Deborah Orr: Money, drink and the lottery of life

'There is a long tradition of belief that the poor, given money, would drink, smoke and unsaturated-fat themselves to death'
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The Independent Online

Phillip Kitchen came to an alcoholic's end, even though the coroner's verdict, released this week, talks of "bronchial pneumonia" and "self-neglect". Mr Kitchen died in mid-December, at his home near Redditch, Worcestershire. His emaciated body was found by a friend on the sofa he had slumped in, barely moving, for a good six weeks beforehand. Around him lay the detritus of his addiction – beer, spirits and wine aplenty.

These, for many weeks, had been the only substances to pass his lips. Mr Kitchen's old friend, Robert Walker, had cooked him meals and tried, quite without success, to persuade him to eat. He had refused to supply his neighbour of 35 years with more alcohol, just as the village pub had the previous June.

None of Mr Kitchen's friends wished to provide any more alcohol for him, but when they didn't do so, he just had it delivered by professional companies. Doctors, social services, and a psychiatrist had warned the bachelor that he was killing himself with drink, and while he believed them, the 58-year-old wanted to carry on anyway.

Mr Kitchen died filthy and stinking, lying in his own faeces, and with infected blisters all down his body. These had developed from first-degree burns chafed by the constant pressure of the couch. Mr Walker had confronted Mr Kitchen about a pair of charred jeans he had found upstairs some weeks before his death, but had got no answers to his questions. It is assumed that there had been some accident involving the open fire Mr Kitchen always lay beside. He had not wanted medical treatment.

Mr Kitchen's sorry end is not so very unusual. Very many people die alcohol-related deaths each year in Britain, some of the victims considerably younger than Mr Kitchen, some of the deaths effortlessly outdoing Mr Kitchen's in sordidness. And many people, without such an obvious disorder as Mr Kitchen had, simply give up the will to live for reasons no one can fathom.

The occasional stories that drift into the headlines about the bodies of people remaining undiscovered for weeks or months tend to be read as indicators that society is losing its cohesion, neighbours are losing awareness of each other's lives, and communities disintegrating. Mr Kitchen's story isn't like that, though. On the contrary, it is littered with interventions, from friends, his community, and from professionals, all able to tell Mr Kitchen that he had to change, but none able to make him hear. It is unusual for an alcoholic in as advanced a state as Mr Kitchen still to have anyone around him at all. Perhaps all that attention suggests that Mr Kitchen was a more pleasant man than most highly addictive alcoholics are. Or perhaps his behaviour had only recently taken such an extreme turn.

For what is most unusual about Mr Kitchen is that two years before, he'd won £2m on the lottery. Fortune, by any normal measure, had smiled on the man. Chance had bestowed on him the time and money to pursue his passion, unhampered by the tiresome business of having to earn a living (Mr Kitchen had been a master carpenter).

Mr Kitchen was released from the daily grind to live and die as he pleased, and this he did. The coronor, Victor Round, described Mr Kitchen as having been "immobilised" by his fortune, which heralded "a lifestyle of neglect". It's not what everyone would do with £2m, but they don't call it the Lottery for nothing.

Mr Kitchen's tragic story is one involving straightforward horrors, played out in a lonely but familiar domestic scene. It is easily understood, easily explained, and it should be just as easy to dismiss. But it isn't. This sad tale is also bitter and haunting.

In a way, it is old-fashioned – a morality tale involving all of the seven deadly sins, and some of the most deadly homilies – about the demon drink, money not buying happiness, devilish idle hands, cleanliness and godliness, gambling, rich men, eyes of needles and the curse of wishes fulfilled. Into this rich brew are some modern twists, like the Lottery, and the portrait of an "addictive personality".

Yet there are no glib hypotheses about the way we live now to be dragged from the gut of the story, despite the walk-on part played by the still-quite-novel Lottery, and despite the starring role of alcoholism, a disease we are all now equipped to understand in theory, but have little or no patience with in practice.

Sometimes people cannot handle an unexpected fortune, sometimes they can. Somehow we find it more comforting to tell each other the stories of those who cannot. We've listened to Viv Nicholson's story of boom and bust for nearly half a century now, and only just got around to zipping it up with a few merry songs.

The red-tops still love stories of Lottery winners showing themselves up in wild displays of conspicuously tasteless consumption, or acts of meanness and foolishness. Sometimes it can seem as if old rules about class and place are being perpetuated through these stories, the implication being that money is wasted on people without the refinement to use it wisely.

The truth, of course, is that Lottery winners are broadly self-selecting. Why should a person without the good sense to save his quid for something more substantial become prudence itself when charged with chaperoning millions? Poor Mr Kitchen might have bought his Lottery tickets thinking that if he had more money, he wouldn't be drinking his entire income. Whatever. The poignant thing about his act of faith in taking part in the national flutter is that it did speak of a wish on Mr Kitchen's part for his life to change.

All it did, though, was to prompt a progressive disease to go nuclear. The post-wealth Mr Kitchen was apparently in the habit of drinking a bottle of spirits, a litre of wine and eight cans of beer each day. Even so, the coroner's report found no alcohol at all in his body. Apparently a "seasoned drinker" such as himself would have processed all that booze with great speed. In the final hours, as well, he may have been too weak to raise a glass. His bottle of spirits had been uncharacteristically unopened.

Interestingly though, the coroner appears in his summing up (or at least in the reporting of it) to blame the money as much as the disease. It is odd that it should be decided that his Lottery win had "immobilised" Mr Kitchen, rather than a daily intake of alcohol fit to kill a horse.

Or perhaps not so odd. The view reflects a general set of assumptions rather than the particular judgement of a particular man, and a set of assumptions that is long-standing and deeply ingrained.

There is a long tradition of belief that the poor, given money, would simply drink themselves, smoke themselves, unrefined-sugar and unsaturated-fat themselves to death. Stories like Mr Kitchen's, even though they actually say more about the nature of alcoholism than the nature of wealth, serve to confirm this view.

It is a view no less powerful in its propaganda uses now than it has ever been. Although we hear much about the enduring boom we have been enjoying, and the national prosperity that abounds, few people are unaware that the gap between the haves and the have nots is getting bigger too.

The middle-classes demand compassion because in central London it is impossible for them to scrape by on £120,000. Meanwhile, the whole city runs on the work of hard-working men and women earning salaries in the mid-teens and somehow managing to live on them. It's far more comfortable and a great deal cheaper to cling to the belief that more cash for them would not only destabilise the economy, but also destabilise their lives. Just as it is far more comfortable and a great deal cheaper to believe that money makes alcoholics rather than alcohol.