09 December 2016

The year of giving up

I’ve never been one for New Year’s Resolutions. Anything I’ve given up, I’ve done on the spur of the moment because I wanted to, not according to an arbitrary convention of the calendar. And 2016 was to be no different, yet I’m ending the year having given up three things without meaning to.

The first decision I made was to stop drinking, but at the time I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing. On 22nd August I weighed myself and found that, after a week of beer and ice-cream, I had gained about 5lbs. I’d broken the 15st barrier for the first time, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Having been as thin as a whip for most of my life, I had no sense of self-control when it comes to eating – and I had no desire to take up the sort of diet where you need a calculator to decide what to eat. I felt the easiest way to lose weight was to cut out the crap – including booze. At 180 calories for a pint of lager, I realised a few drinks and a pack of peanuts was the equivalent of eating an extra meal.

So I stopped, and haven’t had a drop since. Moreover, I’ve absolutely no desire to have a drink either, which is quite weird, having been a bit of a beer nerd for most of my adult life. I’ve lost 17lbs so far, and with another 13 or so to go, I can see a time when I’ll have ‘permission’ to slip back onto the sauce. But I don’t want to, and I can’t see a point when I will want to. I genuinely think I’ve moved from being someone who’s not drinking to being someone who’s stopped drinking. I like the clarity it creates in my mind – I don’t have to decide if I’m driving or not, I don’t have to think if I need to get up early. I never have need of the life-saving McDonald’s en route to a day at my desk praying for death or 5.30pm, whichever comes sooner.

This can create some social awkwardness that’s only partially disguised by the excuse of a diet. Mainly because I’ve spent nearly as long as I’ve been not drinking trying to work out why I no longer want to. Because it’s not as if I had a problem. A shared bottle of wine at weekends, rarely going out in the week. I certainly hadn’t had a Moment Of Clarity after waking up in a puddle of my own piss on a golf course at 5am. Surely it couldn’t be just because it made things simple. Surely I’m too old to be indulging in personal development?

Another thing I hadn’t expected to give up this year was supporting the England football team, though at least this time I know the root cause. Until now I’ve been fairly comfortable in my England fandom, despite the less-than-savoury reputation of its fans over the years. I no more felt collective affinity or responsibility for idiots throwing chairs at foreign police than a Muslim should feel for 9/11. I was reclaiming the shirt for a different England – tolerant, multicultural, coolly ironic and nicely understated. Comfortable about its new place in the world and interested in its neighbours.

In the middle of Euro 2016 I watched thousands of England fans in France chanting for Brexit, in between running battles with the police. And when the coup de grace came on June 23rd, it suddenly seemed the wrong side to be on. I could handle being thought of as an England fan, because most foreigners would know it was only a tiny proportion who were idiotically violent. But it was harder to wave away 52% who may not have been as combative, but were definitely as stupid.

And you know how it feels? It feels WONDERFUL! Honestly, if I’d known sooner what a weight off your shoulders it is, I would have tried it years ago. No more nervous anxiety as we labour to a 1-0 win against the Pitcairn Islands, no more agony as we fail in yet another tournament that was, apparently, well within our grasp. The barbs of friendly rivalry from our Celtic neighbours no longer prickle. I’ve freed up so much space in my brain, I might take up learning another language. And losing to Iceland in front of all those neighbours we’d stuck up two fingers at not three days prior? No longer traumatic, but hilarious.

I’ve been wondering whether there is a connection between these two – even though on the surface there seemed none. Clearly, watching football and drinking beer go hand in glove, regardless of the result. And one came before the other, but both came after June 23rd. And it’s this that is the crux of it all, the third giving up. Until June 23rd I naively thought the UK had done pretty well, all in all. Sure the occasional inner-city racial tension could still erupt, but despite the bile being pumped by the tabloid press, we’d absorbed a lot of new people in the usual British way: stoically, adapting to new tongues and newer shops, taking it in our stride, even in places where immigration was a comparatively new phenomenon. We’d share a joke, make an ironic comment, have a beer and get on with it, looking with pity across the channel at France, and the war zones created in the Banlieues by intransigent government and implacable policing. In short, we were coping. We were all right.

Except we weren’t. Suddenly a needle’s width majority became the catalyst for an outpouring of the most depressing attitudes long suppressed. Uncharacteristically bellicose and brutal behaviour became a new normal at frightening speed. And it became clear that this was how it had really been all the time, behind closed doors and net curtains. Petty nastiness was given permission to finally speak its name, to hector dissenters and demand loyalty as the price of participation in public life. Those privileged with the best education were suddenly announcing a cult of anti-intellectualism, the mill owners were smashing up the looms, determined to return us to the feudal poverty of a new Dark Age.

This is why we can’t have nice things. And why I don’t drink. Because there’s nothing left worth toasting.

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