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Alcohol: the ambiguous molecule by Griffith Edwards (Faber & Faber, £18.99)
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The illusion of drink-fuelled happiness (which James Joyce called "tighteousness") is familiar to most of us. But the hangover seems a cruel price to pay for an enjoyable night's sousing. Your tongue pale and furry in the bathroom mirror, that inability to look a decent breakfast in the face: this is the moaning after the night before. For many, however, the unvarnished truth comes too late. Alcohol has them well and truly licked.

The illusion of drink-fuelled happiness (which James Joyce called "tighteousness") is familiar to most of us. But the hangover seems a cruel price to pay for an enjoyable night's sousing. Your tongue pale and furry in the bathroom mirror, that inability to look a decent breakfast in the face: this is the moaning after the night before. For many, however, the unvarnished truth comes too late. Alcohol has them well and truly licked.

You don't have to drink every morning to be an alcoholic. Periodic drinkers, who indulge in self-destructive benders, albeit with long stretches of sobriety in between, may not think of themselves as alcoholics. Alcoholism is a vexing devil that creeps up slowly and insidiously. One day, you may decide to nurse your thumping head with a hair of the dog that bit you. Even then, the danger may not hit home.

Though alcohol withdrawal is potentially fatal, booze has none of the media-confected glitz of heroin (imagine an alco-pop version of Trainspotting). The 17th-century word for the sickness that follows excessive drinking - "crapula" - effectively hints at the alcoholic's sleazy stupor. The boozer's life is one of low self-esteem and squalid self-denial. Nowhere was it better described than in Charles Jackson's unjustly forgotten novel The Lost Weekend. Having hocked his typewriter for a quart of rye, the failed writer Don Birnam spends his lost weekend in a New York psychiatric ward, with a fractured skull. Where did he get that? The previous night's drinking is always remembered with guilt (if remembered at all).

Griffith Edwards, a world expert on alcoholism, has studied addiction for more than 40 years and understands the problem intimately. In this book, he casts a humane eye on the damage caused by drink in society. The book is pitched at just the right level to draw the layman in, and its many case studies will provoke a twinge of recognition in interested readers. According to Professor Edwards, 20 per cent of men will develop a drink problem and 6 per cent will become addicted. Alcoholism tends to run in families. The legion footballers and rock stars in rehab are likely to have an alcohol-addicted parent or sibling. You could say that alcoholism is a chemical misfortune - a potential you are born with.

In Britain, alcohol was not viewed as a public-health issue until the 18th century, with the widespread availability of cheap gin. The Gin Act 1736 imposed a licence fee on gin-distillers and retailers but it failed to wean the urban poor off the liquid. In France, no other drink did more to spread alcoholism than the emerald-green absinthe. In his novel L'Assommoir, Emile Zola described the hoarse, guttural absinthe voice, the wandering, glazed eye and cold, clammy hand. At 90 degrees proof, absinthe took many an upright citizen to the padded cell. Edwards traces a lineage from the gin palace via the absintheur's café to the crack house. Recreational drugs are nothing new.

In moderation, alcohol can provide us with much pleasure. In excess, it leads to accidents, illness and social impairment. A scary 45 per cent of murders in Britain are thought to involve alcohol. Edwards reviews the latest thinking on alcoholism and respectfully queries the Alcoholics Anonymous credo that alcoholism is a disease for which the only cure is sobriety. No hard scientific proof exists to show that abstention is the sole key to recovery or, indeed, that an alcoholic can never go back to social drinking. Yet for many, sobriety is the safest course.

As a child in south London, I grew up next door to Griffith Edwards. In the same terrace was a teetotal neighbour who, in gratitude for AA's help in his recovery from alcoholism, called his dog Sober. His public confession of alcoholism ("Here, Sober") was rare back then, in the early 1970s, but not so unusual today - when celebrity liquor-swillers routinely declare themselves powerless over booze. Professor Edwards's timely, well-written guide will help many people to face up to the unthinkable.

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