Oddly, around this time of year I increasingly feel like I’m Publican Enemy Number One. It’s weird, because after 11 months of championing good beer and good pubs as much as I can, both in a professional and personal capacity, come January it’s like I’ve suddenly joined ranks with the neo-prohibitionist zealots, the supermarket price promoters and HMRC.
My sin is as simple as it is shocking: every January, I stop drinking for a month.
To an extent, I understand why publicans get upset about the whole concept of ‘Dry January’ and the increasing hype around doing a ‘Dryathlon’ — of course I do. When I first started taking January off about a dozen years ago, it was a very personal thing. It didn’t attract much comment one way or the other from friends and acquaintances, and none of my local pubs did much more than raise an eyebrow when I ordered lime and soda instead of beer.
Since then of course, it’s become much more of a social phenomenon, and the anti-drink forces have seized upon January guilt as a handy tool to attack our relationship with drink.
I take January off because I drink heavily throughout the rest of the year. It makes sense for me to give my liver a rest, and I feel the benefits. The ease with which I can do it also reassures me that I don’t have too strong a dependency on alcohol, and it recalibrates my consumption back down to more sensible levels.
But the average punter doesn’t drink as much as I do. Most people only visit the pub once or twice a moth on average. When I’m sipping my lime and soda, most people around me are nursing pints. They probably don’t drink every day in a normal week, and although they probably overdid it a little at Christmas, they probably give their livers enough of a rest all year round that means they don’t have to take a break the way I do.
So when a campaign starts via advertising and social media, guilt-tripping everyone into taking a break, leading to tweets and Facebook updates spreading the idea of #Dryathlon faster than a picture of a cat in a washing machine, it’s no longer about an individual’s relationship with their own health and wellbeing, and I can understand why some in the pub industry can see it as an attack on their already beleaguered businesses.
All I would ask is that anyone who is aggrieved by the mass promotion of Dry January directs their ire at campaign groups rather than the individuals talking part.
I’ve been called a hypocrite and a traitor. I’ve received Facebook messages telling me that anyone abstaining for January is responsible for destroying Britain’s pubs.
In many cases, that’s as wrong as it is unreasonable: we heavy drinkers contribute the lion’s share of a pub’s turnover on a year-round basis. To ask us to prioritise your profits over our health is a bit rude, not to mention ungrateful.
Last weekend one beer blogger took to Twitter to ask his readers to support his own Dryathlon. Some did. Others responded with insults and vitriolic abuse. The blogger was asking for sponsorship to support cancer research because cancer has affected him deeply. To be told to **** off for doing this, and for doing something for his own health, by an industry he spends the rest of his life championing, makes that industry look very unpleasant indeed.
The part that makes me most angry is that we tirelessly promote pubs as being so much more than mere drink shops. Then, as soon as some regular customers take a break from booze, we act as if pubs will be dead by the time we break our New Year’s resolutions.
The saddest aspect of my Dry January is that in the pub a day or two after New Year (OK, I start late) my pub friends sigh and say, “Well, see you in about a month then.” No, I reply, I’ll still be going out. I still want to have fun. I just don’t want to drink alcohol. I only wish this were easier than it currently is.
This weekend I’m visiting a bar that will be absolutely rammed throughout January. The Redemption Bar in London’s Notting Hill is a temperance gastropub, serving healthy meals and delicious alcohol-free cocktails in an atmosphere that says you can still have fun without intoxication.
I’ll be making notes. If Dry January really is such a threat to you, maybe you should do the same.