Beyond the Tippling Point

A teetotalers' guide to social drinking

Giving up alcohol can be addictive. It starts in the most innocuous way. You merely want to lose some weight, or perhaps to gain some health, and you decide to stop drinking, just for a week or so. Before you know it, you are hooked on the regular rushes of well-being brought on by abstinence. You are seduced by your improved appearance, or you crave yet another full night's sleep, uninterrupted by the nonspecific anxiety that used to wake you at four in the morning. Above all, there is the novelty of having mental clarity by day. You cannot imagine life without it.

The only trouble is that you remember all too well how irritating you used to find it during your own drinking days when some killjoy said, "Not for me, thanks—I'm on mineral water." Drinkers mind if one among them is not drinking. Like death, drink is a great leveler. Sobriety immediately introduces a hierarchy.

"What you need is an Attitude Adjuster!" a friend of mine was advised when he attended a horseracing event in Ireland. Never was a cocktail more accurately named. Downing one, whose ingredients included gin, vodka, triple sec, and amaretto, he found himself as exhilarated as all the others were by the bitter cold, the meaningless banter, and the longueurs between races. So that your attitude may be adjusted to fall in line with theirs, sometimes other people all but require you to drink. But if you are determined not to, how can you maintain your social acceptability without coming across as smugly sober? How can you avoid being bullied into having "just one"?

As a host you can drink tomato juice while others are drinking bloody marys, or sparkling apple juice while they have champagne. No one will notice if you merely sip from your glass, so that you don't have to get it refilled, which would give the game away. At the table take a glass of wine and just don't drink from it. Fortunately, other people are far more interested in themselves than they are in you, and so long as you raise your glass to your lips from time to time, they will not notice how little you are actually swallowing.

Then there is the business lunch, where consumption of alcohol may be an integral part of the bonding process. When Jonathan, a twenty-eight-year-old who worked in corporate intelligence, turned up for a lunch with some potential clients, they shouted a raucous greeting as he walked toward the table; they were already pouring the champagne. How could he avoid making them feel conscious of a disparity in self-discipline?

Their faces fell momentarily as he refused the champagne. Then Jonathan said, "Listen, guys, I am so hung over from last night I think I might actually be having some sort of mini-stroke at this moment. I'm still seeing double. I don't dare have another drop." It was fine then. Jonathan was an honorary drunk, even if not drunk at that moment, and the revelry went ahead without inhibition.

Of course, the nondrinker has his functions. He can drive everyone else home. He can hold on to the threads of conversations and steer people back toward their punch lines, or anticipate ugly scenes and defuse them.

A useful tip at this point: People who have had more than four glasses of wine will go straight to sleep if you can make them really comfortable. At a country-house party one summer I realized that the judgment of a certain Mrs. X had become distorted. She had been happily and faithfully married for ten years, but her husband had been unable to join the party and now she was heading for the bedroom of the only single man present—the culmination of three days of heavy flirtation. A compulsive flirt, she had done it faute de mieux. He was not even attractive.

"Camilla," I said, blocking her passage, "can we go to your bedroom for a moment? I've got something to tell you that you're going to find so interesting, and you're going to be so flattered and excited. But I can't risk anyone else overhearing."

Distracted from her mission, Camilla staggered into her room. "Just lie on the bed and I'll go and get two glasses of wine," I said. "I'll be back in a moment."

"Hurry up!" she yelled. "Don't keep me in suspense."

A further tip: Should it ever be the case that an alcohol-filled guest, given a few minutes in a fully recumbent position, particularly on her own bed, does not find sleep stealing peacefully over her long before the smugly sober one returns with the promised wine, she can soon be rendered comatose by a long and boring monologue narrated in hypnotic tones.

So all was well that ended well. Later Camilla was so grateful to me that she sent me a bottle of champagne, together with an effusive note. By now I've lost the note, but I still have the champagne.