In which The Author doesn't sponsor an acquaintance
About three weeks ago on a Tuesday afternoon, Clare and I were walking to Penderyn. We were bored, it was a sunny day, and she'd never walked up the old Mineral Railway Line from Hirwaun. I met her in the village and we went exploring. As we were strolling through the narrow tree-lined lane, with rolling farmland on either side, she told me about the time she and her older brothers were drinking '100% alcohol'.
I told her that they almost certainly hadn't been drinking 100% alcohol. I remembered our old Biology teacher, the late Terry Smith, correcting one of the lads in our class when he made a similar claim. According to Terry, drinking pure alcohol wouldn't do you any good (to put it mildly). If they had been able to get access to pure ethanol, Clare probably wouldn't have been there to tell the tale.
They'd probably been drinking something which was 100 proof – a rather different proposition. In the UK, measures of proof haven't been used for ages. Instead, we talk about the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV). Historically the UK and the US used different standards to define alcohol proof anyway, which makes things even more complicated. And in the US they don't use the term 'degrees proof', as we did over here. Stating the ABV avoids this confusion and makes much more sense, doesn't it?
Something like Jack Daniel's (around 80 proof) contains 40% ABV. Absinthe, the infamous tipple formerly enjoyed by the avant-garde set of Paris, can reach an ABV of 74%, or around 148 proof. There is a brand of rectified corn spirit called Everclear available (here and there) in the US, which reaches a staggering 75.5% ABV. At the time of writing, it's banned in Alaska, California, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Washington, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Minnesota. I bet there'll be a few people in Aberdare making a beeline for the states not on this list once they read this.
But I digress …
As anyone with regular access to social media will know, the calendar is quickly being filled up with special 'Years', 'Months', 'Days', and even 'Hours'. The United Nations seems to have partly been responsible for this, when it declared 1959–60 as 'International Refugee Year'. Quite what this was supposed to achieve in practice is anyone's guess. At the end of 2015, there were an estimated 65.3 million people displaced by conflict throughout the world. So, yeah, they did a bang-up job of resolving that particular issue six decades ago.
There's a full list on the UN website, and they make for interesting reading. Taken collectively, they sound rather like a six-year-old girl's letter to Father Christmas, or the pipe dreams of a Miss World finalist. Since the beginning, we've had (to name a few):
- International Co-operation Year (1965) was another rip-snorting success at the height of the Cold War and in the midst of decolonisation.
- the International Year for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Prejudice (1971) proves my theory that half the people I meet in Aberdare still think they're living in the 1960s.
- World Communications Year (1983) was devoted to 'Development of Communication Infrastructures' – have you tried getting a mobile phone signal in Cwmaman or Penderyn recently?
- the International Year of Peace (1986) – yeah, right!
- most laughably of all, 2001 was the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations – when it wasn't busy being the Year of the Twin Towers Attacks and the Start of the Last Crusade.
As if these aren't far-fetched enough, 2008 was the International Year of the Potato, and 2013 was the International Year of Quinoa. (I'm not making this stuff up; follow the link and see for yourself.)
Anyway, logging into Facebook or Twitter will produce a welter of similar annual or one-off special days. According to the trending hashtags on the latter site, today is simultaneously the Day of the Girl, National Coming Out Day, and World Obesity Day. That's an obvious (if rather unkind) triple celebration for one of my recent romantic near-misses. It's also Ada Lovelace Day, marking the often overlooked role of women in the development of science and technology.
Yesterday was something else; so was Monday. I can't really remember what the special occasions were. It doesn't matter anyway, because they will have had as much impact on the world as did the International Year of Idealistic Pie-in-the-Sky Hippy Bollocks (1968, in case you're wondering).
It used to be only the Roman Catholic Church that made up a feast day for every occasion, simply to relieve the boredom of poverty, drudgery, near-starvation, plague and premature death. Whenever they wanted a small celebration, an obscure saint could usually be found somewhere to provide an excuse to use red ink on the calendar. (This gave rise to the phrase 'red-letter day'; according to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 'In almanacs, and more commonly in ecclesiastical calendars, important feast-days and saints' days were printed in red, with other days in black'.)
And, by Goddess, there were some really obscure saints. Try these for size, whom I've found by randomly flicking through The Book of Saints (7th edn, ed. Dom Basil Watkins. London: A & C Black.):
- St Cointha (feast day 8 February)
- Blessed Dominic-of-the-Holy-Rosary of Nagasaki (10 September)
- St Eusebius of Cremona (5 March)
- St Phaebedius (25 April)
- St Mageldisil (30 May)
- Blessed Otto of Heidelberg (28 December)
- St Raphael-of-St-Joseph Kalinowski (19 November)
- St Theophilus de Signori of Corte (19 May)
- St Wulstan (19 January)
See – every day's a potential holiday if you're a good Catholic. It reminds me of a great stand-up routine from early in Woody Allen's career:
I was thrown out of college, and when I was thrown out of college I got a job on Madison Avenue in New York. A real dyed-in-the-wool advertising agency on Madison Avenue wanted a man to come in, and they'd pay him ninety-five dollars a week to sit in their office, and to look Jewish. They wanted to prove to the outside world that they would hire minority groups, y'know. So I was the one they hired, y'know. I was the show Jew at the agency. I tried to look Jewish desperately, y'know. I used to read my memos from right to left all the time. They fired me finally, 'cause I took off too many Jewish holidays.
But back on topic (for a moment): T.S. Eliot was wrong; October is the cruellest month. The autumn in Wales gets going in earnest; it pisses down with rain most days, and when it's not pissing down you're just dodging the showers. You have to put the lights on at five o'clock (if not earlier), and the clocks go back an hour at the end just to make matters worse. You can't even go to the pub for a quiet pint without bumping into a load of bloody students pissing away their first loan instalments. Over the last couple of years, this horrible month has been made even less bearable by hordes of born-again clean-living individuals trumpeting their achievements via social media.
Because October isn't just thirty-one days of misery any more. Oh, no – these days you have to get healthy as well. If you do venture out for a pint, you're bound to be up against someone self-righteously sipping a soft drink and announcing to anyone who'll listen that they're doing 'Sober October'. If you smoke as well, your visits to the outdoor shelter will be greeted by cries of derision by people who are quitting the demon weed.
If you don't already know about these things, Stopober encourages people to quit smoking. Sober October does exactly what it says on the tin (of diet Pepsi, naturally) and encourages you to take a month on the wagon. Stoptober is supported by pharmacies and the primary health care sector, with advice and support available to anyone wanting to take up the challenge. Sober October goes a step further, and encourages you to get sponsored for not drinking for 31 days. The money raised goes towards Macmillan Cancer Support, which is a very worthwhile charity.
A couple of years ago, I asked Rhian if she fancied doing Sober October with me. She laughed in my face. When I asked her about doing Stoptober instead (I've never smoked, and have never been interested in starting) she thought it was an even more ridiculous suggestion.
I thought it was a ridiculous suggestion as well, to be honest. I once – many years ago – decided to spend a year off the booze, apart from my birthday (when it's daft not to go to the pub) and rugby internationals (when it's simply rude not to). I stuck to my word until about this time of year, which surprised everyone I knew, as well as me. But it was the academic season in work, and we were besieged by new students who (Goddess knows how) were even more condescending and less well-educated than the ones from the year before. The brave face was starting to wear a bit thin.
It was coming up to lunchtime one particularly stressful Wednesday when Laurie looked at me and said, 'I think you need a pint, mate.'
I said, 'I think you're right!'
And that was the end of that. Still, ten months and a bit was pretty good going, especially when you consider that bookselling was always a fairly boozy gig anyway. But they only had my word for the fact that I wasn't going home and sinking half a bottle of vodka every night.
You see, these special fund-raising months have one major flaw: they rely on a degree of honesty and trust that's often lacking in society.
Let's take one example of a really good sponsored event – the London Marathon.
You register way ahead of time; you train every evening and every weekend to get in shape for it; you set up a JustGiving page and ask all your family and friends to sponsor you. Everyone knows it's happening, because it's on the TV. You turn up on the day, run 26 miles and a bit, collapse into a foil blanket, get your medal for completing the course, and ker-ching! Anthony Nolan, or MIND, or Macmillan, or Shelter, or the RSPCA, or whatever your chosen worthy cause is, gets a nice cash injection from your efforts.
And that's exactly why it works so well. You might get to be on TV, if you're lucky. Even if you don't appear in close-up, you're somewhere in the mass of thousands of runners, walkers, wheelchair athletes and pantomime horses making their way through Docklands and back into the City, then onto Westminster and the finish line. You've got your medal to show that you've done it. When you get back home, you can go to everyone who sponsored you with a clear conscience.
In preparing the ground for a sponsored event I'm hoping to organise next year, I've taken the difficulty of charting one's progress into account. If all goes well, there'll be a large number of people undertaking a challenge which will take them the length and breadth of the Cynon Valley over the course of a few hours. I'm expecting that a fair number of people will bale out before the end. (I know I certainly would.) With this in mind, I've split the course into ten stages. Entrants will receive a 'token' on completing each stage. It makes the accounting easier all round.
Suppose, for example, that Tom, Dick and Harry sign up to take part. I sponsor Tom 10p a stage, Dick 10p a stage, and Harry 10p a stage. Tom finishes the entire course, so I pay him £1.00. Dick crashes out after Stage 7, so he raises 70p. Harry gets injured after two stages, so he gets 20p. If anyone decides halfway through that they'd rather spend the afternoon in the pub, they simply hand in their five tokens and collect half the sponsor money.
I'd rather do it that way than pay someone in advance to do a challenge that they might not complete (or take it on trust that they've done it). When my good friend Neil R. climbed Pen y Fan (the highest mountain in southern Britain) ten times in one day to raise money for charity, I was happy to pay up. He posted regular updates of his progress on Facebook, and you don't make that sort of thing up anyway. You've got to be pretty damn serious about the endeavour before you sign up for it. On the other hand, I sponsored another friend to do a tandem sky-dive back about this time last year. As far as any of us know, she's yet to leave the ground.
Next month is the even more bizarre Movember, where guys grow ridiculous facial hair (Moustache-November – geddit?) to raise awareness of prostate cancer (and presumably to raise money as well). That's going to be a non-starter in Aberdare, where half the males under forty are already sporting ridiculous facial hair. Maybe we could sponsor girls under the age of 25 to sort their fucking eyebrows out instead.
Which brings us back to Sober October. When one of my friends asked me to sponsor him a couple of years ago, I agreed because I knew he was serious about it. A mate of his had succumbed to a particularly aggressive cancer, and his sudden death had hit all the boys hard. A couple of the others have done sponsored walks or swimming events to raise money in his memory. That's fair enough. But now it seems that everyone is trying to grab everyone they can for sponsorship.
Last week, one of the barbints in Thereisnospoon asked me if I'd sponsor her for Sober October. I said I'd have to think about it – partly because about half a dozen other people had already asked me, and I can't afford to sign up for every appeal that comes my way. If she'd been a good friend, I might not have thought twice about it, but she isn't. We know each other to say hello to, but that's about it. I wonder how many other regular punters she's approached to sponsor her – and, more importantly, how many have said yes. I shouldn't think there are very many names on her form.
The other reason, of course, is that I'd have only Mandy's word that she'd managed to stay off the booze for the entire thirty-one days. Obviously she can't drink when she's in work, but what's to stop her from sneaking to the off-licence on her way home, or catching a sneaky glass of wine over Sunday lunch? It isn't like any of the challenges I've outlined above, where there's some sort of control mechanism in place to make sure people can't cheat. You might as well ring up the Guinness people and tell them you've just broken such-and-such a record. Without any outside agency to measure your progress, it's going to be your word against theirs.
And that, I fear, is where Sober October falls down (no pun intended). Stoptober could yield a definite result, in that someone successfully gives up the habit and makes a positive impact on their health and wealth. If, on the other hand, they head straight to the shop for twenty Lambert & Butler on 1 November, then the experiment was a failure.
The only fair way to determine whether someone has completed Sober October is for him or her to have a full battery of blood tests (including a liver function test) on 30 September. Then they go back on 1 November, have the same blood tests, and you can compare the results. In the meantime, they have to agree to the sort of random testing that people working on the railways have to go through.
And if you're a serious drinker, is just one month off the sauce going to make that difference anyway? The damage has already been done. I knew a man who'd spent four whole weeks 'drying out' at Whitchurch Hospital (see Rehab), only to return to Aberdare and head straight to the pub for a pint. Trebles all round! Another triumph for the NHS! No, not really. The poor bugger was dead a few months later. It seems that all Sober October really gives you is another opportunity for one-upmanship.
With my fund-raising idea, at least you get the tokens to show you've completed at some of the course. If it does come off, it's going to be properly organised and scrutinised to ensure nobody can cheat on the day.
To this cynical mind, however, Sober October is very much like an alcohol-free drink. There's absolutely no proof.