Home » Cinema » Its not just theyoung whohave a drink problem | Ian Jack

Its not just theyoung whohave a drink problem | Ian Jack

I consume 100 times more alcohol than my dad did. Now Ive learned that harmful drinking affects older people most, I feel I need to do better, says Guardian columnist Ian Jack

Recently I calculated that every year I drink about 100 times as much alcohol as my father did, and at least 200 times as much as my mother. The annual total in dads case came at most to a dozen small bottles of beer plus a whisky at New Year, while over the same 12 months Mum might have two or three glass of advocaat mixed with lemonade, and at New Year a couple more of sherry. These tiny amounts have to be measured against my own domestic intake of getting on for three bottles of wine a week, or lets say 150 bottles a year, which takes no account of the uncertain number swallowed outside the house at restaurants, farewell parties, funerals and the homes of friends.

I console myself with the fact that I hardly ever drink spirits or beer, rather like the brandy-befuddled shepherd whom Richard Hannay meets in The Thirty-Nine Steps, who cant understand his condition: the shepherd considers himself a teetotaller because he keepit aff the whisky. In truth, compared to the good and sober habits of my parents, my consumption is shameful. They would be worried by the ritual that occurs more evenings than not: the squeak of the corkscrew, the glug of wine into glass, the question: Oh, shall we have another? In their day, the alcohol that was kept in the house hardly ever left its little cupboard. A bottle of cognac and a bottle of Glenlivet, given to my grandparents at their wedding in 1899, lay there unopened. Slowly their gilt labels (Bruce & Glen, wine merchants, Dunfermline) turned black with the passing years.

I dont think my mother was ever in a bar, and my father entered them only reluctantly after pressure from his workmates or brothers-in-law. We were a respectable family. Some fathers in the neighbourhood drank on a Saturday night. Others family men took their wives and children to the pictures. The typical Scottish bar hid behind painted or heavily curtained windows; when the door swung open you glimpsed a forbidden interior of talkative men and tobacco smoke. Later, on the last bus home (from the Regal cinema, in my case, from the Volunteer Arms in his) one of these men might be sick, the yeasty liquid changing its course across the floor as the bus went up or down a hill. Or there would be someone in overalls still in his working clothes, other passengers might say sorrowfully who needed the conductors help to get down, having stayed in the pub till 10pm instead of going home to have tea with his wife.

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A pub in Londons East End in the 1960s. It was possible to see scenes like these as dwindling remnants of a darker past. Photograph: Steve Lewis/Getty Images

In the 1950s and 1960s it was possible to see scenes like these as the dwindling remnants of a darker past, when the industrial working class regularly anaesthetised themselves with beer and whisky, to add to the squalid chaos of their surroundings, the neglect of their children, the bruising of their wives, etc. Out of this time had come the temperance movement, which taught my mother as a schoolgirl to write alcohol is a poison not a food in her exercise books and equipped my 16-year-old father with an ornate certificate from the Christian charity Band of Hope on which he signed a pledge to abstain from all intoxicating drinks as beverages the last two words presumably exempting a medicinal shot of brandy. Watch and pray that ye enter not into temptation, is inscribed between illustrations of women who sit draped and coiffured like Greek goddesses, one labelled Knowledge and the other Temperance, and each with a child at her knee.

Clearly, my parents had entered temptation advocaat, India pale ale but it was very slight. Others had fallen much further. As well as the men on the bus, there was the old man who lived with his family in the flat downstairs, who after a Saturday night in the pub would be towed homewards by his dog to ignite scenes of noisy disharmony. But to many people of my parents generation, alcohol must have seemed in general retreat. My father remembered how his mother had stretched vinegar cloots [cloths] across her husbands forehead on a Sunday morning after the night before, and how his maternal grandfather had died of drink, alone in an Edinburgh lodging house.

Its easy to detect in this history a pattern of action and reaction drunks in one generation, abstainers in the next but in the last century larger forces were also at work. Youth movements such as the Scouts inveighed against drink. Other forms of entertainment, chiefly the cinema and the dance hall, began to change young mens ideas of an evening out. In the interwar years, intellectual and physical pursuits such as night school classes, hiking and cycling became hugely popular: Charlie Chaplin and the Cyclists Touring Club probably did more to moderate alcohol consumption than the worldwide temperance movement. Male-only pleasures such as an evening in a pub began to look as quaint and outdated as the music hall. In the early 1960s, even in a Scottish provincial town, the coffee bar reigned as the fashionable place to meet and be seen.

How, then, did we get from there to here to a world in which 17-year-old girls develop pancreatitis as a result of excessive drinking, where, to quote its chief executive in England, the NHS is becoming the national hangover service; but also to a world in which overage drinkers, people like me, are encouraged to change their habits.

According to Drink Wise Age Well, a charity headquartered in Glasgow, harmful drinking is increasing more among the over-50s than any other age group. This week I watched a video put out by the charity that showed us either happy and careless or sad and heedless, drinking a little more than we should to cope with retirement, bereavement and the empty nest syndrome. A memorable little film that got through four lives and three different problems in 167 seconds. There was Kevin with his cans of lager who didnt think his long-anticipated retirement would leave him quite so bored. There was Liz with her gin and tonic increasingly isolated since losing her life partner Frank once the life and soul of every party. And there were Jackie and Derek, unloading their weekly half-dozen bottles of red from the boot of their little car and soon relaxing with full wine glasses increasingly enjoying their evening tipple as the long evenings stretch out without the busy chirruping of family life.

There was a grim undertone of as yet undiagnosed diseases; it seemed no coincidence that Frank, who died of bowel cancer, had liked a drink. As I watched, I noted with a little relief that Jackie and Derek were red wine boozers whereas I hardly ever stray from white. Then I made my calculation that suggested Dad drank only a 100th of what I do, and vowed to do better quite soon.

Ian Jack is a regular Guardian contributor

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/02/middle-aged-alcohol-drink-historic

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