So breathtakingly beautiful, so heartbreakingly mean-spirited

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The Independent Online

It's a sorry state of affairs when the nation is scratching its head over how to stop children from drinking, because when they are drunk they are more likely to kill people. But that's the extreme we appear to have accomplished. You can't help feeling that if more than lip-service had been paid for a long time now to the link between alcohol and violence in adults, this dreadful high-water mark might never have been reached. But there we are. These things are widely known, and little tackled, and the longer they go on unchecked, the worse they get.

One of the very sad things that must be noted when discussing this issue is that the really crucial thing, as far as this aspect of alcohol abuse is concerned, is the collision of two important sociological re-orderings here. The vast encroachment of under-age drinking into the social lives of younger and younger people displays a horrible overlap between the follies of adults and the erosion of childhood. Grown-ups are behaving like adolescents, and children are aping their immature elders, in all kinds of disturbing ways. Our generational boundaries are utterly confused.

Alcohol, though, is a useful case in point. Prior to this latest outpouring of angst, there was a widespread wave of indignation when it was suggested by the evil nanny state that responsible adults downing a bottle of wine a night in the privacy of their own homes were problem drinkers too. Yet why should this be so difficult to accept? Restraint, like charity, surely begins at home. You can't have it both ways, and sternly tell some people - even children - that alcohol abuse is unacceptable, while reserving judgement on the idea that an evening in the bosom of your family should rightfully be lubricated with a pint and a half of merlot.

I am, and have been since my late teens, a binge drinker. I drank when I was pregnant. My children have seen me tipsy. I have spent mornings in bed with hangovers when I should have been with them. Few weeks go by when I fail to respect the recommended limit of three units in one sitting. Do I know this is not good behaviour? I do indeed, intellectually anyway, if not actually.

But what my own experience tells me is that the gap between what we know to be proper behaviour, and what the reality of our social existences may be, is more of an unbridgeable fissure than a negotiable leap. It has been many years since any person I know expressed a worry about my drinking (though it was much worse before I had kids). On the contrary, no one seems to mind in the least. We have never known more about the damage alcohol does, and we have never cared less, which is why we get through so much booze.

Taboos against drunkenness are supposed to exist. It's still considered a scandal if a president of France, or a British Bishop, or the head of the Metropolitan Police, or even David Jason, is seen to be or is suspected to be pissed. It's viewed as an offence against decency, worthy of a censorious spread in the papers, for city centres to be littered with comatose girls, or for partying pop-stars to be unsteady on their feet.

But the discussion is always about how others ought to comport themselves, rather than the way individuals should comport ourselves. Guidelines are interference, labels are abuses of democratic freedoms, legislation is an attack on the valuable drinks industry, and wine is fine as long as it's pricey. Cheap drink in the street is the problem, not the unquenchable thirst for champagne at sponsored corporate parties.

Yet this attempted ring-fencing of the affluent culpability of discerning adult bon-viveurs is actually really, really childish. More widely, it's what our society's obsession with "role models" is all about - the affectless idea that if somebody else can be seen to be behaving responsibly, then everything will be okay. Children learn how to behave around alcohol from the adult culture around them. What they learn is that the boring old rules are for boring old others. And all of the rules, at that.

A virtue out of necessity

That nice Katie Price finds herself once again at the centre of controversy, because she was featured in OK! magazine bottle-feeding her baby with SMA formula, even though the commercial promotion of formula-milk is banned. The glamour model was at pains in the interview to explain why she prefers bottle-feeding, even though, due to her extensive breast surgery, she does not have any option anyway. All she is doing is making a virtue out of necessity, yet it is interesting that the debate she has sparked still centres on "choice".

In the rush to breast enlargement scant attention is paid to the fact that such operations remove choice from women. Young women choose to mutilate their breasts because they believe that the sexual aspect of these glands is more important to them than their functional aspect, and always will be.

But my doubts about this are only hugely strengthened by recent research which finds that women who have had breast enlargements are four times more likely to commit suicide than their unaugmented cohorts. You can get quite a lot of analysis for £5,000, and self-confidence tends to be pretty alluring anyway.

I visited Edinburgh last weekend, and experienced the same jolt of wonder I always do when I first see its breathtaking skyline after some time away. It always reminds me of how high with happiness I was when I first moved to this city of handsome and reserved civilisation, and also how ecstatic I was a couple of years later to get the hell out of the up-itself, weirdo place.

I'm never entirely sure quite why my love affair with Edinburgh went quite so sour quite so quickly. But now I cannot spend five minutes there without automatically looking around me and gathering the most slender evidence as to why it should be such a peculiarly loathsome metropolis, for me anyway.

So, there I was, happily snuggled up in bed last Sunday morning in a nice New Town Hotel (this, in Edinburgh, of course, is code for "venerably ancient Georgian hotel"), when a piercingly loud fire alarm erupted. I did my best to ignore it, until a fully-equipped and fatly insulated fireman came bursting into my room, brandishing a huge illuminated rubber torch, even though it was broad daylight.

"Haven't you heard the fire alarm?"

"Yes, obviously. Adam Smith probably heard it."

"Why have you not evacuated the building?"

"Because there wasn't a fire, was there?"

"How could you have known this?"

"Well, there's no smoke without fire and no fire without smoke. It was an instinct."

"And what would you have done if there was a fire?"

"I would have stepped out of that window into that garden. We are in the basement."

At which point, displaying every sign of being inappropriately bitter that under no conscious circumstances would I have fried in my duvet, he furiously slammed the door.

"It's typical," I told my husband, "of the Edinburgh mind-set that Sunday morning at the start of the festival is chosen as the optimum time to run a full-scale fire drill. It's so cringingly self-righteous here."

He laughed and told me I was like Walter Abish, the Austrian emigré Jew who wrote a post-Holocaust short story, then a novel, exploring his visit to Germany after the war, and his experience of the horror of everything there being utterly and repugnantly German. But with considerably less cause.

Yet later, at the airport, I couldn't help noticing that along with the pen-knives and tweezers, the security junta had placed trophies including children's wooden bows and toy plastic swords, probably purchased at Edinburgh Castle, in the Perspex boxes.

"See," I hissed. "It's not just me. What other city has ever been so keen to advertise the fact that it's packed with literal-minded jobsworths who are only obeying orders? I bet Walter Abish could tell me."

Edinburgh. It's just not my kind of place. Never will be.

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