January 7, 2021

Bing is on again. The opening words are seared onto my consciousness. The high-minded “no TV” rule didn’t last the first lockdown. As my wife and I juggle full-time work and childcare, the TV is a welcome nanny for a while, albeit an irritating one. This afternoon, even Paw Patrol is a relief from “Hello Bing, Hello Pando”.

How I wish I hadn’t agreed to do dry bloody January. It’s only a few days in and already regret it. Yesterday, in the supermarket, I caught myself eying up the non-alcoholic wine. I imagined myself carrying that familiar weight of bottle to the checkout. But to what purpose? Even if it tasted like a 2010 Bordeaux, it wouldn’t hit the spot. That’s the problem with so much professional wine tasting, and all that high minded talk of balance, length and complexity. Wine tasters spit it out. And that seems like a sacrilege to me. Wine isn’t just the taste. It’s a full mind/body experience.

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So why do it? And why not bail out?  Surely no one would hold it against me given what we are all now going through.

I am not a natural Puritan. I don’t go in for any of that self-hating mortification of the flesh business. Indeed, next week is the first anniversary of Roger Scruton’s death, and I would dearly love to raise a glass of high-end Montrachet to the great man. But over these last months, wine is the one thing that has been denied my congregation at the Eucharist. And I feel some sense of need to share in their privation, albeit in a different kind of way.

The deeper purpose of my dry January, though, is as an exercise in facing the present reality full on, without distractions and analgesics. There is an arrogance somewhere here, I admit that. I want to look this thing in the face without turning away. I guess I want to assert my dominance over it, as one might attempt to do by looking squarely into the eyes of a monster without blinking. In this context, the seven o’clock ritual of bottle opening — ok, six sometimes… yes, five even — feels like some sort of admission of defeat, a retreat into the comforting ether of not knowing.

Scruton hated Puritans, those tortured by the belief that other people, somewhere, are having more fun, and driven by the desire to stop them. His attitude towards wine was reverential and he proposed that virtuous wine drinking expressed a form of convivial togetherness that was a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Even Islam imagines paradise to be characterised by rivers of flowing wine, he reminds us. “Taken in the right frame of mind, wine shows us the … value of a life in which gift-love has a central place”, concludes Scruton’s effortlessly wise I Drink Therefore I am. Gift-love is a wonderful elision, carrying the idea that a cup of wine contains a merger of the fruits of creation with God’s abundant generosity; like as gift, something to be shared, and responded to with gratitude. From the eucharist to the dining room table, this is the virtue of drinking.

But my drinking lost its virtue sometime back in November. I knew there was a problem when I went over to church to open the doors for our local Alcoholics Anonymous group only to realise that I was still clutching a half empty glass of Rioja. Wasn’t a good look.

During lockdown, and with few opportunities for commensality, or even pub camaraderie, my evening bottle of wine slipped its grounding in joyous togetherness and took on the singular purpose as an aid to forgetfulness. There has been quite a debate in the Church of England during lockdown about whether the idea of a common chalice of wine (non Covid compliant) could be replaced with a number of individual little Covid friendly cups; shots of Jesus, as it were. But the church authorities have, quite rightly I think, thought this a stage too far, the common cup symbolising our need for togetherness, even when it has to be withheld. Scruton’s book title was a fun play on Descartes, but the less catchy “we drink therefore we are” would have captured his argument better. Covid has broken that link between wine and the first person plural experience. And so, for me, now is the time to give it a break.

In his fabulous little book, Silence and Honey Cakes, Rowan Williams makes the important point that the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) of the fourth century followed St Anthony into the Egyptian desert not to flee the world, so much as to enter into it more fully. Perhaps the most well-known of their sayings comes from Abba Moses, a converted Ethiopian bandit (on whom the Samuel L Jackson character in Pulp Fiction was loosely based): “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything,” he said. The cell is not a place to escape the world, but to confront it. Or rather, to confront oneself with a kind of spiritual stress test from which there is no place to run. That feels a lot like the spiritual challenge — opportunity, even — of lockdown. And when I say want to face the monster full on, I don’t really mean Covid. I mean me. The booze has been my way of fleeing.

But the Desert Fathers didn’t have to contend with Bing. Or play Solomon to endless Duplo disputes. No, they didn’t. But the situation is the still much same. This is my cell that has much to teach me about staying in the present, putting myself aside, putting aside, for now at least, my own need for silence and grown-up calm. Silence in the spiritual sense is not the absence of noise, but the refusal to allow oneself to be distracted from what is before us.

Dry January is the desert of the real. Not some abnegation of the self. But the discipline of staying with something, some situation, however uncomfortable. In vino veritas is a foolish saying. Truth requires the sober courage of facing things head on.

But make no mistake, when this dreaded curse is lifted, I will open the best bottle I can lay my hands on, more than one probably, and enjoy with friends, virtuously as Scruton would have said. No Puritanism here. I intend to hold a party that would make Prince Rupert blush.