I had a summer job working in a pub in the West End of London. And every morning a couple of fellows from the insurance business would arrive to take their places at the end of the bar, where I would serve them with a succession of large vodkas and orange juices.
They would always be immaculately dressed in pin-striped suits and they’d have their attache cases with them, as if they’d just come from some important meeting, or were on their way to one. And yet after about three hours of large vodkas and oranges, it would be clear that the next “meeting” would be taking place not in any Prudential building but in one of the excellent restaurants of Soho, where the food would be accompanied by fine wines, or perhaps just more large vodkas.
It seemed that they were always in splendid form, but never really drunk, as such. Even their favourite spot at the end of the bar, close to the wall, seemed to lend a kind of discretion to the routine, to the extent that it was only much later in my life that I rightly understood what should have been blindingly obvious at the time – that these men, by any standard, were alcoholics.
There was another customer about whom you could form that impression much more quickly. After just a couple of days indeed, during which he took up a position front and centre, incessantly drinking pints of lager and blathering incontinently to all-comers, it was clear that this fellow countryman of mine had probably passed that point in his relationship with alcohol, when he was putting in more than he was getting out.
Though he had lived in London for many years, he had somehow acquired none of the repertoire of tricks which the men from the Pru and other Englishmen had developed in order to make their alcoholism seem insignificant. Unlike them, he just could not stop drawing attention to himself.
And it was not his physical largeness, or the fact that he wasn’t wearing a suit, that made him seem so different to those men who were, after all, just as addicted as he was. It seemed that there was something else in the core of his being that was fundamentally different, something that I recognised because I too am Irish, something that many of us would probably recognise, in that situation.
It’s a kind of anxiety, a feeling that we are not at ease in this world until we have taken something to calm us down, a terrible shyness or a lack of self-esteem which we can overcome only by taking our medicine – which unfortunately has tended to come in pint pots, which we consume until we are exposed to the judgement of all.
It has brought such grief to Paddy, this paradox whereby the substance he uses in order to get over his existential embarrassment, is the same stuff that will lead him to make a total disgrace of himself.
“What do you think of us?”….
So pathological is our anxiety about how others see us, we actually ask them that question, straight out. And they know it now, so that anyone arriving on to an Irish talk-show will try to get in there first with a declaration that he loves us, and he thinks we’re great, knowing that he will receive a big round of applause, that this is all we really wanted to know, and now we can relax.
AJ Chopra of the IMF, as he prepared to go home after his journey through the catastrophic wreckage of the Irish economy, was asked by the man from RTE about his impressions of Ireland, on the whole. Yes even when they have seen us ruined, hysterical, naked, still we are seeking some affirmation, still we are wanting so desperately some note of reassurance.
These weaknesses of ours, these insecurities of the soul, leave us terribly vulnerable to the drink. But we have our strengths too, of that there is no doubt, and the only problem there is that they also leave us terribly vulnerable to the drink.
Because we drink not just to liberate us from these ancient anxieties, but because it brings out something in us, this urge to embrace life with a certain exuberance. We are rightly renowned for this extravagance of spirit, and it can indeed be tremendously attractive. While the men from the Pru are quietly managing their alcoholism in the wings, Paddy is on stage, loudly declaring that he does not care for such bourgeois inhibitions, that he is free.
When I was drinking, anything that I wrote about it leaned towards that version of things – I felt there was a kind of a glory in it, that it was no accident that some of the greatest minds of the age just happened to be heroic drinkers. And that their drinking was not just a result of some wound that would never heal, but of their admirable determination to escape the boredom of respectable living.
Much of what was written about the downsides of drink I found to be rubbish. Probably because it was indeed rubbish, written from a largely puritanical perspective.
It was only when I stopped drinking that I realised that almost everything written about drink from both sides, for and against, was rubbish. That most parties to the proceedings seemed incapable of acknowledging the other part of the story, the part that did not suit their simplistic arguments.
And this, I believe, is at the core of our continuing confusion in this regard – the quality of the discourse has tended to be abysmally poor, generally lacking in sophistication, a mere collision of mutually suspicious interests.
There is no doubt that some of the worst experiences of my life happened because of drink, but then so did some of the best. This is why we do it, for Christ’s sake, this is the reason why people are prepared to go to the gates of hell to keep doing it. And if somehow you can stop, before you get completely burned, you need to do better than simply to proclaim that this drinking is a bad racket and anyone with any sense needs to get out of it fast.
That just doesn’t work, I’m afraid, as we can see from so many “debates” on current affairs programmes, when the serious person from the university outlines the horrors of alcohol, and some plain-speaking type from the Vintners Federation sells his own dreary line, and at the end of it, nothing at all has happened, nothing has changed.
Certainly nobody ever gave up drinking because of something they read in a health service leaflet – ’20 ways to check if you’re an alcoholic’ – precisely because they know that this version of events is only partial, that they’re leaving out all the good bits. That these official efforts are boring and puerile, to be treated with disdain.
Drinking, like online gambling, can be both enormously enjoyable and highly dangerous. And if you’re trying to persuade people of the “highly dangerous” part, it will not help your credibility if you clearly don’t get why they’re doing it in the first place.
The people who get it better than anyone else, are recovering alcoholics. And generally they are never asked to join in these debates, which means that a subtle and a quite mysterious matter is often reduced to a game of political ping-pong.
And then religion, of course, held us back in this as in so many things. Ingeniously, the church realised that giving up drink involved a spiritual journey of some kind – and any spiritual journey that was going at the time could have only one Route Planner.
They turned abstinence into a kind of a fetish, with the Pioneer pin, and they turned recovery into a guilt-ridden nightmare of penance and self-mortification. They “owned” it all, so that it encouraged the free-thinking boozehound to go against them, like the various alcoholic writers who would get the boat from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead on Good Friday so they could defy the church’s authority in this matter which was so important to them – important too, that they could get this release from the powerlessness of their own addictions, by drinking whiskey on principle.
You might call it the Good Friday Disagreement, and you might even draw a line – albeit not a very straight line – connecting it to the poor ould fellas of today, and their struggle against the oppression of the authorities who are trying to stop them drinking a few glasses of porter in the cosy bar and driving home.
Your hear the question, “could they not just drink tea instead of alcohol?” As if from the West End of London to the West End of Kerry, for Paddy this has ever just been a matter of lifestyle choice.
It has always been so much more than that.