Dionysus and Apollo

Argus title : Drinkers need help to quit – just like smokers

I drink too much. Too much wine (preferably Italian and French) and, when I can afford it, good whisky. My Scottish soul exalts in the golden colour and peaty smell of a good Malt.

The scent evokes the wild heather and wind-swept hills of the Highlands. Not that I’ve ever experienced this, given that I come from the colonies. It’s all part of the mythology upon which we Scottish emigrants feed.

When my father was alive and in good health I’d buy him Glenfiddich and Drambuie liqueur at Christmas and Hogmanay. I made Cranachan a few times. It’s a Scottish dessert made with double cream, fine toasted oatmeal, raspberries and a slug of Drambuie – subtle, but lethal.

Cranachan may be delicious, but it doesn’t compare with my mother’s trifle. It’s anything but subtle, packing a kick like a wild mule. A concoction of sweet custard, layered with whipped cream and decorated with cherries and blanched almonds, it looks innocent enough, but the jam-covered sponge fingers hidden underneath are laced with a truly stunning amount of cream sherry.

In the days before Christmas, when my sober and lady-like mother used to prepare the trifle, she’d stand in the kitchen with a glint in her eye, clutching the sherry bottle and saying “I think we could do with a bit more in here, don’t you?” It was a scene re-enacted year after year from my childhood onwards.

Years later I read about ordinary women in Ancient Greece who from time to time left their households and went to the hills, where they carried out orgiastic and drunken rituals, often in praise of the god Dionysus. According to some accounts, any man or beast crossing these usually rational matrons ran the risk of being torn to pieces. When the rites were over, the women quietly returned to their work and their households.

The German philosopher Nietsche believed that human culture contained two principles in tension with each other – the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian, he claimed, relates to everything individual, rational, distinct and balanced, the Dionysian to those things which subvert reason, create chaos or submerge human individuality. Drunkenness, madness and ecstasy are Dionysian. It seemed to me that my mother’s yearly alcoholic indulgence was a small echo of this.

This is a tough world and sometimes there is only so much of rules and reason that people can stand. It is no accident that ecstatic religious practices and chaotic drunkenness are historically often associated with women, the poor and the powerless.

Though some people drink for joy, most do so to take the edge off the world. As one alcoholic said to me “Alcohol is the best anaesthetic I know”.

This is probably why social progressives and radicals in this country are so confused about alcohol. They know that drinking profits the rich and harms the poor, but they are repelled by efforts to contain it. Occasionally, they are in denial about their own addictive drinking habits, but more often, I think, their disquiet is an expression of solidarity, even pity. They sense that drunkenness provides a glimpse of what genuine freedom, companionship and joy might feel like. Even at its most destructive, it can give those in its grip an illusion of power and control.

I am far from abstemious and, as the passages above reveal, am as capable as the next drinker of romanticising alcohol and justifying my use of it. However, I have attended too many funerals of alcoholics, not to be fully conscious of its dangers.

I know that my substance of choice is a poison, which damages the human body and brain, creating the preconditions for disease, accident and injury. A source of ecstasy, it is also a wild beast which tears lives apart.

In a recent article about teenage drinking I advocated limiting supply of alcohol and was particularly critical of previous government decisions to permit alcohol sales from supermarkets and similar retail outlets.

I’ve had a positive response, but strangely not from people on the left. They’ve either ignored or gently mocked and criticized what I’ve written. One typical comment, from someone who usually reads the articles with some care, was “Article Saturday week was excellent, not sure about last Saturday’s, but as I only scanned it I’d better not comment, although it seemed a bit temperance stuff to me!”

Another, more considered response, emphasized the need to change our drinking culture, but inexplicably rejected controls on supply. It concluded

“People shop in supermarkets,…..They say they don’t have time to prepare good food but have plenty of time to sit and watch TV with the fast food on their laps. A Big Brother culture, which is why the programme is so popular. People can identify with it and it, in turn, reinforces this culture. All these young boozers are doing is reflecting this.

“We need to divorce the idea that alcohol is something ‘adult’ and special; that wine is something you swig from a bottle with mates rather than enjoy with good food round a table; and that getting drunk is the aim. But we won’t do it by making alcohol even more desirable and difficult to acquire – especially if the parents are drinking in such a manner at home.”

I agree with much of this, but am convinced that any attempt to change the culture will founder unless supply is restricted – especially to children. I haven’t called for teetotalism. I have called for reduced consumption and suggested that the supermarket lobby which already controls our food supply should not also be able to influence, and profit from, our consumption of alcohol.

It is a scandal that supermarkets, which are required to restrict sale of tobacco to kiosks, are permitted to sell alcohol alongside food and to heavily discount it in order to encourage customers into their stores. If supermarkets were required to employ specialist staff to sell alcohol from separate kiosks, it would discourage casual purchases and illegal sales to young people. However, this would raise overheads and limit profits and that is something that the supermarket industry would fight tooth and nail.

I decided to walk the shopping street I know best – to investigate just how easy or difficult it is to acquire alcohol and get help to come off it.

In the five minutes it took to stroll the crowded pavements of the lower London Road from Preston Circus to Cheapside, I counted 5 pubs, I specialist off license, 3 bars, 2 licensed newsagents, 1 licensed video hire store and 4 supermarkets and food outlets selling alcohol (a fifth is on the way). I did not include the 2 licensed restaurants, because they do not allow customers to take alcohol away.

On my way, I visited Superdrug, the Co-op Pharmacy and Boots – not because they supply alcohol, but because they sell over the counter medication. I wanted to find out what help is available for those with nicotine or alcohol dependency.

All 3 firms offered products to assist with withdrawal from tobacco and nicotine. There were patches, gels, sprays and inhalers – all of which could be bought without embarrassment over the counter.

However, when I asked about assistance with the equally unpleasant withdrawal symptoms from alcohol, it was a very different story. There are no over the counter preparations for sale at all. No gel, no sprays, no inhalers and no patches.

There are prescription drugs, such as Antabuse, which causes you to vomit if you drink and Heminevrin which eases severe withdrawal symptoms, but these are powerful unpleasant drugs designed for alcoholics who are in the grip of severe addiction. There is nothing at all to assist someone who may simply want to stop, either because they can no longer afford to drink or are aware that their health is being compromised.

We have a culture which makes it easy for us to drink addictively and difficult to come off it in the early stages of dependence when it would be easier to do so. In addition, there is a stigma attached to alcohol addiction which does not apply to those addicted to nicotine. Consequently, people struggling with withdrawal symptoms cannot easily seek the support of family and work colleagues. Worse, there is a stigma attached to abstinence, which makes life difficult for those who do not drink.

I asked the Co-op Pharmacist whether he knew of any proposals to supply over the counter medication to ease alcohol withdrawal. He said he knew of none. As I left he called out “In your article, tell them we need to have products like that.”

And so I am doing just that.

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