Booze and Canoes

On the I Care If You Listen website, Hugh Morris has recently written about the classical music industry’s problematic relationship with alcohol. It’s a good, thoughtful piece, covering both the issue of alcoholism among musicians, and also the excluding effects of alcohol culture on those who abstain from drinking.

Although I’m not a practising musician in any real sense, I am a music graduate. And – fun fact! – I’m also a lifelong teetotaller. I don’t mention it much, because it’s an absence, not a thing, and it’s quite boring. But it is undeniably unusual, and the comments from alcohol-free musicians in Morris’s article resonated with me.

The uncertain reactions in the moment you have to reveal to people you don’t drink – jokey pretend outrage, genuine curiosity that veers into intrusiveness, the occasional glimmer of irritation at an assumed moral judgement. I’ve been there. Missing out on invitations to certain gatherings at university where drunkenness was the aim, rather than the side-effect – I know that feeling.

As it happens, I like cosy pubs, and I have no problem being around alcohol, so long as drinkers aren’t riotously loud. In some cases, it clearly helps bring shy people out of their shells, so I’m all for that. But as someone with a lifetime’s experience of navigating an alcohol-soaked culture without partaking, I also understand the difficulties of the abstainer better than most.

Morris points to a lack of research on alcohol and the music industry, and cites one study showing that 90% of musicians drink – a figure he finds ‘astounding’. My first thought was: that’s surely too low. But of course, it isn’t. A decent-sized minority of Britons are always sober, even when there’s a celebration. It’s just that as a non-drinker it’s easy to forget, because you’re frequently made to feel like a unicorn.

I agree with Morris that musical organisations should think through whether they rely too much on alcohol for socialising and outreach, and consider whether non-drinkers might be unintentionally excluded as a result. But, as a concert-goer rather than a performer, I can’t say I’ve felt left out because of alcohol on the live music scene.

What I would say is that there are number of wider societal issues in Britain – I can’t speak for the rest of the world – that make the teetotal social life harder than it ought to be, and which maybe apply to music not much more than they do to anything else.

The often uninspiring and limited choices of soft drinks on a night out is one bugbear, as is the needlessly entrenched division between cafe and pub culture. This was summed up for me on a Saturday afternoon in Peckham last year, when I was told by a barmaid I couldn’t get a coffee. As I stared in confusion at the large Barista machine behind her, she quickly explained ‘that’s not very good, we just use it for Espresso Martinis’. Ok then.

But there’s another phenomenon worth highlighting, one that doesn’t feature so much in media discussions about alcohol culture. Again, this might be a mostly British thing – I’m not sure. While people use alcohol as a social lubricant, what’s more subtly problematic for me is how, even in sober situations, it’s quite common for people to invoke alcohol as a default ice-breaker, to make connections with strangers.

We all know that British people bond by drinking, but it’s more than that – for many of us, we bond over the fact of our drinking. Anyone who’s searched for a half-decent birthday card for an adult in the UK will know what I mean.

For yes, dear reader, it is a truth – not quite universally acknowledged – that a Brit in possession of a new person to connect with must tell them sooner or later that they are in want of a drink. We all love a drink, haha! Reader, let me tell you: I have seen things you wouldn’t believe. Or perhaps you would. I’ve seen a woman in a canoe joke with a man on the river bank about how her vessel was great because there was space to have a drink while you float along (!?). During previous employment, I’ve sat in a conference hall as hundreds of adults fell about laughing when someone answered a motivational speaker’s question about what makes them their best self with a single word: wine. Their hilarity about a completely normal beverage was so extreme as to be vaguely troubling. Was I in a mad house? It was a Local Authority Risk Manager’s conference, so quite possibly I was.

I generalise, of course, and I jest. But I can also sympathise: we try to overcome social awkwardness with humour, in a way that will find common ground. And alcohol is statistically likely to hit that target. For some, I assume, such jokes also help to deflect an underlying anxiety about their alcohol consumption, just as many of us have insecurities about our diets. But I can say from experience that when you’re the metal wire that sends the dart bouncing off, it’s an awkward moment. If someone means well, you don’t really want to reveal that their effort to connect fell clattering to the floor.

Other aspects of British culture reinforce this. A Cardinal sin is taking yourself too seriously – we’d rather elect a smirking clown over someone whose commitment to social justice issues seems gratingly self-righteous – and a shared weakness for a drug suggests easy fun times, in a way that cuts right across our class distinctions. Even if those same distinctions mean it comes about in different forms. Is it too early for wine?

My favourite drinkers – if I can have such a thing – are those who enjoy their alcohol easily and unselfconsciously. Most importantly, they don’t pressure their friends to drink when they want to have an occasional sober night out – it’s perverse, but consistent killjoys like myself get a much easier ride in that moment than the sudden apostate. And they don’t fire a series of disbelieving questions at non-drinkers, to confirm that no, you’ve never been drunk. No, not even once. No, not even at uni.

So it might seem counter-intuitive, but a lifetime of not drinking has led me to the conclusion that British society would have a healthier relationship with alcohol if it were more relaxed about it. Not if we all carelessly slid into alcoholism, you understand, but if we deconstructed the act of drinking as a default social touchstone, and just…enjoy a drink if we want to.

Perhaps we can find other ways to reach out to each other, rather than calling on an assumed love of booze? Perhaps a canoe ride is just pleasant in and of itself. And perhaps that’s worth telling someone you meet along the way.

Read Hugh Morris’s Confronting Classical Music’s Alcohol Problem

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