When I was 21, I decided I should make a proper effort to be a writer. I knew what I needed: countless films and television shows had told me. I needed a typewriter, fags and a bottle of whisky. I acquired them, and set myself up at the kitchen table. Yep, I thought. Now I am the business. I was Dorothy Parker, Carson McCullers, Raymond Chandler. So I would die miserably – who cares? I was 21, and still immortal.
It seems whatever our role in life, our culture offers us a way for alcohol to be central to it. Alcohol, in its various guises, tells us who we are. In TV drama, for example, are you a beautiful woman with a demanding job? Then every night you must go home to your spacious kitchen, perch at the island and pour half a bottle of white wine into a spotless and weirdly huge glass.
Are you a detective? Here’s your whisky – unless you’re in recovery, in which case you can’t have it until episode six, when you crumble under the pressure and let loose all hell as you tumble tumultuously from the wagon.
Are you on a date? Have a cocktail. Are you being manly? Here’s your beer. Oh, you’re a rich man? Have vodka with gold leaf flecks in it, in the special part of the club reserved for people who can afford that.
You’re a rich woman? Cristal for you, madam. If you’re a normal woman you must make do with Prosecco, fatuous references to which adorn every birthday card and T-shirt on the rack. It’s wine o’clock! Time for some lady-fuel! Because no great adventure ever started with a salad. Time was, I wanted to firebomb those shops.
The Rev Richard Coles, former pop star, vicar and borderline National Treasure, spoke with feeling about representations of alcohol recently. I know Richard, and I knew his husband, the Rev David Coles. He was a clever, charismatic, handsome, hilarious and warm-hearted man; a former charge nurse; and, heartbreakingly, an alcoholic. Now gone. He carried echoes for me: my late fiancé, composer Robert Lockhart, also clever, charismatic, etc, died nine years ago, of being an alcoholic, though he’d been sober for years.
Richard Coles said in the Radio Times: “If we are to make realistic decisions about how we poison ourselves, we need the information, the hard facts, not the romanticised, glamorised, falsified version of alcohol that entertainment offers and advertising promotes.”
It’s extraordinary to those who’ve lived through it that this falsity continues. And on top of the glamorisation, there’s the normalisation – which bothers me not because it’s unrealistic, but because it’s all too realistic. Our culture is so obsessed that when we see somebody refuse an alcoholic drink in a drama we immediately know they’re an alcoholic in recovery – why else would they not drink? Relapse is such a very rich plot line, whatever the setting. What writer could resist?
Unfortunately – and perhaps surprisingly, given how much alcoholism there is around – it often seems to be written by people with no experience of it. Easier to go with the clichés than to look at the boring, destructive drudgery, the repetitiveness and sheer sorrow of everyday addiction.
There are honourable exceptions: Siobhan Finneran’s performance in Happy Valley; the entire terrifying atmosphere of I May Destroy You; Pete Postlethwaite in Terence Davies’ Distant Voices Still Lives; Denise Gough in People, Places and Things, Peter Mullan in Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe. But usually? I visited Robert in a dingy rehab facility one Christmas. The alcoholics gazed bemusedly at the ads. How to be a happy family? Drink port and brandy round a big table. How to be festively sexy? Drink sweet liqueurs while running around a crowded club in sequins. Tiny little label at the bottom of the screen: “Please drink responsibly”.
If alcohol were invented today, it would be defined as a Class A drug. But it is our drug. For many of us – including me – this delicious reward, available in so many tasty varieties, cheers us when we’re sad, soothes us when we’re anxious, lubricates us when we need it. If the drug didn’t work (at least at first), we wouldn’t like it so much, ergo it wouldn’t be a problem. In the meantime, we forget that it’s a depressant. We scoff at the health risks.
Our economy is interminably intertwined with it; our hospitality and performance industries depend on it. Taxes we pay on it support the NHS on which it puts so much pressure. Periodically we may wonder if we have a problem. Here is my preferred pop wisdom on that: it’s not what you drink, or how much you drink. It’s why you drink, and what it does to you.
Despite all this, I feel things may be looking up. Fewer young people drink. Obituaries are starting to eschew the traditional euphemistic “died aged 53 … battled demons … heart attack” approach and actually say “alcohol-related”. Perhaps the shame is retreating, and a more mature attitude emerging. Last week, an actual MP, Dan Carden, stood up in the House and told his all-too-common, all-too-sad, magnificently hopeful story, declaring his alcoholism, his shame, his recovery, and that “You can choose to hide, or you can choose to live”.
Alice’s storyline in The Archers is throwing open the windows with its long-haul examination. And Thomas Vinterberg’s award-winning new film, Another Round, had me in tears: a stern, wild, grown-up look at our terrible friend’s sneakiness and beauty, at how our innate and lifelong desire to lose control can end up with us losing everything. Not immortal after all.
You Left Early: A True Story of Love and Alcohol, by Louisa Young (Borough Press)