Are we being unnecessarily scared into a life of sobriety? How much fun can we have with fourteen units of alcohol a week? Our Government, from the moral high ground of health and social responsibility, is attempting, through a combination of punitive taxes and authoritative sermons, to change how we live our lives. Some of it is sensible. Excess of pretty much anything is not good for you, but how much science is there behind these bold authoritative statements and how much should be left to common sense? For many people it is fast evolving into a “state” orthodoxy. Is this the state in which we wish to exist?
You’ll recall it being on the news. Some bossy woman, apparently in charge of our wellbeing, told most of us that we were drinking too much and were going to die. I’ll be precise and remind you of the details. As a reader of this magazine I am persuaded to make a particular judgement about you and assume you were quick to forget it. So let me tell you that it was Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England (perhaps there’s a Scottish one who takes a more promising line) and she announced new guidelines which stated that both men and women should have no more than 14 units each week and that those units should be spread over a few days.
Oh whoops, many of us went. Because a brief calculation revealed that as a bottle of wine has about ten units and a 35ml measure of spirits has 1.4, after a sprightly couple of gins (large, of course) and tonics, a few bottles of wine between friends and a dash of peaty stuff to round off the night, you went over the weekly limit in just one evening. And you don’t even feel too bad on it.
So let’s gather further evidence. Throw in a couple of lunches (just two – one mid week, one on Sunday), where booze was consumed in measured amounts (let’s say three glasses of wine per lunch – that’s right, modest) and half a bottle of wine on just two other nights and, well, as Dame Thingy wouldn’t say, “You’re fucked.”
But what The Most Tedious and Hectoring Woman on the Planet (I’ve improved her title here and widened her remit) didn’t mention, was something called exercise. Because I want to see how that chart works. But the problem is the authorities won’t give us one.
My question is: how far must I run to ameliorate a bottle of wine. For example, on a recent Saturday night I sipped merrily for some considerable time and it’s not completely impossible that I might have got through two bottles of wine (no spirits, mind – my body is a temple).
The next day I ran for an hour (albeit by mistake) and I reckon I did about seven miles. I know this because the day before I ran five and a half miles (on purpose) and did it in 50 minutes (not so quick, but it wasn’t a race). The mistake by the way occurred because intending to run for 20 minutes on the outskirts of Northampton – while my son played tennis – I got lost and ran for 60 before desperately hailing a cab.
Anyway, since the Dame of Gloom and her cohorts won’t offer advice on this I can only suggest that I reckon my running helps offset quite a lot of the booze – and my cycling does too – of which there is much as I wend my way around London (between lunches and dinners).
But how exactly did the Dame and her colleagues come up with the recommendations – and the new – and seemingly frightfully unfair advice that the male unit number has gone down from 21 to 14 and is now the same as for women.
The official Department of Health document that summarised the new guidelines claimed that: “The experts considered the evidence from all over the world on the effects of alcohol on health and length of life. This evidence included a large number of studies and covered a wide range of aspects of health (accidents, injuries, cancer, heart disease, life expectancy, etc).”
It also claimed that previous evidence that some alcohol intake was good for you was cack, or in their words: “benefits for heart health of drinking alcohol are less and apply to a smaller group of the population than previously thought.”
It’s interesting that they use the word ‘thought’. The previous evidence, presented as meticulously researched and peer-reviewed, is now dissed as simply ‘thought’. Someone or a whole gang of people just ‘thought’ this stuff. Well of course they didn’t, they ploughed oodles of money – raised from taxes on drinking – into research which was then presented as fact; just like this latest tranche of evidence; or thought.
So prepare yourself for future evidence that warns that even a sniff of booze will kill you and this previous ‘thought’ was wide of the mark.
But while I do do a little running and cycling, where does that leave you? You, who refuses to raise a sweat even to catch a bus. Are you despondent? If so, fear not.
What the Dame, with this catch-all edict of doom, fails to point out is that actually some of us can take it. We can cane it with tremendous vigour for decades, enjoy every minute of it – all the hangovers – although they too can be enjoyable (think of all the Breaking Bads you watched while recovering, or the boozy lunch that was somehow more wildly wonderful coming straight after a long and mad night). I say we, but what I mean is Winston Churchill, for example.
Would he have kept the Nazis at bay if he’d only been on mint tea and tap water? It was his steely resolve, made more steely by copious amounts of alcohol, that helped him win the war. If he’d followed the Dame’s advice this magazine might be called Regierungsbezirk, an organ that celebrated regional Bavarian food, its music and drinking traditions (mind you, that sounds quite fun – how about a theme night, Ranald, to give us a taste of what might have been?)
And what of other great drinkers whose sobriety would have robbed us of their glorious output. Would Bruce Robinson have made Withnail and I if he’d stuck to the recommended drink dose, would Jeffrey Bernard have spawned a play giving Peter O’Toole the role of his life, would Hunter S Thompson have given us Fear and Loathing, Dylan Thomas Under milk Wood, Dorothy Parker those withering quotes, Oliver Reed and every other so-called hell-raiser, especially Richard Burton such intense performances…the list is never-ending.
Whole university experiences would be rendered void. For me there were days when the mission was 14 units an hour…
But had they known of the 14 units per week deal, however, I have no doubt that these great artists they would still have suffered for their art.
And then there is the fact that we are all so gloriously different. Some fatter, some thinner, some with speedy metabolisms, some drawn to the grain, others the grape, some who make yogic postures while other might rugby tackle, some whose only exercise is the act of drinking itself, but who stay resolutely slim. Some hill walk, some run, some swim, some do none. Yet we are all expected to swallow the catch-all recommendations.
There is also the kind of drink you take. For really – and I speak from experience – a tenderly grown grape, squished by soft human toes, left to ferment in oak barrels before being given a pretty label and a good period of rest somewhere dark, is infinitely better for you than a pesticide-hosed, mechanically harvested, metal-crushed, steel-stored, wood-staved flavoured, six week bottle of naff-labelled plonk. And where is Dame Whojamaflick’s advice on that? It is a fact that a bottle of Lafite ‘61 will enhance your life – a whole bottle, indeed – while three glasses of Ghanaian gin will see you in the grave before you cry, “Must I drink another?”
So discard these foul statistics. Stand tall, they are for other people. The sort of people who wouldn’t gain the pleasure one has at arriving at a place like Boisdale before lunch one late morning. The whole place is gearing up to dish out food and drink with earnest enterprise. Boisdale has bars like the nest where the men and women who run them take their jobs – that of pouring you a drink – with deeply serious endeavour.
The greatest bars on the planet clothe their staff in smart uniforms as a reflection of the importance of what they are doing.
Few writers have been as able to describe the beautiful moment when a person in need of a good drink finds the perfect spot for one as well as PG Wodehouse. Take this example from a short story: “The Story of William” in which our hero, William, spots a bar called Mike’s Place and enters.
He approaches the bar where a man in a white coat eyes William “with a reverent joy.”
“‘Is this Mike’s Place?” asked William
“Yes, sir,” replied the white-coated man.
“Are you Mike?”
“No sir. But I am his representative, and have full authority to act on his behalf. What can I have the pleasure of doing for you.”
The mutual understand about the necessity for a drink and the reverential way in which the bar man offers his services is wonderful. William, you and other beloved readers approach the bar with similar joyful optimism. Dame Sally, revealed that when she reaches for, or considers ordering, a drink she thinks to herself: “Do I want my glass of wine or do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer.”
My advice is do both if you must, then order another glass and hope for the best.