News and Booze – Our Alcohol-Soaked Culture, And Six Years This Month Of Not Drinking…

My local post office closed down a few weeks ago and the service moved to the newsagents next door. The newsagents has a large sign in the window reading News & Booze and inside, the split of the two is approximately 90% Booze and 10% News.

When I was little, I loved going to the newsagents close to where I lived to spend my pocket money. I’d buy magazines and My Little Ponies, chocolate and stationery items. The shop was about a ten-minute walk from my house, and when my friends and I made the (what seemed like) long trek up there to purchase our weekend goodies, we all felt very grown up.

The News and Booze shop is very different to my childhood newsagents. As I stood in there the other day waiting to post a parcel, I gazed around at the three out of four walls filled with bottle after bottle of alcohol; vodka, wine and whiskey take precedence – I estimated there were at least fifteen different types of vodka on display. As I stood there, a man shuffled in with an empty carrier bag in his hand, embarrassment and shame inherent in his downward gaze. He asked the shopkeeper for a half-bottle of whiskey, and slid it quickly into his bag before paying and swiftly turning on his heel to head out of the door. It was about 11am. I guessed he had been waiting until a ‘reasonable’ time to go out and pick up his morning fix.

Today when I was in the same shop, a woman came in with her two young children. The smaller one, a little girl aged about two, repeatedly wandered to the bottles on the shelf, drawn by the colours on the labels and the shiny glass. She kept reaching out to touch them, entranced by the display that must have stretched up to the sky in her baby eyes. The mother repeatedly drew her back to her side as she tried to work through everything she had come into the shop to do. From behind the counter, the staff member joked to the toddler, “Don’t look at those! You’re not old enough for all that yet”.

And I observed both of these things like an outsider. Alcohol is a strange beast to those of us who used to drink too much of it but now don’t allow it anywhere close. When I drank, I never saw the harm in booze, despite the fact that my life was an alcohol-induced car crash mess – my crap job, my crap relationships, my zero self-esteem, my crap outlook, my crap depression, my crap life. It was all down to drinking too much, too regularly.

But alcohol to me back then was my highly defended best friend – I never blamed it for anything.

Nowadays, when I see alcohol encroach on people’s lives in such negative ways; now, when I see the blanket denial that exists across the board in relation to alcohol and how it never does any harm when we all know it does; now, when I see an alcohol-addicted man shuffle into a post office at 11am on a Monday morning to buy a half-bottle of whiskey; now, when I see toddlers being drawn into jokes about a damaging addictive drug, as if it were no more harmful than lemonade; now, when I see all these things, I feel like an alien. I wonder how those blinkers can be drawn so tightly that people see nothing wrong with alcohol. And yet when I look, I see a poison that nearly killed me and destroyed all my chances at being me, for over twenty years.

We live in a society so awash with booze that it is entirely normal to nip into your local post office to send a parcel, only to be greeted with three-quarters of the wall space filled with vodka and wine. Alcohol is ingrained into the fabric of western society, so entrenched that it can be virtually impossible to imagine living in a world without its omnipresence. And this is, of course, one of the reasons why it can be so difficult to imagine not drinking alcohol – at all, ever again.

More than anything else, the thing that has helped me adjust to being a non-drinker in a world apparently in love with alcohol, is belonging to Soberistas; knowing there are others who share my view of the world makes me feel like I’m not the only one – I’m not fighting this fight alone. Knowing this helps me to see our alcohol-obsessed culture for what it is; the sad outcome of profits over public health, the emergence of alcohol over the last few decades as an incredibly lucrative industry set firmly against the backdrop of capitalist society and a modern world in which lots of people want to escape the daily grind – and are encouraged relentlessly to do so through excessive drinking by alcohol manufacturers.

I am, however, comforted by the knowledge that I’m not the only person to recognise this truth. And I am so very grateful, every day, that I saw the light and waved goodbye to alcohol forever six years ago this month.

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Women, alcohol and the 1990’s

The report which was published yesterday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health and which highlighted a worrying trend in women (especially those born in the 1970’s) dying at a younger age as a result of alcohol-related illnesses, did not surprise me in the slightest.

As someone who was born in 1975, I came of age around the time of the explosion in both the wine culture in the UK which began with a vengeance in the early 1990’s, and the phenomenon that was women drinking in similar quantities as men and subsequently adopting more male characteristics – the ‘Ladette Culture’ so famously embodied by Zoe Ball and Sara Cox.

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It was absolutely de rigueur as a young woman circa the mid-1990’s to hang out in pubs all weekend, drink pints, play pool and smoke cigarettes, and that lifestyle utterly defined me from about the age of 17 onwards, until I became pregnant at 22. In my early twenties and a new mum, I then fell for the widespread marketing campaign of the wine manufacturers, completely buying into the idea that wine was somehow good for us – just look at all those healthy Mediterraneans guzzling their vino for goodness sake!

I am not attempting to excuse my personal responsibility here for the fact that I went on to develop a major dependency upon alcohol which was to last until my mid-thirties (I will be forever grateful that I managed to put the brakes on then, and my problem did not escalate further), but I do think that the wider cultural influences that were at play during that era of Oasis and Blur, grunge, a mainstreaming of rave culture and Third-wave feminism most popularly exemplified by The Spice Girls and their brand of ‘Girl Power,’ played a part in contributing to the notion that it was ok for women to drink heavily.

My mind-set back in the ‘90’s was characterised by what I recognise now as a false bravado – I presented myself as a hedonist, someone who was always ‘up for it,’ who could drink anyone under the table and beat most blokes on the pool table. It was misguided feminism that propelled me into a lifestyle defined by heavy drinking.

By the time I married and became a mum the habits were deeply engrained, and despite an effort to appear slightly more feminine by swapping the pints of Boddingtons for bottles of Chardonnay, I continued to drink, and always until I was inebriated. Because I was already a heavy drinker by the time I had my first baby, the now widely and effectively marketed wine suited my needs down to the ground – here was a sophisticated grown-up drink that I could consume in large quantities but yet remain firmly anchored in what was considered to be perfectly acceptable social behaviour. Nobody was going to accuse me of having a problem with the booze whilst ever I was drinking expensive bottles of Chablis or Barolo from Waitrose.

I bought into the wine industry’s advertising strategy and felt more than comfortable with being a ‘wine drinker.’

Ultimately, I would not have relied on alcohol in the way that I did if my underlying emotional problems had not existed; my terribly low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness together with the anxiety I experienced in social situations all combined to create the perfect conditions in which a booze dependency might establish itself.

However, if, in the light of the publication of yesterday’s report, people are searching for an explanation as to how this terrible situation has arisen where women are increasingly dying in their thirties and forties from alcohol-related illnesses, I would highlight the cultural background of the 1990’s as a major contributing factor.

Cinderella in a Restaurant

Should children be tolerated, welcomed or banned from public places? So asks the Daily Post’s ‘Weekly Writing Challenge.’ Read on for my thoughts on the matter…

There is a little plaza in the village of Fornalutx, Mallorca, where an ancient fountain bubbles away, a backdrop to the sound of the local children’s high Spanish voices squealing and laughing as they play around the old tree in the centre of the square. Their parents sit outside the tapas bars, sipping a beer or café con leche in the shadows cast by the dipping sun, talking about grown up stuff and occasionally looking over to ensure everyone is safe and behaving themselves. The atmosphere is convivial and full of humanity, a hub of community life ticking along as it has done for centuries.

On holiday in Mallorca earlier this year

In Sheffield where I live, things are a little different. For the entirety of my eldest daughter’s life, I have eaten in restaurants with her on a frequent basis. Sharing a meal out is a great opportunity for families to spend quality time talking to each other and to escape the ubiquitous mobile phones, TV’s and laptops that encroach on almost every other aspect of our lives. Because I have taken her out to dinner from just a few months old, she has always displayed good table manners and knows exactly how to behave amongst adults in a busy restaurant. When she was smaller, she would dress up in a Cinderella or Snow White costume when I took her out; now she puts make up on, wears a dress and high heels (mine, usually) and looks stunning. I am always extremely proud to walk in to any restaurant with her, knowing that her behaviour will be nothing less than perfect.

Now that I have a six-month old baby, she joins us when we eat out at restaurants. Down the road from where we live, there are a few places to eat of Mediterranean origin, and we usually choose those over more English, traditional venues, owing to the fact that we are a family with a baby. Mediterranean cultures celebrate children, and include youngsters in the conversations and social interactions that take place in restaurants and other public places. One particular aspect that I love about those cultures and the way they embrace little ones, is how the men fuss over babies and young children in such a relaxed and comfortable way – a social norm that is rarely seen in English culture. Mediterranean men seem so at ease with their masculinity and place in society, that they have no qualms about cuddling babies in public, kissing their children openly and generally demonstrating their paternal love for their families whenever they see fit. I love that!

I have never witnessed a badly behaved, bored child who is desperately trying to seek their parents’ attention, when on holiday in Mallorca, Spain or Italy. The children there are a part of whatever is going on; they are valued participants in  social gatherings of any kind, and join in the conversations with adults as equals. Or they are just allowed to let off steam, chasing each other round a big tree in a plaza, or splashing water scooped up from a fountain, until they are tired and happy to join the grown ups and their more sedate chatter. Children who feel wanted and loved do not (generally) behave badly, and children who know that they are accepted and welcomed by society as a whole when they visit public places, usually meet the expectations they understand have been placed on them, and act accordingly.

Eating out should always be about friends and family coming together to share conversation and laughter, and to cement relationships. Children are as much a part of the social equation as adults and should be treated as such by everybody. When children are listened to and respected as human beings, they are a source of endless fun and interesting banter, often more so than many of the adults to be found in restaurants!