Friday 12 June 2009

Choosing life

Beat the Booze, by Edmund Tirbutt and Helen Tirbutt

Britain’s apparently pathological relationship with alcohol is an increasingly prominent concern in the media. We are told that far too many people are drinking far too much, leading to antisocial behaviour and lost work days in the short term, and addiction and chronic disease in the long term. Politicians propose everything from better education to steeper prices as a means of weaning us off the bottle.

Beat the Booze is aimed at individuals who have decided for themselves that they’re drinking too much, and want to give up or even just cut down on their own terms. There is something quite refreshing about this practical, individual approach to what is more often discussed as an intractable social or cultural problem. Moreover, the book’s approach is different from that of traditional self-help. Perhaps its most distinctive feature is its suggestion that it’s possible to get over problem drinking without giving up completely, and indeed its rejection of the term ‘alcoholic’.

Whereas participants at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings famously introduce themselves by saying, ‘My name is X and I am an alcoholic’, Edmund and Helen Tirbutt begin their book by telling readers, ‘Forget the word alcoholic’. They explain is that too many drinkers get hung up on the definition of alcoholism, telling themselves that as long as they’re not addicted to booze, they have nothing to worry about. The Tirbutts’ point is not that this is necessarily a case of ‘denial’ – it may or may not be – but that whether or not you are an alcoholic in any particular sense, it is probably a good idea to drink less, especially if you’ve found yourself asking these questions in the first place.

The book consists of numerous tips and suggestions about how to do this, how to find professional help where necessary, and how to help others who seem to have a problem. But the overall impression is of a gentle but incessant nudging of readers towards the conclusion that those nagging worries they have about how much they’re drinking are probably well-founded, and now is as good a time as any to do something about it.

The authors say it is a mistake to think you can’t deal with a drink problem without first addressing its complex underlying causes, suggesting instead that excessive or out-of-control drinkers need to ‘put out the fire’ before trying to determine what caused it. This is especially true because there are so many conflicting accounts that trying to determine the main cause in any particular case is likely to be confusing. The authors are critical both of the idea that alcoholism is simply a biological disease on one extreme, and of the idea that it’s simply a matter of willpower on the other. Maybe there are genetic factors; maybe it’s all based on childhood trauma, or unhappy relationships in the present. In any case, the immediate solution is simply to stop drinking (except in the rare case of physical dependence, which requires medical attention).

This no-nonsense approach may well be helpful for anyone looking for a spur to deal with a drink problem, and in need of advice and (perhaps more importantly) encouragement. The section on helping others also seems helpfully thoughtful, advising gentle questioning to lead drinkers to their own conclusions, for example (a bit like the book’s own method), rather than accusations and nagging. There is also practical and legal advice for employers who have to deal with staff whose drinking causes problems.

Ultimately, though, the book’s refreshingly practical approach can’t disguise a certain disapproval of drinking in general, which reflects wider cultural prejudices apparent in media coverage of ‘boozy Britain’. While the book is pitched at those who just want to cut down on drinking as well as those who want to give up altogether, both authors are themselves teetotal, and they recommend a period of abstinence even for those who plan to go on drinking more moderately in the long term. The flipside of ‘forget the word alcoholic’ is a strong suggestion that even ‘normal’ drinkers would do well to consider quitting.

The Tirbutts’ negativity about alcohol is tempered only by a rather unworldly focus on the benefits of sobriety. They encourage readers to think about all the time and money they could save if they quit drinking (in a section enticingly called ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’), and even suggest the benefits will include a sense of superiority over friends who go on drinking. This can’t be healthy. While broader questions about the morality of drinking are beyond the scope of this book, a weakness of its focus on individual sobriety is a certain smugness, and a disdain for the drunken herd. Again, this reflects a wider prejudice: it is striking that when we discuss ‘drinking culture’ in contemporary Britain, the connotation is invariably negative. In fact, a ‘drinking culture’ is a good thing (1).

For most of us, drinking is essentially a social activity, rather than an individual pathology, and the social character of drinking is a natural moderating influence. This is a point made by the philosopher Roger Scruton in a recent essay where he distinguishes between the civilised intoxication that comes of enjoying good wine or beer in company, and the thoughtless drunkenness that comes of drinking for the hell of it (even in a group) (2). This recalls the words of GK Chesterton, who observed that, ‘The dipsomaniac and the abstainer are not only both mistaken, but they both make the same mistake. They both regard wine as a drug and not as a drink.’ (3) A similar mistake is made by politicans who crusade against drinking as if it were essentially antisocial. As Scruton argues,

Our Government’s current campaigns against binge drinking and public smoking are designed to destroy the normal forms of relaxation among simple people, and to cause them to stay at home with a bottle, where they can watch politically correct television in silence, absorbing the images of social decay.

He is not exaggerating. In 2006, the Scottish executive ran a public health campaign discouraging people from drinking in rounds – a practice described by Scruton as ‘one of the great cultural achievements of the English’ (though the Scots are rather fond of it too) – since the ‘peer pressure’ involved was seen in an entirely negative light. Scruton is only wrong to assume we are to be allowed a bottle at home: the Scottish executive also wants to raise the price of alcohol in off sales to drive down demand. Compare this with Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that ‘No land is drunken where wine is cheap’: social reformers used to encourage the masses to drink wine and beer rather than more harmful spirits. Instead of fostering a healthy drinking culture, the authorities today seek to dismantle this culture altogether.

The Scottish government, having little else to do, is pioneering this approach, but similar measures are being discussed all over Britain (4). All this is fuelled by a perception that drinking is out of control, but arguably this has more to do with a broader climate of cultural pessimism than our real drinking habits. In fact, a recent review of research into drinking in the UK found there has been an overall decline in weekly drinking in recent years (5). What is interesting is the exceptions within this overall trend: women are drinking more than before, as are older people, and drinking is also on the rise in Northern Ireland. In all of these cases, there is a correlation between rising living standards or quality of life, and drinking. Women today are more likely to be independent of their husbands and families, as well as being better paid than women in the past; older people are also better off and less conservative (ageing ‘baby boomers’ are simply continuing habits developed in the liberal climate of the 1960s and 70s), while Northern Ireland is no longer in the shadow of conflict. Arguably, then, any rise in drinking reflects not social decline, but a general improvement of people’s lives.

Of course, drinking is a problem for lots of people, but this is not caused by a ‘drinking culture’ so much as individuals’ excursions from it, or perhaps its breakdown in some circumstances. Attempts to undermine what drinking culture there is are likely to be counterproductive. Ultimately, as the authors of Beat the Booze recognise, recovering from a drink problem requires individual resolve. This surely has to be understood in the wider context of a person’s life. Stopping drinking may be the first step, but on its own a disdain for booze and its effects is no foundation for a sober life.

Current Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Rednapp recently imposed a blanket ban on his players drinking. This is no bad thing. While drinking has long been a part of the culture in British football, in recent years the standards have risen, and most players at the top level barely drink, while many are teetotal. If you are an elite athlete, you really can’t drink like normal people. It’s not about long-term health, but simply the need to push your body to its limits every day. Rednapp’s ban sends a message to his players about the standards of professionalism he expects. Whatever you think of the morality of drinking, being a Premiership footballer is a very good reason not to drink.

Even for the rest of us, there are lots of other good reasons not to drink, or to drink in moderation. This is true even in walks of life much more drink-friendly than professional football. While there is a traditionally a close relationship between drinking and writing, as someone who both drinks and writes, I can testify that a good evening’s drinking is rarely followed by a good morning’s writing. Those of us who enjoy drinking limit ourselves nonetheless, for reasons that have nothing to do with moralism.

The two advocates of drinking cited above, Scruton and Chesterton, are both conservative thinkers. While there has never been a shortage of right-wing anti-drink crusaders, it is true that certain puritanism has often been a feature of radical and progressive politics. But there is a world of difference between the empty moralism of today’s politicians and commentators who rail against ‘binge drinking’ in ‘boozy Britain’, and the real moral agency of the Roundheads and various stern-faced revolutionaries who have frowned on drunkenness in the midst of political struggles ever since. Making history is another very good reason to turn down a drink, but let’s be wary of reasons that fall short. It is surely the lure of life lived to the full – the same thing that attracts most of us to alcohol in the first place – that is also the best incentive to sobriety, whether permanent or merely recreational.


1) I have previously made this argument in ‘Young people need role models who are tired and emotional’, Telegraph blogs, 15 August 2008
2) ‘In Vino Veritas: I’ll Drink to That’, by Roger Scruton, Standpoint, June 2009
3) George Bernard Shaw, by GK Chesterton (1909)
4) Several examples of the official undermining of drinking culture are documented by Josie Appleton in ‘Two Pints of Non-Alcoholic Lager and a Packet of Fat-Free Crisps: How pointless regulations are ruining British pub life’, Reason, 1 June 2009
5) Drinking in the UK: An exploration of trends, by Lesley Smith and David Foxcroft, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 6 May 2009

 


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