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In defence of binge drinking

The occasional alcoholic blowout is much to be preferred to steady, everyday drinking

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

Such an ugly word, ‘binge’. Why can’t we talk about ‘spree drinking’ or ‘frolic drinking’ or ‘extravaganza drinking’? But no, it has to be ‘binge drinking’, a term loaded (pre-loaded?) with connotations. Well you can stick your connotations: it’s binge drinking for me every time.

Or rather not every time. That’s the whole point: you don’t binge as a matter of habit, otherwise it’s not a binge. But the other thing you don’t do as a habit — and this is really what I’m getting at — is sit at home with a nicely acceptable Chilean merlot every night, tooting most of the bottle and patting yourself on the Boden-clad back for being totally in control. ‘Respectable drinking’ my arse; that’s just middle-class slang for ‘can’t get through a day without it’. Give me a good old-fashioned binge any day of the week, as long as that week doesn’t roll round more than once every couple of months or so. It’s a much more honest way of conducting your relationship with alcohol. It’s more fun, and it’s safer.

You’ll be relieved to learn, before we go any further, that none of what I’m about to argue will be backed up with statistics. Unless you’re the press officer for the British Medical Association, that is, in which case you’ll be disappointed, because it means you won’t be able to pick me up on my dodgy use of statistics. (Though no doubt your finger is even now twitching towards the keyboard anyway, ready to fire off a letter. At least that’ll stop you wagging it at us for a moment or two.) Instead of evidence I’m going to rely on gut instinct (given the subject, an appropriate phrase). The first thing to say is that binge drinking is nothing more than a pejorative new name for that noble British tradition, the sesh. The blowout. The Olympian bender. We’ve been doing it for centuries, and with any luck we’ll be doing it for centuries to come. Drinking too much is the only thing stopping us from drinking too much.


William Blake had it right: the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. ‘You never know what is enough,’ he continues in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ‘until you know what is more than enough.’ For most of us, however, knowing is only half the story: keeping ourselves properly on track requires periodic reminders. We need sessions in which gin, lager, Guinness, red wine and Southern Comfort (I’m not proud) take us unsteadily to the brink of Hades. Over the edge we peer, and are shown that most terrifying of sights: a middle-aged man sitting comfortably on his sofa of a Wednesday evening, happily onto his second Breaking Bad and third large Rioja of the night. All is good, he tells himself, all is fine. Only his liver, silently raising the white flag another notch or two, knows the real score.

‘Moderation in all things,’ people like that always tell themselves. But they ignore the problem of moderation creep. Today’s snifter is tomorrow’s livener is next year’s bucketful. ‘Little and often’ is another of their favoured phrases. They have no trouble at all sticking to the ‘often’; it’s the ‘little’ that proves tricky. Never mind responsible drinking, it’s responsible thinking you have to concentrate on — and how are you going to do that with a permanently fuzzy brain?

Just in case you’ve been watching too many News at Ten reports, perhaps I should explain what I don’t mean by binge drinking. I have never been shirtless in Kettering town centre at 3 a.m., vomiting into a rubbish bin before falling on top of a comatose woman in a leopard-print minidress who has collapsed holding her eight-inch wedges in one hand and a Smirnoff Ice in the other. (Not that I can recall, anyway.) My binges are rarely planned in advance; alcohol is a very psychological drug, meaning that when you try to get hammered you can’t. Rather I find myself, once in a while, falling joyously and epically into the arms of Bacchus. This can either be on my own or with friends, though only if it’s the latter do I let it happen at home. We’re talking the sort of intake that puts you out of action for most of the next day. The units required for this, of course, differ from person to person, even from year to year — these days, past 40 and sleep-deprived because of parenthood, I can sometimes get drunk just by reading a Jeremy Clarke column.

The benefits are huge. They start late the next day, when you’re back in action but still becalmed, enjoying that wonderful lobotomised feeling that insulates you from the worries of everyday life. Then for a couple of days after that you can’t even look at a bottle of wine, much less drink one. You happily go to the pub with friends and sip a Coke. Watching them poison themselves with booze, you feel virtuous. My benders often seem to happen on Fridays, which means they produce a teetotal weekend. This is particularly satisfying. Being the only non-drinker in a group at any time is good, but when it’s a Saturday or a Sunday you feel like Gandhi.

Then, when you do resume drinking, you’ve always got that faint reminder of just how dangerous alcohol can be, of how much respect it’s due. This helps you maintain your nights off, those weekday evenings when you could be persuaded into a Peroni from the fridge but resist the temptation. Because if you don’t, you’ll turn into the sort of person who drinks every day. And then into the sort who drinks a bit more every day, who responds to hangovers with that euphemistic solution the ‘hair of the dog’. What does that say about you, that you voluntarily want to get bitten by a dog? It says you’re now the type who’s one corporate restructuring away from the meths.

No, stick to the binges. They give you the fun of taking it up to 11, and the incentive to keep it at six the rest of the time. Forget the BMA, listen to your instincts. Binge drinking is the only sensible way to behave.

Mark Mason’s latest book is Move Along, Please: Land’s End to John O’Groats by Local Bus.

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Show comments
  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Heavy drinking, heavy smoking, junk food, recreational drugs, lack of exercise, lack of intellectual stimulation… it`s all one jolly stream.

  • John Steadman

    What’s wrong with steady, every-day bingeing? A great way to cope with anything-goes, victimhood-obsessed, censored, PC Britain.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      I`ll drink to that.

  • anyfool

    The beauty of being a binge drinker is when you see the disapproving looks of the anally retentive clucking away in the corner of the bar while looking at the stale dregs in their own glass.
    Nearly as good a feeling as being on the way to alcoholic heaven.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Binge drinking surely implies public drunkenness and anti-social behavior. Thus mindless violence, criminal damage, junk food, lack of exercise, banal low-level conversation, stupidity, petty crime … Isn`t that describing not just a football supporter, but a run-of-the-mill trash culture low life?
    There you go, Mark. If you want to consume alcoholic beverage to excess, do it at home. Cheaper, safer and far less damaging to your reputation.

    • Jambo25

      No it doesn’t. Binge drinking can simply be binge drinking. In the past I could and did ‘drink it through a shitey cloot’ as we still say up here. Neither I nor my friends who joined me in this, occasionally, joyful exercise indulged in mindless violence, anti-social behaviour. We very often did it after playing football or rugby or after a long hill walk up north or down in the Border hills.

      • Rob

        I agree with Jambo…when I was a youngster my friends and I were serial binge drinkers (well at least every Friday and Saturday night) and were never any trouble to anyone…I continue to binge (although not too often now that I am in my late fifties…and mostly at home in private these days)…It’s easy to blame drinking for criminal or anti-social behaviour, but I think those prone to such traits behave that way drunk or sober………and those not thus prone generally don’t…….

        • Jambo25

          The odd person may start to behave badly due to drink but you’re correct that the vast majority of those who do behave badly would probably do so drunk or sober.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            A stroll around downtown Oxford, Slough, Windsor or Reading on a Friday or Saturday evening would convince you that drunken trash culture UK is alive and well. It`s the low-life white trash throwing garbage cans at passing cars that really gets you down.
            Britain`s social ills are not your responsibility, so take the necessary steps to ensure they are no longer your problem.
            Jack, Japan Alps

          • Toby Esterházy

            “Garbage cans” in Oxford, Slough, Windsor and Reading? When was this? The 1980s?

          • Jambo25

            I don’t hide my eyes from Britain’s trash culture. I just think that it has far less to do with drink than is commonly believed. I think the utter uselessness of our police and judicial systems have far more to do with it.

            Go round the centres of any big Northern or Central European city at the weekend and you see far less trouble. But then you see far more police and far more active police. British police are largely complete wastes of space.

          • Toby Esterházy

            Over here, it has always been “yob culture”, not “trash culture”.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Face it, Britain`s a $ister-$hagging $hithole. Hate it and leave it. And I say this with all due respect.

        • Jambo25

          The odd person may start to behave badly due to drink but you’re correct that the vast majority of those who do behave badly would probably do so drunk or sober.

        • Melissa

          I agree that crime is unfairly associated with alcohol but being black-out drunk can make you do things you’d never even consider. It doesn’t just stop you from resisting the urge to do things you already want to do. I have a very hard time believing that deep down I secretly want to announce to the world I’m unable to pee. I did that during a black-out and was informed of it later. I’m not criminal or violent when drunk but some things I’ve done just seem totally out of character.

  • george

    1. ‘Moderation in all things’ is the only thing that the unimaginative can possibly take from the entire panoply of ancient philosophy (or, anyway, Aristotle), and it’s rubbish because no one happy is moderate in all things: the philosophers least of all, since they were immoderate and rightly so in the pursuit of knowledge (or truth, and justice). Moderation is good advice for Vlad the Impaler but bad advice for those of us (like self) seeking a salve from the cruelties and stupidities of this world.

    2. A night’s drinking is best done at home. It is private, it bothers no one else, and if you overdo it (as I rarely do, knowing my body’s reaction to alcohol down to the millimetre), only you will suffer the consequences. And that’s how it should be.

  • Beaumont7

    The term binge comes from the town of Binche in Belgium which has an annual festival at which much good Belgian beer is enthusiastically downed. Not a lot of people know that.

  • Melissa

    Thank you for this even if it was written a year ago. I like you’re reference to a proverb of hell. It’s probably the only proverb I understand on a personal level (even though I just learned about them 30 minutes ago). I really want to read that book now. You don’t know your limits until you exceed them and all you want is for the torture to end. It’s trauma inducing. A friend of mine said something about “drinking until you swear you’ll never drink again”. I forget exactly what was said but the idea is so true. Something you didn’t mention is the overwhelming relief that comes with the end of the torture. When you can finally eat again food tastes so good. But you never forget it. Eventually you learn your limits. I had to cross them 3 times before I could pin them down. I never get to that point anymore. I always manage to go right up to the line without crossing it and no amount of peer pressure can convince me to have just one more drink. I know what happens. I think you learn way more from hell than from heaven. I feel like hell isn’t damnation. It’s a place where your mistake is drilled into your mind to the point where you can never ever forget it. It’s a place of cruel teaching.

    Edited to replace you’re with your.

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