As someone who doesn’t drink for very simple but seemingly-very-confusing-to-drinkers reasons—I don’t need alcohol to have a good time, I loathe and despise waiting in taxi queues and paying exorbitant amounts of money to have someone drive me home, and I hate feeling rubbish the next day—I came at The Age health reporter Jill Stark’s soon-to-be-released* High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze from a slightly different angle from most. I wasn’t marvelling at the fact that she had (clearly) gone a year without alcohol; I was hoping this book wouldn’t be a token, hyperbolic effort.
Having won awards for her reporting on the damaging effects of drugs and alcohol while writing herself off with regularity, Stark was acutely aware of her hypocrisy. One lethal hangover too many—coincidentally, on New Year’s Day—and she turned the spotlight on her habits.
A year and a book deal later, we have High Sobriety, a brutally honest, nothing-off-limits assessment of Stark’s drinking exploits, Australia’s and Scotland’s entrenched drinking myths and cultures, the health risks we run as a result of drinking, and the complicated relationship we have with alcohol (not to mention with people who don’t drink).
We also have hope. As a Scottish-born journalist who now calls both Scotland and Australia home, and who boasts an accent she terms ‘Scotralian’, Stark had all the odds stacked against her succeeding for 365 days as a non-drinker. By her own admission, her decision to not drink is ‘something akin to Hugh Hefner announcing plans to join the priesthood’. When she quipped that she might write a book called ‘My Year Without Booze’, her mate without hesitation replied: ‘My Year With No Mates’. Yet she made it through and even managed to put it in terms that might just appeal to the masses.
The year was clearly difficult, her peers unsurprisingly tactless. One colleague tells her: ‘You’re like a fat comedian who loses lots of weight. You’re just not as interesting.’ One cracker of a guy she’s stuck sitting with at a wedding tells her a book about not drinking for a year would be rubbish:
‘That would be a really short book,’ he says. ‘Fucking boring. The end.’ I laugh politely, but secretly I want to stab him in the eye with my entrée fork […] He tells me how he stopped drinking for three months a few years ago, and every day of it was so boring that he’d never do it again. He doesn’t appear to see the irony in the fact that with a beer in his hand, he’s the most boring man alive.
I’ve lived through more than a few of those moments too. Like Stark, I’ve sometimes wished I could just say I was pregnant (or something similarly irrefutable) just to stop the questions and pointed remarks; they get old fast.
In addition to charting Stark’s year, month by month, High Sobriety gathers up a bunch of frightening stats, myths, habits, sayings, and so on. Australia is, it seems, a country that:
- created ‘drinkwear’ such shirts with built-in can openers
- celebrates beer relays, which see people put teams of their best drinkers forward to scull beers, with the next team mate starting as soon as their predecessor has sculled theirs
- has seen a ‘Bunningsisation’ of alcohol, where it’s sold in bulk from warehouses and mega stores at cut-down prices
- has university orientation games of ‘fun, frivolity’ fornication, and extremely high levels of intoxication’ with such taglines as ‘If you can remember last year, you weren’t really there’
- has seen political journalists ‘ottering’ it down staircases, i.e. sliding on their stomachs with their hands behind their backs—‘if you had your head up, you wouldn’t get too much carpet rash’.
One stat I didn’t really know, or hadn’t truly comprehended, is that alcohol is likely linked to increases in cancer. But I’m not alone in missing some of the big facts. ‘As galactically stupid as it sounds, particularly for a health reporter,’ Stark writes, ‘I’ve never really though of alcohol as a drug.’
Like many of us, Stark’s relationship with alcohol was forged in her teenage years. Her 15th birthday party involved ‘teenagers hanging out of every window, and piles of vomit forming a Hansel and Gretel-style trail from our front door’. She spent her 25th birthday, at which she was reacquainting herself with alcohol after a detox of sorts, so smashed some friends had to prop her up ‘Weekend at Bernie’s-style’. She acknowledges too that there’s no small irony in her finally achieving her first book contract as a result of her drinking exploits: ‘Who would have thought that getting pissed every weekend for most of my adult life might be the way that dream comes true?’
Knockout singer of unfortunate circumstances and surname Amy Winehouse dies during Stark’s booze-less year. It’s a sobering experience and a weird one:
The divinely talented 27-year-old singer, who battled addiction and penned a defiant hit about resisting rehab, literally drank herself to an early grave—vodka bottles were found next to her body. Within hours, wailing fans were getting pissed outside her home, sobbing and belting out her songs. They create a shrine using, along with flowers and cards, beer cans, wine glasses, and bottles of vodka and gin. It seems that even if it kills you, alcohol’s cool.
Seems that way. Hearteningly, High Sobriety goes some way to showing that you don’t have to be drunk to have a good time. It provides an insider-outsider perspective on drinkers’ and non-drinkers’ complex relationship with alcohol, and the social and societal ripple effects of those too. Stark’s approach was fresh, objective, and hyperbole-free while also being humblingly human. High Sobriety made me re-examine my own reasons for not drinking and my own fraught relationship with alcohol—I highly recommend it.
Side note: A shout out to the book’s graphic designer, whose adept handiwork sees the book’s title and subtitle, Stark’s name, and John Birmingham’s testimonial forming the alcohol bottle and label. A shout out, too, to awesome book acknowledgements such as this:
And kudos to you, Timmy, the pillar that props up our inner-north crew, for not questioning why a journalist/would-be-author didn’t have her own printer when I asked to print a 300-page manuscript on yours, 12 hours before deadline.
*High Sobriety will be released in February. Thanks to Scribe for the advance copy.