“If I had all the money I’d spent on drink… I’d spend it on drink.”
Viv Stanshall, from “Sir Henry At Rawlinson End.
It seems James Bond was what we would call a functioning alcoholic. He drank an average of 92 units a week, against a suggested total, drawn up entirely at random at the end of the 1970s, with no basis in fact or scientific analysis, but now accepted without argument by health professionals, of 21 units for a grown male.
By that measure, I too am a functioning alcoholic, defined as someone drinking more than that suggested limit but able to continue with a normal life. You too, I expect. And you.
But the fact is that this country has, and has long had, a problem with drink. Admissions to hospital for conditions related to alcohol have been rising, especially among older people. Our relationship with booze is dysfunctional.
I have been trying to work out why. This will be another long post, for which apologies. Bear with me. There are, I think, three factors at play here. Genetics, wine and the global drinks industry.
I will not rehash the arguments over genetics versus upbringing, except to say that the right, politically, favours genetics as the main influence over our lives and the left the environment in which we are brought up. At present, genetics is ahead of the game, and there is a sub-branch, epigenetics, which deals with the influence of our genes on our behaviour.
It is impossible, in a population that has the same genes and the same cultural background, to disentangle their respective influence on how we behave, for example on our drinking habits. There are pointers. There are, statistically, fewer Jewish alcoholics, though again, learnt behaviour may be behind this.
Let’s take an odd historical parallel, though. In the late 10th century the Byzantine emperor Basil II, tiring of having to rely on his nobles’ feudal troops, with their dubious loyalty, decided to create his own regiment. The Varangian Guard were a little like the Roman Praetorians, then. They were drawn initially from the eastern Viking peoples who had moved south down the trade routes from the Baltic and founded the great city states of Smolensk, Novgorod and Kiev.
After the Norman Conquest, they were joined by English exiles. They were, therefore, genetically identical to today’s British. Their cultural background could not have been more different, note. They swiftly acquired a reputation for drinking extraordinary amounts, and picking fights when drunk. The Greeks, as they thought of themselves, were not especially martial, preferring to concentrate on making money and squabbling over icons.
They had a Mediterranean attitude to drink. Wine was watered down. The behaviour of the newcomers they found baffling. The Varangians become known as “the Emperor’s wineskins”.
A thousand years later, another influx of northern barbarians arrived on Greek shores bearing the same genes, in Monarch jets rather than longships, and acquired a reputation among the baffled Greeks for drinking too much and getting into fights. So does history repeat itself.
Next, wine. Watch a Frenchman or a Spaniard in a bar and a glass of wine will last them an hour easily. Us Brits will knock it back in a few minutes. Now, wine is a very strong drink, and easy to get down. It is not difficult for an adult to get through the best part of a bottle at a convivial lunch and a bottle or more in the evening. That is an awful lot of alcohol.
Sociologists say that on the introduction of any new drug into society, that society takes time to accustom itself and build up the cultural norms and practices that allow it to cope. It is culturally unacceptable to start the day with a stiff vodka. We have learnt this.
Wine was almost unknown in my youth. People drank spirits, and fairly seldom, in most cases. Men drank beer. Wine has become omnipresent, a daily drink, at first among the middle classes and eventually elsewhere. We have yet to evolve the social practices that allow us to consume it sensibly, as Mediterranean countries do. Think of Indians or Eskimos or Australian aborigines, introduced to firewater.
Third, the global drinks companies. When I was a teenager, we drank beer. We did not get home stone cold sober, but it is almost impossible to get falling down drunk, insensible, head in the gutter, I think we’d better take this one to the station, Sarge, on beer. Young stomachs can’t tolerate it. It takes time to drink a pint of beer. Too much, and it comes up again.
About twenty years ago those global drinks companies realised there was a market for what are actually viciously spiked nursery drinks. You take lemonade, or fruit juice, or any other palatable drink, and you add industrially produced alcohol. You market it specifically to young people. There is one brand called Wicked, advertising catchline “Have You Got a Wicked Side?” (“Wicked” is teenspeak for “good”, of course, or used to be.) Who is that aimed at?
You can go into a bar or pub at 6 pm, drink nine of these, probably for the price of three, during the “happy hour”, and by 8 pm you have had the best part of a bottle of spirits. Then the serious drinking begins. As most are based on vodka or other spirits, they become a gateway drink for the real thing. At my children’s teenage parties, there was generally an empty bottle of two left over the next morning. When I was a teenager, we hardly saw the stuff.
Now we come to the second part of this strategy. You serve these drinks in bars where the music is deafening – cos the kids want a real bangin’ time, don’t they? – and there are no chairs or tables. The loud music makes them shout, which dries out their throats and makes them drink more. The lack of tables mean they are standing, clutching their drinks, the whole evening. This, too, makes them drink more.
So such places are ergonomically designed to maximise the amount of alcohol that goes down young throats, while the drinks themselves are designed to be easily swallowed by unsophisticated palates.
And you wonder why we have a drink problem.