Addictions are for addicts. There’s no explaining the allure of them to someone who can take anything up and put anything down. I’m not an alcoholic – by which I mean I can go many days without a drink and don’t sit drooling in a shop doorway when I can’t – but I love red wine and am addicted to drinking it on the days I do.
Call it an amateur, part-time addiction. But I’m a mystery to my family who will drink wine only by the thimbleful and if it tastes like Vimto, and a lost cause to my in-laws who think that when you uncork a bottle you let the devil out. My wife is less melodramatic in her condemnation, but she too has trouble understanding the passion I feel for wine, not least as it’s an undiscerning passion some of the time, and when I’m not concentrating I can’t tell the difference between a corked 2013 Jacob’s Creek and a 1950 Petrus Pomerol. “Exactly,” I argue. “It is for me, you see, a holiday from my critical faculties.”
She argues in return that it’s a holiday from all my faculties. “What I don’t get is why you want to part company from your reason,” she says, genuinely puzzled. I explain that I don’t, that losing my reason, like losing my balance, is only a side effect. If I could drink red wine and stay as lucid as John Locke, or even just stay upright, I would. It’s the relaxed expansiveness I seek, not the being blurry.
But I must accept responsibility for the side effects. Since another of them is the shortening of my life, I’d be a fool not to do some balancing of this with that, as I did when I stopped smoking. Of the sensory pleasures it is acceptable to admit to in polite society, drinking red wine has only ever been equalled for me by smoking.
I took it up when I was about 18 and stopped when I was 35. By that time, I was on 60 a day and so enjoyed the hand-to-mouth ritual of lighting up that I sometimes had three going at the same time. Three at a time, I reasoned, reduced 60 a day to 20 a day, but there was no telling that to my chest which had begun to groan like an old people’s home.
I am over the melancholy of quitting now, until I pass a table of smokers braving the cold and the rain, and then it comes back to me how much pure, unassociated pleasure it gave me, how much I have sacrificed merely in order to live a little longer. “It is not growing like a tree,” wrote Ben Jonson, favouring quality of life to quantity. “And in short measures life may perfect be.” But then Ben Jonson was perfectly dead by my age.
If you’ve never smoked, you won’t understand why another person does. No point being censorious. You have simply to accept that it’s a pleasure that has passed you by.
I try to feel this way about tweeting. I don’t mean the tweeting that starts or stops a revolution, but trivial, opinionated tweeting, the social equivalent of a nutter talking to himself in the street. It’s just another compulsion, I tell myself. Alcohol and nicotine release dopamine which makes us feel good until we feel bad, and those for whom tweeting is a drug of choice must experience something similar.
Only addiction can explain an activity that appears to be so without sensual satisfaction in itself – no drawing luxuriously on the touch screen, no sniffing the pungent nose of a smartphone while dozing in an armchair – but whose side effects are so damaging.
A policeman tweets his hate of Thatcher and gets kicked out of the force. A teenage girl, appointed to head the Met or something similar – I haven’t followed the case closely – is discovered to have tweeted obscenities in earlier days, though you wouldn’t think that at 15 there are “earlier days”, and is sent home humiliated. Did neither pause for a second to count the possible cost? For even at 15 the concept of “cost” is not unknown. I was 15 once and counted nothing else.
Certainly cost would not have been unknown to those who, with nothing to go on but a predisposition to think ill of a rich Tory, wrongly named McAlpine a paedophile. But they, too, were unable to stop their fingers doing that which their common sense, if not their politics, should have cautioned them against. Day breaks, the phone blinks on the pillow like a one-eyed lover, and without pausing to clean your teeth, make coffee or consider consequences, you finger it.
So maybe I am wrong to liken tweeting to drinking and smoking. Maybe it’s more like sex. Bad sex at that – repetitive and embarrassing to behold, one of the parties to the act hunched over unprettily in a hurry to be done, the other inert, a mere instrument of someone else’s will.
It’s only sex, at any rate, for which we are prepared to risk such ignominy. Smoking and drinking merely ruin our bodies; for sex we put our good name on the line, don’t care how big a fool we end up looking or whether we lose our homes or livelihoods. The addiction is upon us and that’s that.
I make no judgement. I don’t say there are better ways to pass the time. We are all addictive creatures, stumbling through the empty rituals of life without ever knowing why. But it behoves tweeters to admit their addiction like the rest of us.
Get down to Tweeters Anonymous, for God’s sake. “Hello, my name is Sadshmuck and I tweet.” With luck you won’t be on your own. But remember to sit on your hands and use the spoken word. Tweeting your admission doesn’t count as an admission