Belfast Telegraph

Let's pray Gazza has one massive game left in him

By Gail Walker

One of the easier things to do in the world is to laugh at a drunk. But even that is marginally less easy than it is to moralise about a drunk. In spite of much publicity about the addiction, as a society we haven't advanced much further in responding to alcoholism than those two positions.

Yes, we have had very high-profile falling-down drunks – Oliver Reed, Richard Burton, our own George Best and Alex Higgins. We have even had a growing awareness of the insidious character of the condition – those who have battled it include people like Betty Ford, the former US First Lady who founded the famous rehab clinic after her battle with alcohol and prescription drugs. And even more famous women like Elizabeth Taylor, who pioneered public discussion of alcoholism when it wasn't routine for women to do so.

But even all the vast literature there now is on the nature of alcohol addiction hasn't affected how our society reacts to sorry evidence of the ravages of drink such as we see in the case of Paul Gascoigne.

Maybe it's because, for the vast majority of us, cocaine and heroin remain remote drugs, that even deaths from such drug overdoses solicit much greater sympathy. Maybe it's because the vast majority of us do use alcohol safely that we reserve particular disdain and often savage disregard for those who are in the grip of a killer addition.

Surely, we think, because we ourselves drink recreationally and aren't subject to any of the anti-social sidelines of the practising alcoholic, surely the problem lies with that particular drinker. Some psychological flaw. Some fatal weakness of character or will already there and festering which alcohol – in vino veritas – doesn't create, but only serves to expose and bring to the surface.

Of course, that's all cobblers.

Have a close look at most cases of addiction to cocaine and heroin or, indeed, any other substance, however glamorous, and you will find alcohol in attendance also.

Indeed, have a close look at our road deaths – yes, still, even now, in spite of all the shocking ads on TV – and you will often find alcohol on the scene somewhere.

In a society where we prefer to think that alcohol is an industry, we also prefer to think that those who are killed by it – by direct alcohol abuse, by drunken fall, by drunken car crash, by drink-fuelled domestic violence – are somehow their own victims, that they somehow brought it on themselves, that they are somehow less than us, less robust, less moral, less capable, less worthy of help, sympathy or respect. One only needs to recall the appalling moralising that went on over George Best's liver transplant to understand how alcohol brings out the worst in people – and not only those who abuse it themselves, but those who just stand by and talk rubbish about it.

With due respect to Mr Gascoigne, it is fair to say he isn't a well man. As we all look in on his life periodically, every few years, we see what we knew we would see but hoped against hope we wouldn't.

Now he is almost unrecognisable as the exuberant, silly, prodigiously-gifted Geordie who put Scotland to the sword in Euro 96 and who was the toast of Tyneside and, in his fading years, in Glasgow. He's only 47 but looks 70.

That's booze. And it is clear from the public response to those recent pictures that there is no room in our society for sympathy when it comes to the distressing rituals of the drunk, plastic bag in hand, the bleary-eyed monster of stereotype that he now seems to be.

But for every Gazza going through the usual motions of the drunk, there are literally tens of thousands of people – men, women, teenagers, doctors, solicitors, brickies, secretaries, unemployed and on the High Court bench – who are going through their own private, unfussy, better-concealed version of Gazza's visible Hell.

And with them, too, in most cases, spouses and partners and children, suffering terribly, also watching their loved one self-destruct and being utterly unable to stop it happening.

Whatever twists the Gazza story has yet to take, let's remember his ex-wife and his three children who are also at the centre of this dreadful saga.

And let's hope Gazza can drop his shoulder one more time and leave Mr Booze looking as stupid as Colin Hendry did sprawled on the Wembley turf in 1996.

Because in a very real way, his struggle now, with all the advantages of high-profile friends such as Gary Lineker, is one any of us could find ourselves in.

And it would be nice if, for once, there was a visible victory to celebrate.

A one-nil win is still a win.

Belfast Telegraph

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