High Sobriety: my year without booze

Jill Stark

High Sobriety: my year without booze
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High Sobriety: my year without booze

Jill Stark

‘I’m the binge-drinking health reporter. During the week, I write about Australia’s booze-soaked culture. At the weekends, I write myself off.’

Booze had dominated Jill Stark’s social life ever since she had her first sip of beer, at 13. She thought nothing could curb her love of big nights. And then came the hangover that changed everything. In the shadow of her 35th year, Jill made a decision: she would give up alcohol. But what would it mean to stop drinking in a world awash with booze?

This lively memoir charts Jill’s tumultuous year on the wagon, as she copes with the stress of the newsroom sober, tackles the dating scene on soda water, learns to watch the footy minus beer, and deals with censure from friends and colleagues, who tell her that a year without booze is ‘a year with no mates’.

In re-examining her habits, Jill also explores Australia’s love affair with alcohol, meeting alcopop-swigging teens who drink to fit in, beer-swilling blokes in a sporting culture backed by booze, and marketing bigwigs blamed for turning binge drinking into a way of life. And she tracks the history of this national obsession: from the idea that Australia’s new colonies were drowning in drink to the Anzac ethos that a beer builds mateship, and from the six o'clock swill that encouraged bingeing to the tangled weave of advertising, social pressure, and tradition that confronts drinkers today.

Will Jill make it through the year without booze? And if she does, will she go back to her old habits, or has she called last drinks? This is a funny, moving, and insightful exploration of why we drink, how we got here, and what happens when we turn off the tap.

Review

Some Melbournians might remember The Age article back in 2011 that sparked this book. Health reporter Jill Stark shared her experiences of giving up alcohol for three months as part of the Hello Sunday Morning initiative. Now, this book extends her experiment to a year.

Turning a clear, though not unforgiving, eye to our nation’s love affair with alcohol, Stark poses questions such as ‘Is it un-Australian to not drink?’ (or ‘un-Scottish’ even) and faces challenges such as ‘sober blind dating’ and ‘football without beer’. Her approach to the year is fresh and funny, artlessly open, and most importantly, accessible. She’s not interested in preaching to the masses but rather is on a mission to decipher her own complicated feelings. I was surprised how affecting I found it.

High Sobriety touches on topics I was hardly aware of, such as the specifics of the relationship between alcohol advertising and sport, and the correlation between alcohol and breast cancer. There are places where the momentum drags due to repetition of key points but, despite this, I was completely engaged with the content. I spoke about it with my friends, housemates and family, and even with people I’d just met. Having never thought much about alcohol before, it suddenly seemed imperative that I do so immediately.

Since finishing the book I’ve continued thinking on it, and particularly about our casual prejudice against non-drinkers, one I imagine we’ve all experienced in some way or another, and one that crops up frequently in Stark’s book. For example, a fellow guest at a wedding is quick in his response to her book: ‘“That would be a really short book,” he says. “Fucking boring. The end.” I laugh politely, but secretly I want to stab him in the eye with my entrée fork.’ While Stark does get tired of these reactions, she also admits that she may have said similar things once herself, and it is this candidness, which comes up again and again, that makes her book so enjoyable.


Bronte Coates is the online and Readings Monthly assistant at Readings.

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