Jemima Lewis: There's nothing lovable about being a drunk

To those close to them, alcoholics, functioning or otherwise, are seldom entertaining
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I cannot see a wounded creature without wanting to save it, and Charles Kennedy is no exception. As a child, I once stayed up all night giving mouth-to-beak resuscitation to a sparrow that had been in a fight with my cat. And when I look at Kennedy now - all big, sad eyes and square-jawed vulnerability - I long to rescue him from the slavering jaws of his parliamentary party, pop him into a cardboard box lined with straw and nurse him back to health.

Not every woman's heart is so easily moved. Baroness Tonge, for instance, reacted to her leader's public confession of alcoholism with an impatient snort. Lady Tonge - whose sympathy for Palestinian suicide bombers does not, apparently, extend to unhappy mortals closer to home - said she had been "appalled, saddened, disgusted" by the Lib Dem leader's speech. She accused him of being "in denial", and of relying on the pity of his colleagues to keep him in the job. But just as nobody would employ a "one-legged actor as Tarzan", she said, they would not deliberately choose an alcoholic as leader.

It is never pleasant to watch a man being kicked while he is down, and Kennedy's assassins, Lady Tonge included, have emerged from this skirmish looking considerably less attractive than their victim. Among my friends - many of whom voted Lib Dem at the last election - the verdict is that Kennedy is a decent man, that everyone deserves a second chance, and that Westminster has always been rigid with dipsomaniacs, so what's the big deal?

Historically, they have a point. Pitt the Younger, Herbert Asquith, Nye Bevan and Alan Clark were all avid topers, and not much the worse for it. Winston Churchill, perhaps the most admired sot in British public life, insisted: "I have taken more out of drink than it has taken out of me." His colleague Rab Butler once tried to match Churchill drink for drink, and ended up pouring goblets of brandy into his shoes rather than admit defeat.

Churchill was what, in modern parlance, is known as a "functioning alcoholic": someone who can drink heavily and still hold it together professionally. The British people have a lot of sympathy with this position - presumably because so many of us are in it. Alcohol consumption in this country has doubled in the past 40 years, creating an epidemic of liver disease; yet the binge-drinking ladettes whose crumpled bodies litter the streets at night transform like superheroes every morning, into crisp, competent PR girls and marketing directors.

Journalism, like politics, is one of the few professions where the trend has gone in the opposite direction. For years, Fleet Street was almost entirely manned by drunks - a state of affairs that provokes misty-eyed nostalgia even among those, like me, who missed that era by a mile. To the modern hack, gloomily contemplating another glass of fizzy water at another joyless lunch, there is something romantic - almost heroic - about Kennedy's crapulousness.

This is the trouble with alcoholics: from a distance they often seem thrillingly unconventional, rather than ill. Their flamboyant behaviour makes for great anecdotage - even while, behind the scenes, tragedy unfolds.

When I was little, I had a friend who lived alone with her mother, a beautiful, charismatic drunk. I loved the anarchy of their house, compared to the suburban normality of ours. There were animals everywhere, including a pampered rabbit who occupied the spare bedroom. Cats snoozed among heaps of exotic, perfumed clothes; ashtrays overflowed with cigarette butts bearing the imprint of scarlet lips.

Once, my friend's mother found some traffic cones and laid out a miniature Formula 1 course down the middle of their street. She took the wheel, cigarette clamped between her teeth, and my friend and I stuck our heads out of the sunroof and screamed with excitement as we slalomed, with miraculous accuracy, between the cones.

It was only years later, when my friend ran away from home, that I realised how little I had understood her situation. She had grown up much too fast: a side effect of constant anxiety and heartbreak. She had spent her childhood mopping up her mother's excretions and putting her to bed; waiting, alone in a silent house, for a late-night phone call from the police; wishing that her mother would make it, just once, to a parent-teacher evening.

To those closest to them, alcoholics - functioning or otherwise - are seldom entertaining. They are a source of relentless, exhausting worry. They make promises they cannot keep, inspire hopes they cannot fulfil, betray the people who try hardest to save them.

Being the leader of a political party is not unlike being a parent; your brood looks to you for strength and security. Kennedy is a lovable man, whose charm and good humour protected him for years from his own demons. But it is not surprising that his party turned on him in the end. No one likes their heroes to disappoint, and that's the one thing an alcoholic can be guaranteed to do.