Alcohol – Is It Really A Danger To Society?

Alcohol, or booze as I like to call it, is always in the news for one reason or another. Whether it’s due to mass hysteria that alco-pops are turning Britain’s kids into feral nightmares or that the supposedly cheap cost of plonk somehow contributes to the downward spiral of alcoholic life, alcohol often gets a bad rep and blamed for many of societies’ ills.

But can alcohol be solely blamed for taking such a grip on people’s personalities and lives? Or are there other reasons for people acting the way they do? It’s time to explore alcohol in a bit more detail, including some of my own experiences with the stuff to see just what on earth is going on. Warning – this article may feature tales of someone under the age of 18 drinking booze. You’ll just have to cope with that I’m afraid.

My relationship with alcohol started around the Sunday lunch table when I was probably around 11 years old. I would be on drinks duty, fetching and pouring my Dad’s can of Kestrel (no idea why he drank the stuff) and I’d taste it on occasion and be utterly repulsed by its unpleasant metallic taste (the beer, not the can). Maybe Dad deliberately drank rubbish beer to put me off ever trying it, who knows. At Christmas, when the wine was cracked open with Mum, Dad and various relatives, my brother and I would make our own “exotic” concoctions. I’d usually have a lime cordial over a few games of cards. It seemed cool at the time, alright? Both of my Grandads enjoyed a Scotch and I felt like I was joining in. Thankfully I seem to have inherited their love of the stuff, and I hope they’re both looking down now, secretly proud of the collection I now have in my drinks cupboard.

My first REAL pint in a REAL pub was in January 1994 during a Manic Street Preachers gig, so I would have been 14. It was Fosters’. It was in a plastic pint glass. It made me feel a bit squiffy to be honest, although I’m not sure if that was the adrenaline of my first gig or my first pint or what. All I knew was that it went down pretty well. I don’t remember necessarily when my next drink was or even when I started drinking more than just a pint. I remember drinking a steady four or five pints of Fosters’ in my local (when I may have been just a little bit under age to be doing so) and going out round Bristol to metal and indie nights where the only difference to that routine may have been a cheeky Scotch and soda to round off the night. Similarly I remember a few Fosters’ Ice bottles slipping down a treat in Salcombe’s beer gardens on holidays with friends.

My friends and I were never ones to go too bonkers with booze at that age, preferring a quiet few pints. I think we were probably a bit scared of going above the four to five drink comfort zone and spending the night in A&E having our stomachs pumped, although we did raid some parental drinks cabinets in our time, creating Southern Comfort and Tango cocktails and other strange homebrews. Again, nothing too crazy, and we weren’t drinking every day but alcohol was still a relatively big part of our lives.

There were a few strange moments – I do recall having a Scotch pre-school on my Birthday one year, possibly in my GCSE year. I probably did it more for effect than anything. But largely, especially since I had an older brother who wasn’t bothered either way about going on the sauce, I took it steady, but was still probably drinking more than I should have done at a young age. Do I regret it? No, not really. Those nights out were more about the night itself rather than trying to get as annihilated as possible. Similarly I would never drink that much at gigs in those days. I did have a few all day sessions around the age of 17-18 during the summer, but who wouldn’t on a sunny Bristol afternoon with jazz in the air and cider on tap?

When I went away to University I filled my time with what any sensible student would, interspersing lectures and degree work with excessive drinking, pub lunches that turned into all-dayers and house parties fuelled by wine and lager. Again, cheap booze was the order of the day, the girls often buying a sub-£2 bottle of Lambrini before going out and some of us men folk developed a taste for £2.99 Co-op Rioja that probably hadn’t seen a grape in its life. I probably felt the worst I have ever felt from booze on a couple of occasions in those days, notably staying in one night with a litre bottle of Asda’s own Claymore Scotch and mixing it with a two litre bottle of Irn Bru. If that is what alcohol poisoning feels like, please never let me have it again. It felt like my innards were rotting through my skin. Bad times, but it taught me a valuable lesson; don’t shop in Asda.

There were several “incidents” at University that could no doubt be blamed on booze. A fair few injuries and scraps (involving people other than me, natch), but we were in Yorkshire so I’d expect nothing less. Did I also blow a considerable amount of student cash in a very short space of time to compensate for a break up? Yes I did. But it was my choice. And again, with hindsight, it was probably as much about showing off and attention seeking as it was drowning my sorrows. Perhaps the only regret I have about my Uni years is that my memory is now pretty bad, caused no doubt by the sheer amount of brain cell killing grog I poured down my neck, but that was a decision I took. Can I still function in society? I like to think so, although those who know me may say otherwise, but moving on…

When I left University, I calmed it down a bit. Responsibility, lack of disposable income and moving to Manchester and having few friends up here contributed. But again, after a few years, it became a Friday norm to go out with a few colleagues for some stress relieving post-work pints. Team Drinking extended to more and more people so you could usually guarantee that there would be someone about come Friday to share a jar with. Some say I instigated this cultural shift, but it could well have been more down to the economic gloom and a lot of people approaching 30 with a shared mind-set. Either way, some great times were had tearing up Manchester’s Northern Quarter, and it was the first time I really felt like I had a local since about 1997.

Post-work drinks then started involving more non-Friday events. Football down the pub on Saturdays and Sundays took off. Karaoke nights, pub quizzes, and the now frequent train-based pub crawls were all attended by various acquaintances, and all through a shared joy of alcohol and pig by-products. Would we have bothered if alcohol wasn’t available, making us giddy with its intoxicating ways? Probably not. A few of my friends do swing towards detoxes on occasion for health, money or other reasons, but they’ll still happily come to the pub for a half of lemonade or some such.

But could I do that? No. I fully admit that if I wasn’t drinking I find it difficult to be out with others who are for a full night. I have the utmost respect for people who can do it, but it really isn’t for me. Yes I can have a quick Coke in a boozer or other non-alcoholic beverage but not if the intention is to stay there for a good few hours. It seems a waste and I resent paying the ridiculous prices that soft drinks cost when for a little more I can have something bigger and tastier. Does this make me an alcoholic? No, I don’t think so. I don’t go out every night, and I sure as anything don’t sit at home by myself drinking every night. In fact I probably only have a tipple two or three days a week. Do I drink more on those two or three occasions than an adult should according to medical guidance? Probably, yes, but I’m not the only one by a long way. And I enjoy the sense of euphoria that alcohol gives. I enjoy the social aspects of getting a round in and sharing a pint and some banter. I like the taste and smell of a nice San Miguel after a long week of work. And yes I can talk to my friends without a pint in my hand, but pubs were invented for drinking (probably, I’ve not done the research) so I intend to use them precisely for that.

But what of the terrifying scenes witnessed across our town centres on a Friday night? In Manchester I’m the first to admit that the sights you can see are often shocking. Women sat on kerbs unable to stay awake by 8pm, men scrapping or urinating down an alley. This happens all over the UK, and is booze to blame? Partly. The people seen in such states still chose to take that route to utter obliteration, and chances are some of them may have been in a fight or been otherwise unlawful when the tribalism of football was at play rather than beer, but that is just speculation. One thing’s for sure, pubs will continue to sell alcohol and people will continue to get drunk. They do it to get over disappointment and misery. They do it to celebrate success. They raise a glass to toast summer sun, or to escape the long dark winter nights. They do it for every reason known to man, and it is ingrained into British culture as much as queuing or complaining about public transport. You could probably count thousands of people in this country who wake up on a Saturday morning with a sore head and a bellyful of regrets. I for one will fully admit that I can count at least four or five occasions when I have either acted like an idiot, annoyed or upset people, done something irresponsible or let myself or others down in the past couple of months alone. I’m sorry, yes, but I’m not blaming beer, I’m blaming myself.

I do also appreciate the effects that alcohol can have on individuals and their families in worst case scenarios. I’ve witnessed first-hand someone close to me in constant denial that they are an alcoholic, despite being done for drink driving. To them, this just meant they needed a lift to the pub. They drank every single night, and I was surprised they held down a job. It tore their family apart and left a trail of debt and despair, but this was simply because alcohol is a drug and when that drug is combined with a mind-set that isn’t right in the first place, it can be a recipe for disaster.

And here we are in 2012. I’ve had a relationship with the stuff for 18 years and I don’t see it ending any time soon. Has it cost me a lot of money over the years? Yes. Has it cost me my dignity? On occasion, yes. Do I blame it solely for every woe that has happened to me over the years? No. At the end of the day, I still wake up each morning sober and in control of who I am and the decisions I make. And it is this fact that the media seem to miss. Alcohol may enter the bloodstream but at some point it leaves, and at that juncture, what people are left with is themselves. If they cannot cope with that reality then maybe there is sadly very little hope for them at all.

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Great British Icons – Part One

Following the death a couple of days ago of the great Keith Floyd, I began to realise that we no longer mourn the passing of icons, we mourn the death of institutions. Of legends. Of eccentrics. Of the heart and soul of Britain.

Floyd was an utterly maniacal genius. He was years ahead of his time. From his humble beginnings in Somerset and Bristol, he got one of his first gigs peeling potatoes – his first “cooking” job. But he showed drive and determination to get to where he wanted to be – in front of the camera.

But why does he still get vilified even after his death? Because today’s politically correct society cannot see past the alcohol. And the smoking. And the swearing. And the womanizing. And the flippant attitude to money.

Yes, he was obnoxious, but that’s because he knew how to push people’s buttons. Yes he was offensive, but that was what his appeal was all about. No-one else could set up a field kitchen in an Italian square, despite local protestations and then proceed to rustle up an amazing risotto, even complaining along the way that the locals were making too much noise. Even when local Asian fishermen tried to charge him for cooking on a local quay he carried on regardless with his trademark bottle of wine to hand, barking orders at his cameraman who was probably fearing for his safety. Why did Floyd act like this? Because he could. Empirical attitude or not, he honestly just wanted to do the best that he could with the gifts that were given to him. He was the first of the TV chefs. And possibly still the best.

Sadly, more and more of these great British icons are disappearing from this Earth and in their place is a vacuum of personality and entertainment. Gone are the risk takers. The eccentrics. The old soaks. Why? Who knows. Even when celebrities do self destruct these days, they do it with so little charm that it becomes unsurprising, almost as if it is all an act, just to get the publicity. Look at Kerry Katona’s This Morning slurring. Jack Tweed’s (alleged) rape. Peter Andre and Jordan’s oh so public marriage and inevitable split. These are not world-weary travellers. These are not experienced hell-raisers. These are kids who got a lucky break and threw it back in the face of those who gave it to them.

It makes me sound and indeed feel old, but I can’t help but think back to a sadly bygone age. To those who gave so much to the world but who sadly get so little recognition for the great things they truly achieved.