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Editor’s blog 25th February 2009: Sad news, better news and drunken psychology

Good evening. The unavoidable and sad news of the death early this morning of Opposition Leader David Cameron’s son Ivan, aged 6, casts a long shadow over today’s NHS and political news.

The House of Commons was near to its best in the condolences, and it was impressive that even in his grief, Mr Cameron found time to convey his family’s message of thanks to all NHS staff who had helped care for Ivan in his life.

Even if one has queries over specific Conservative policies on health, it has long been beyond doubt that the Conservative leader is a man who believes profoundly in the NHS.

I hope it will not seem inappropriate or Pollyannaish to update you with some more positive news: you may remember that I wrote about a young local boy Ben Bowman, whose gradual recovery from major surgery at Great Ormond Street continues well. If you’d read that piece, I thought you might want to know.

Glass half full: the psychology of bingeing
I was not familiar with the work of Professor Anna Van Wersch of Teeside University. In a newly-published article in the Journal of Health Psychology (2009 14:124-134), she proposes that binge drinking may not be such a bad thing. There is a very short piece here by her if you don’t subscribe to the JHP.

The research interviewed 32 people: it’s not aspiring to statistical significance. Is it anything more than an attempt (successful) to get coverage in the national media?. Professor Van Werch rightly suggests that we cannot tackle the health problems associated with alcohol bingeing without understanding why people do it.

Yet she heads straight towards the territory of the clichéd and the uninformed when she writes on the Guardian blog, “Coming to England 12 years ago, I was surprised by the drinking culture.” The major cities of the Netherlands – Amsterdam, Brussels, Bruges – have been drinking destinations for the British holidaymaker for some time, drawn by cheap flights and Eurostar trains; the cheap (until recently) Euro; and the strong beer.

She also suggests that Britain is a ‘dry’ culture – one that does not drink during the week (as opposed to the Mediterranean ‘wet’ culture, which does). This genuinely implies she doesn’t go out during the weeknights – as even with a credit crunch, a lot of people do still go out drinking.

Calling Central Stereotype Casting
She also observes “a lot of pressure to do well, behave appropriately and control one's emotions in the British working environment. That is why I believe the British put so much emphasis on having a chance to let off steam, have a laugh at the weekend”. Jings. All generalisations are dangerous, as Flaubert warned us, but that sounds like something straight out of Central Stereotype Casting – British Emotionally Repressed Person (Unisex).

The British have been famous for drinking for a long time. It is there in Chaucer and Shakespeare and Hogarth. It is not recent and it is not particularly astonishing. Alcohol has been getting stronger in ABV; cheaper; more widely and for more hours available; and, for women, more culturally acceptable. These changes have been going on for decades. Major supermarkets loss-lead on alcohol to attract customers. In the recent economic good times, it has become more affordable than ever.

Social mores have changed, rendering public drunkenness part of acceptable emotional display – I would ascribe it to various things, but a key tipping point into becoming a more emotionally expressive nation was the cultural adulation over alcoholic footballer Paul Gascoigne’s weeping at his sending off in the 1990 World Cup semi-final. The reaction to the death of Princess Diana was another inflection point in British emo-centricity.

Basically, Professor Van Werch seems to be talking tabloid-friendly tosh here. The consumption of lots of alcohol by British people is absolutely nothing new. What has emerged in the past two decades is the acceptability of publicly drunken behaviour as something that is culturally unstigmatised.

Bring back the stigma of being a lousy drunk
In simpler terms, being a lousy drunk: sloppy, staggering, slurring, shouting, fighting - being an arsehole when pissed – has gone from being very definitely not OK to being pretty much the norm in town and city centres.

I would suggest that we haven’t got much more of an alcohol problem as a nation than we’ve ever had: we’ve got a ‘graceless, shitty behaviour when drunk’ problem.

If I meet a person who proves a lousy drunk, I am certain never to socialise with them again around alcohol. I like a drink, but I detest a lousy drunk.

I was brought up with cultural assumptions and norms suggesting that alcohol can be a wonderful thing – tasty, joyous, celebratory, sociable and relaxing. It is a drug, and its use in excess has down-sides.

A person can develop a tolerance for alcohol, and learn their limits - there is a risk of increasing consumption, which requires personal responsibility and vigilance. In that process, one also learns how to be - or at the very least, aspire to be - in control of one’s behaviour when having drunk.

What I would accept the British have lost culturally is the aspiration towards self-controlled and decent behaviour when drunk. We have been persuaded by tabloid, Jerry-Oprah-US-style public emoting, and emotional incontinence. The self-centred language of therapy – closure, moving on – has moved through the culture and entered political discourse.

By all means let’s have a drink if we want one. But when we do, why not just show a bit of good old-fashioned British self-control and stiff upper lip?

And no, before you ask, I haven’t been drinking.