Lately I’ve been thinking about sobriety. Or, to aim even closer to the target, I realise that I have taken to avoiding intoxication with the precision of my four-year Covid-19 sidestep. It’s not that I have stopped drinking — beer still goes well with my team’s victories on a Saturday, and I am still a sucker for a full-bodied glass of cab sav with my bolognaise and a neat whisky still nurses the rawest wounds after a challenging day.

The difference between my current consumption and the bedlam of my twenties is self-discipline. After decades, I know when I have had enough and as the years have whizzed on, that “enough” would disappoint my old drinking mates at the Student Union of a little university in Makhanda.    

I now know, following much debauched trial and error, when to stop, for a fogless morning after: on the beer index, two Stella Artois or one Heineken. Three glasses of (most) bubbly; one-and-a-half glasses of chenin blanc and one glass of any red on the spectrum. When in a festive mood involving any kind of public dancing, three gin and sodas (one-and-a-half if I brave tonic); two double Jamesons, two double Woodford reserves or ditto for The Macallan. My recovery from shot PTSD has been slow and as such, I haven’t imbibed any shooters — artisanal and mainstream — since a 10-hour stretch of bad decisions a lifetime ago.

Amid that bygone life, I did attempt a dry spell, with reasonable initial success, until I realised several weeks in that nobody likes a nondrinker. Or rather, nobody likes an ex-drinker, because those that have never touched the stuff seem to be spared the incessant questions and determined cajoling ex-drinkers endure. My sobriety at the time seemed a personal affront to many friends who read subliminal judgment in my refusal to indulge. Something that had everything to do with me and only me, became a swipe at them. With one sound decision to decline a Jaeger bomb I was declared — by incoherent complainants — morose, uninteresting and a shadow of my wasted former incarnation. 

Inevitably, I would, for reasons other than the sting of cheap insults, go back to the bottle. But my consumption waned steadily over the years, to the point where I can now, without any fear of hyperbole, call myself a conscious, occasional drinker.

I count my drinks now and when my allocation has been ingested, I am done and off to bed.

This may all be on trend now — the kids drink far less, are more sober or sober curious than my Gen X contemporaries — but my movement in this direction had nothing to do with a Tik Tok trend. A move away from the city, a change of lifestyle and near obsession with self-preservation in my forties has had a far more significant influence. I count my drinks now and when my allocation has been ingested, I am done and off to bed. If I have to delay my escape, I nurse a water until I find a gap. This admirable conscious drinking is much harder — especially on day one at art fairs, confirmed at the RMB Latitudes Art Fair last week. 

Such is the hierarchical nature of global artworld architecture, that day 1 is not the same day for everyone. If you are in the media or a serious collector, you attend the afternoon vernissage a day before official opening day, where a small group will be taken on a thoughtful walk about with a curator or artist, with breathing space between it and the work, with no bustle and air kissing in one’s eye line.

After the walkabout and additional meandering — towards the end of which I would have put to my lips the first glass — I usually just stand in one place, close to a booth familiar to me, and over the course of two hours, I pretty much get to see everyone I want to, and a fair share of those I’d rather not. It was perhaps the latter fact that threw me last week, and by the time I was back to my senses, I had been thrown off course by two drinks.

Recognising my transgression, I looked for the nearest exit and was out of there before my glass had a miraculous refill. I made it out, but wouldn’t be unscathed. I know that had I not had two surplus drinks, I would have never swung by that dodge spot on my way home; ate that cholesterol roll and spent the next two days with the worst gippo guts since that high school rugby bus trip to Stutterheim.   

Many more people around me are drinking far less or not at all. And it’s perfectly normal. I also have a view into a version adjacent to my current life where everyone still tears it up and always moves onto venue number two after midnight and that’s also perfectly fine — we all answer to our own livers. I just happen to (mostly) choose the gentler route; the streets know I have paid my dues. 

• Lately is an occasional column by Wanted editor-in-chief Siphiwe Mpye.

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