100 years without a drink

Spirit of the Age
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The Independent Culture
JUST THINK, if you were a teetotaller, how you feel this morning is as good as you can expect to feel all day. So goes the traditional apologia of those who drink to excess and routinely put up with the liverish discomfort of the morning after the night before.

Of course, there is an alternative. You could give up drinking. Why? Well, as an act of self-denial. To set a good example to those who drink to excess. Or even as an act of reparation for the world's general intemperance.

This is not the kind of language, it must be said, designed to appeal to our modern hedonistic age. Even in this first full week of January - with the season of over-indulgence having drawn to its dyspeptic close, and the resolutions of improved lifestyle still weighing heavy upon us - there is something about the idea of permanent abstinence which seems out of tune with the times. And yet this month a body dedicated to such asceticism celebrates its 100th anniversary, as strong today as it was when it was launched in a very different milieu.

The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, which has half a million members around the world, will this month hold a service in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Southwark - followed by an alcohol-free dinner dance - to celebrate its 100th birthday.

What motivates such self-restraint? In order to find out I went along to have lunch with its president, Pat Hampton, a former postman who now makes his living processing covenants for Cardinal Hume.

It was with some trepidation that I handed him the menu. Passing over the wine list in favour of mineral water had not proved that difficult, but there hardly seemed to be a dish on the menu that wasn't cooked in white wine, flavoured with madeira or marsala or flamed in brandy.

"Oh that's alright," he said as he scrutinised it. "We're allowed all that. The days of meat and two veg are long gone, and food is so much more adventurous. We just use our common sense. Indeed sherry trifle is a regular favourite at our dinner-dances."

There seemed something endearingly innocent about the trifle. The first Pioneer I had met had been an altogether more robust character. Some years ago I came across an old clock-maker called Tommy who coupled the no-drink commitment with a decidedly more macho career as an amateur boxing champion - skills which he combined in later life disciplining errant drunks in monastic alcohol rehabilitation programmes in his native Ireland.

But what all Pioneers have in common was adherence to three rules: to abstain from alcohol for life; to wear the organisation's lapel badge; and to say a daily prayer of dedication. For the motivation of the organisation is religious - its full title is the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart.

It's always seemed to me to be an odd object of devotion - the physical heart of Jesus. There's nothing in the bible about it, but medieval mystics hit upon the wounded heart, encircled by a crown of thorns and radiating light, as a symbol of Christ's love for the world. It's an even odder symbol for abstainers to adopt for, unlike other New Testament figures such as the teetotal John the Baptist, Jesus was a bit of a boozer. His critics even call him a drunkard in two of the gospels, and he certainly used wine as a key symbol at his last supper.

"We do not deny that wine is one of God's good gifts," said Pat as he tucked into something wine-free but irredeemably high-fat. "It's just that we have chosen to make a voluntary lifelong sacrifice of it."

The idea of total abstinence grew out of the perceived failure of moderation to curb drunkenness - and the squalor and poverty that resulted from it - among the working classes in the 19th century. There was nothing new about the idea. In medieval times St Boniface banned alcohol in his monasteries; the English Puritans were not exactly big on booze; and the first temperance movements appeared in churches in the 18th century.

But the idea of moderation had initially appealed to post-Enlightenment man until the 19th century reformers decided it was ineffectual. It was in 1832 that the moderation society in Preston, Lancashire, went total and - thanks to the stammer of one of its leading lights - coined the term teetotal. Some 50 years later the Pioneers were formed in Dublin by a Jesuit priest.

You might imagine that it has been in decline since. But in fact its membership - at 500,000 (just half of them in Ireland) - has remained pretty constant, surprisingly so given the "if it feels good, do it" temper of our times where slimming is as near as most of us come to self-restraint. And slimming, of course, is an introverted self-absorbed activity whereas abstinence finds its focus outside the self. "I don't do this for me," says Pat. "It's my effort - through prayer and by example - on behalf of someone whom I might never know about."

In a church renowned for its whiskey priests the Pioneers are not universally well received. "Some clergy seemed to think we were killjoys. We were seen as old-fashioned. But drugs have changed that among many." Saying no to drugs has been a key element in the movement's youth clubs, like the one Pat runs in Cricklewood, London. "We get young people involved and let them see you can have a good time without drink. Many of them then never feel the need for it."

Around half the Pioneers have never touched a drop. The other half were people for whom alcohol was becoming a problem. "I liked it too much myself," admits Pat. "But I'm not anti-drink. I'm just saying that people have a choice - and I made it." And we can all drink to that.