Life back home in the Ellis household in Linton, Cambridgeshire, in the 60s, never revolved around wine. There were occasions when a bottle of Mateus Rose was opened, but that was reserved for dinner parties and very special occasions. My sister, Vivien, reminds me that it tasted vile. I didn’t even drink much when I went up to Oxford. It wasn’t served in Hall and I don’t recall having a bottle of anything alcoholic routinely in my room. If someone wanted a drink, the choices were limited to Nescafe or water from the cracked and stained basin in the bedroom. Parties and May Balls happened and too much was drunk, but people didn’t usually vomit or lose their bearings walking back to their digs.
Coming down from Oxford and moving to my parents’ basement flat in Lennox Gardens, SW1 saw me almost hermetically sealed into the life of an infrequently paid musician and composer. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to drink on my own. I acquired an agent and publisher and remember enjoying boozy lunches at someone else’s expense, but that remained circumscribed. Medical school was similarly isolated from the real world and we were all too scared of failing exams to risk going out on the town too often. Alcohol-fuelled antisocial behaviour got reported back to the Dean. The first sign of being lured by wine was in my first house officer job at Hillingdon Hospital near London Heathrow. I was thrown in the deep end too often with severely ill patients and hands-off consultants. The local corner shop always had bottles on offer during weekdays when I wasn’t on duty and slept over rather than going home to my flat. Death and the dying became easily numbed.
My second house job saw a turn for the better in more ways than one. I didn’t drink and I joined the Earls Court Gym. I also met Henry who was a medical student attached to my surgical ‘firm’ at the Middlesex Hospital. The rest is history, as they say, and here we are thirty-one years later, thirteen years after becoming civil partners, living in Kent and with a holiday home in South Africa. And a mutual enjoyment of wine has been there all along: downing 12″ pizzas at La Porchetta on Stroud Green Road along with a generous litre of red wine; wine tasting as one of the raison d’êtres of holidays abroad; buying shares in Chapel Down Vineyard; and Henry even investing in wine for the longterm.
But there’s no escaping the fact that our consumption has increased, with weekend drinking often encroaching into the rest of the week. One factor behind this has to be my retirement from clinical practice. Idle hands, etc. Never Mondays or Tuesdays, though. We know our limits. And Henry would never drink when he’s on call. Holidays? Well, we do let ourselves go a bit then.
The irony is that outwardly we’re both probably fitter than ever. I’m at the local gym 7 days a week and see 2 personal trainers. Henry runs several times a week and also has a session with a trainer. And our LFTs are normal, so our livers have to be doing all right … surely. Well, therein lies the rub: there’s good reason why cirrhosis of the liver is called ‘a silent epidemic’. One simply doesn’t know until the damage is done. Of course, it’s not just alcohol that’s to blame; hepatitis and obesity are major risk factors, and particularly in the young.
Henry was surprised by my ELF test result, too. Interestingly, his initial response was, “Well, we’re all going to die from something.” He’s also a doctor. But while we’ve been on holiday in South Africa, he’s been thinking a lot about it – and cutting his alcohol consumption. We’ve even been buying – and actually enjoying – 0% Beck’s fruit beers. Woolworths stores in South Africa (unrelated to the old UK Woolies) even sell a remarkably pleasant sparkling grape juice with ginger for zest. But there’s a BA flight in Club World coming up with temptations aplenty.
So how will it all work out? Will my liver recover? How will Henry manage? Will it be abstinence or drinking within recommended levels?