course is all part of the deal, once you've coped with this realisation, you'll probably want to go and find things to do that actually are fun, which will make your life far more interesting. This phenomenon has it's reverse side, too, of course. Ask any of your friends who are betrothed to the booze why they do it and they'll probably answer "Cause there's fuck all else to do in Ireland!". And then notice that when they go abroad they do exactly the same amount of drinking. One of the major effects of drinking too much is to make you think that drinking too much is the only way to have fun.

Remember too, that drinkers will tend to use what I call the Keith Richards Defence: The idea that there is some essential connection between alcohol and youth, fun, freedom, sex, music, socialising and having a good time. That if you give it up, you necessarily have to become a bit of a Ned Flanders. This couldnt be further from the truth: The only sense in which not drinking makes you a Neddie, is in the sense that you dont drink.

All the other stuff remains unchanged, except that you enjoy it more. How many drunken one night stands do you actually enjoy (or even remember) ? How many hundreds of times have you had a drunken heart-to-heart with somebody, that you thought was an epiphany, only to wake up the next day and think "Oh Jesus, what was I saying.." Have you noticed alcohol ever make a non-fun person fun? Its effect is mostly the opposite: It generally takes fun talkative people, and in the course of a few hours reduces them to sitting subdued staring into their glass or prattling on in a loud voice about nothing.

That it makes people more open and sociable is also a myth: I have watched numerous drunks and always see how at the beginning of a night, social interaction proceeds as normal. Once people pass The Magic Pint , no meaningful social interaction takes place: People talk, but dont listen, and eye contact often dissipates: It is as if by creating a soft cushion around each drinker that reduces social anxiety, past a certain point it becomes a suit of armour: Everybody is oblivious to everyone else, even though each thinks they are relating more deeply than they normally do. Its a very odd illusion.

Yet it is a pervasive one. Imagine we lived in a country that beleived that looking at porn and having sex were intimately connected: One in which most people looked at porn before, during and after the real thing, and it was widely beleived that looking at porn made people better in bed, and that people who dont look at porn are probably sexually frigid. Yet as most of us know, the guy with the massive stash of scruffy mags under his bed is in fact usually the least likely guy to be a sexual dynamo. He is more likely to be a jizz-spattered, hollow-eyed virgin who never leaves the house. We all know that looking at eyefuls of porn is probably more likely to diminish your interest in sex with real people than enhance it.

The same is to a certain extent true of Alcohol: In Ireland we tell ourselves that a chemical subsitute for a good time, is a necessary component of having a good time. When actually it's really a fairly grotty little tranquiliser - good for mashing up your brains when you're a feudal peasant who works the land from dawn till dusk, useful for easing the aches, pains and boredom of old age, but not something that engenders youth , vigour and energy. Yet amazingly, we've somehow got it into our heads, that it is the very bottled essence of same. In reality - it is only because young people are so full of vigour and energy anyway, that they can afford to quash it by drinking booze.

Of course I realise, that for uttering the above words, I have resigned myself to the ranks of the terminally uncool. I sound like a bitter old man. A Fun-Black-Hole. Or worse - like John Fucking Waters. Which is of course a fair accusation, to which the only answer I can supply is this:

Think of Valium - The original Mother's Little Helper, a relaxant drug first used in the 60s for panic attacks, anxiety and depression. Most of us associate Valium with highly neurotic people, uptight housewives and people in Woody Allen movies. It has a reputation as something of a dull, bourgeois person's drug, a sort of Soma for the uptight hard-working professional.

Imagine somebody asked you "You dont take Valium? Jesus, you must be so stressed out!" - you would rightly laugh at them, thinking, "there's no necessary connection between Valium and relaxation, unless you happen to be massively neurotic in the first place" We have this clear-eyed attitude to Valium, because it is a niche drug, one used by a small percentage of the population and so we are not blind to it's effects. Alcohol, by contrast is used by everyone and his auntie - and thus it is difficult to see it with the same clarity as a drug on the sidelines. We have built up fairly ridiculous notions about what it's affects really are.

This is the major reason that those DrinkAware ad campaigns are so bad: They all show ordinary, hard-working, decent citizens who are not amused by your irrational, unpredictable drunken antics and are sniffing at you: "Ive Had Enough." - One is a nurse, another is a shop-steward who has to mop up your barfed-up Guinness, the other an old man who's trying to enjoy a nice nap and is being woken up by the sound of you being young, and having fun, which he hasn't done since 1972.

I promised myself when I finished my arts degree that I would never use the word 'paradigm' again, but here goes anyways: The DrinkAware campaign feeds directly into the paradigm of "Drinkers: Fun, irrational, creative, rock'n'roll etc." vs "Non Drinkers: Boring working stiffs with rods up their asses who never cut loose." The campaign is thus feeding directly into the whole idea that life without drink is life without fun: It is literally screaming at you from the ad-hoardings: "Get out there and have a drink before The Man gets his hook in you and you end up living alone and writing letters to the Irish Times that begin 'A Chara, I was shocked and appalled.."

We often hear it touted as a result that we need to adopt a more 'continental' attitude towards drinking, and you can actually hear the collective sigh that goes through Irish people when this is proffered: "Oh god, drinking little snifters of weak beer in tapas bars, and having to endure 4 hour meals with only a glass and a half of wine for comfort. Sounds like a barrell of laughs. - Sure aren't all those Continentals a bunch of dry shites anyway, and sure isn't getting arseholed part of our culture?" (Cue anecdote involving Brendan Behan/Paddy Kavanagh et al getting lamped in McDaids back in the day).

Suggesting 'Continental' drinking as the solution feeds into the, ahem, paradigm, as well: It feels a bit like your ma scolding you by saying "Now why can't you be more like your sister, she never sets fire to her toys with lighter fluid and a magnifying glass, now does she?". Plus it reeks of a sort of Middle-Class Missionaryism - you feel as if the same people would offer organ recitals and watercolour classes as a cure for inner-city smack addiction.

So what, as they used to say, Is To Be Done? Well it would be nice, of course, if Irish people did drink a bit more like Continentals, but as Irish people, we are generally gonna turn round and tell you to get fucked if you ever tell us there is anything we ought to be doing - a legacy of 400 years of being told what to do, some might say. Here for what they are worth would be my suggestions:

(1) Remove all the stupid new laws that make alcohol worth it's weight in gold after 10 o clock. Making things illicit and officially frowned-upon is a sure-fire way to make them attractive to human beings. If those humans are shirty, rebellious fuckers like the Irish, this is doubly true.

(2) Free Swimming Pools/Saunas/Gyms for all: The people who use the poor weather as an excuse for Irish drinking do actually have a point: There are only a few things in life that give you that "Aaaahh.." feeling of physical release that the first pint does so well: The knot in your belly loosens, the shoulders relax: Sex, exercise, basking in the sunshine and for some deeply Amniotic reason, swimming in a pool seems to have the same effect.

Well, obviously the sunshine isn't something we can guarantee, but taking access to these simple pleasures to people who cant afford a yearly subscription to some poncy gaff like Westwood would be a good step in the right direction.

(3) Encourage an attitude to alcohol that is not more 'sensible' and 'responsible' and other boring sounding words: But one that simply sees alcohol as one option among many: Not the central Alpha and Omega of life that many Irish see it as now.

What needs to be done is not to make drinking booze in huge quantities seem dark and dangerous (thus increasing it's attractiveness) , or inconvenient and messy (making it seem Rock'N'Roll), but make it seem boring and unsexy - a tedious, predictable downer drug, that makes people drool on themselves, bore their friends and fail to perform in the sack. Ads that try and make drinking booze seem pathetic and life-destroying will fail too - for most people that's not their experience of it, so they write such ads off as scare-mongering.

Perhaps an ad which, instead of showing some tragic hollow-eyed wasted teen, struggling to stay aloft on her high heels, or a vicious drunken bastard beating hell out of his wife, show some real, terrifying footage of a middle-class dullard pontificating about house prices to an audience of ordinary ugly people, who aren't listening to him. Then show a fat secretary making horrible cringeworthy sexual advances on a pimply office boy at a Christmas party. Anything, just make sure it's DULL.

Cause that, ultimately is the thing - Booze is not Baudelaire jacking himself up on Absinthe and pouring forth with Les Fleurs Du Mal, it's not Tom Waits howling at the moon or Hemingway wrestling bears. It is basically a fairly low-grade sedative that slows down your brain and makes tedious things seem endlessly fascinating. It does not allow you an entry pass into worlds of imagination and creativity that would otherwise be barred to you. In fact, a casual glance around my local pub would reveal at least a dozen would-be writers, musicians and artists that haven't created jack in years, due to being more interested in talking about creativity down the pub, than in actually staying up till 3 in the morning making something.


  1. Hilarious post and excellent points raised

  2. Wow, that is unreal. I'm sort of grappling with my 'sober' status, even though I've been sober for nearly two years. Stuff like this really strengthens my resolve, and solidifies my arguments (though it pains me to have to make arguments about NOT doing something to begin with). I'd love to read more on the subject, have you penned anything else in the meantime?