Mira Bar-Hillel: Here's to the liberated non-drinker

Alan Johnson is wrong if he thinks those who decline alcohol are pariahs
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The Independent Online

I just had lunch next to the champagne bar in the glorious St Pancras International station. The food was excellent and my companion drank a glass of fizz and another of a rather nice (I am assured) claret which may even have come from France. I had some fresh orange juice and tap water from the Thames.

The subject of what we were drinking or how much never came up. In fact, it hasn't for years – possibly because everyone knows that I don't and never have. It's not for medical or (God forbid!) religious or moral reasons. I just never acquired a taste for it and it's been a long time since I felt in any way pressured to drink alcohol.

So why is Health Secretary Alan Johnson claiming that teetotallers are society's "new pariahs" and should be celebrated for standing up to the social pressure? My experience is that this is far from the case.

Things were different 30 years ago, and are probably still different among hairy sports fans and in ladette and celeb circles, but what if you're the wrong gender for the former or the wrong age for the latter? The last time anyone suggested that my orange juice would benefit from a shot of vodka was one Friday afternoon around 1984 and the venue was a Fleet Street pub. In those days a girl – never mind a bloke – had to struggle to avoid being plied with alcohol by well-intentioned chums who didn't want to take No for an answer.

I don't personally need the stuff, being gregarious and extroverted enough without it. In fact, I find that moderate drinking improves the behaviour of many of my English friends as it unties tongues and generally disinhibits. Anything between two and four glasses of wine or pints of beer will bring them to my natural level of fun, mischief and irreverence.

Problem is, at some point entertainingly tipsy turns into full-on rat-arsed. Being teetotal makes one acutely aware of the exact point when "social" drinking turns decidedly anti-social and I turn away and depart, because there is nothing less funny – or more lonely – than being the only sober person in a roomful of drunks.

Times have changed. I am still always politely offered an alcoholic beverage, but nothing is made of my equally polite refusal. Indeed, it will often be greeted with a sigh of near-relief ("Great, that means I can drink less" or even "Oh good, in that case I'll just have water myself").

And while drinking is not illegal, doing other things under the influence is. A colleague was just banned for a year. When he gets back behind a wheel he will be extremely careful not to let it happen again, and his decision not to drink won't be questioned. So no, Alan Johnson, I don't think we're the new pariahs. But if you want to celebrate me – I'll drink to that.