Let's be alcoholics, like in the movies!

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The Independent Online
King Street, Cambridge. Two-thirty in the afternoon. Two girls and a boy, sixth-formers maybe, undergraduates maybe. One of the girls, hardly able to stand, wriggles and paws the boy in a drunken parody of seduction. The boy, drunk too, I'd say, but still upright, rolls away from her flailing hands but keeps his eyes on her hiked-up skirt and her twisted blouse. The second girl is sober, concerned, seems to be waiting meekly for the staggering temptress to collapse so that she can drag her away. She must have been bored out of her wits by this grotesque little scene, but she seemed ready to stay for all the time it was likely to take.

Why are the undrunk so tolerant of the drunk? How many times have you seen the sober struggling to get the drunk indoors and out of harm's way, giving up hours to cushion this kind of drug abuser from the consequences of his/her own actions?

All other substances that are capable of altering behaviour and personality as radically as alcohol does are demonised, even when the altered behaviour is social rather than anti-social. Ecstasy is touted nowadays as a dangerous drug, when the deaths resulting from its use are less numerous than those caused by peanut allergy. Alcohol, which is an addictive and dangerous drug that inflicts a vast toll upon the family, industry, the health service and law enforcement, is exempt. What is more, young people are systematically inducted into alcohol dependency with the approval of those who claim to have their interests at heart.

From the day a student arrives at university, that student will be taught to drink. The breweries and distilleries provide college bars with alcohol of all kinds at reduced rates, just so that students will learn to drink. The rationale is that they will learn how to drink. The truth is that they will learn that alcohol is an essential adjunct to any social interaction.

Some of them have already begun drinking to excess. When I lecture at sixth-form conferences and pop into a neighbouring pub for a beer and a sandwich, I find the bar surrounded four or five deep by sixth-formers, ordering double vodkas with orange squash. How they can have the money to indulge such expensive if revolting tastes is one question that parents might ask themselves. I have never seen a barman ask a single one of these kids for ID. The marketing of fruit squashes heavily laced with alcohol to an even younger age group was clearly based on good research.

Liquor firms have a responsibility to their shareholders to increase their markets and sales at every available opportunity, and in this they are given every assistance. Gone are the days, I hope, when hotel guests retiring to bed would find a miniature bottle of brandy on the pillow, for which they had unwittingly paid in the bill for the room. At May balls in Cambridge colleges the cost of a hard-liquor bar is included in the exorbitant price of the ticket. There is no need for any such thing; if tipsiness is the aim, champagne is more than enough. The fact that 19-year-olds can drink as much Southern Comfort as they think they want adds nothing to the quality of the experience.

I have seen beautiful young women in dresses they saved all year for, eyes unfocused, mouths slack, too drunk to move, let alone dance, and the night so young as to be still evening. It can be no consolation to know that they were forced to pay for the wreck of their own good time. The colleges could dispense with the hard liquor bar and reduce the price of the ticket, so why don't they?

Alcohol abuse on university campuses has become a huge problem. Housekeeping staff are often expected to clean up disgusting messes in corridors and public rooms. Some would say that the young are learning from the unpleasant experience of intoxication not to repeat their mistakes, a view which seems to hold that alcohol can be managed, and by everyone, which is clearly untrue. Others would say that they are learning that drunkenness is tolerable, fun even, and throwing up merely laddish. What they certainly learn is that somebody else will clean up.

Now, to confer Hollywood glamour upon alcoholism, comes a film, nominated for the best film award at Cannes, where the brewers and distillers doubtless do a roaring trade. Leaving Las Vegas begins fairly promisingly, showing us a drunk who is nearly as obstreperous and boring as a real drunk, but romanticism takes over. The drunk wants to kill himself with alcohol, which he accomplishes by pouring full bottles of vodka down his neck at a rate that would have poisoned him if it had been water.

Kids can kill themselves by skolling whole bottles of vodka, but not seasoned alcoholics. No alcoholic would waste the amount of liquor he spills around the joint, but then no one in the last stages of alcoholism would look half as fit as he does, despite the heavy make-up. No shakes to speak of; no horrors; no peripheral neuritis for him; no alcoholic gastritis; no Wernicke's encephalopathy. No piss stains on his nice clean trousers. Oh sure, he says he vomits, but we never see him do it, and his not eating in these days of anorexia is pretty cool, specially when he picks the ice-cube out of his glass with his chopsticks. He doesn't repeat himself, ever, oho no. His memory and his speech centres go on working. None of the nastiness, the self-righteousness, the self-pity, the viciousness of the long-term alcoholic sours him.

He is just so sweet he wins the affections of a down-trodden hooker, whom he doesn't force to drink along with him, doesn't bicker with, doesn't hit. You'd never think that alcohol is implicated in most homicides and most domestic violence, to see this guy who succeeds in snuffing it on schedule and, preposterously, on the job.

I have known people who have been killing themselves with alcohol for 30 years; every time they get within reach of their goal, someone picks them up, puts them in hospital and sorts them out so that they can go on drinking. The policemen, ambulance-drivers, paramedics and nurses who have to deal with these pests (who are quite likely to show their appreciation by attacking them and smashing up casualty wards), not to mention the legions of women and children abused by alcoholics, should picket cinemas showing Leaving Las Vegas.