Belfast Telegraph

It's time we took off the rosé-tinted glasses over booze

By Gail Walker

The words of fallen football star Kenny Sansom chill the soul. "I just don't want to be around," he says. "I don't want to be living the horrible life I'm living." The former Arsenal and England star is now a down-and-out alcoholic who has lost his wife, his house, his kids, everything that makes life worthwhile. He sleeps in a south London park and begs friends for pills to end his life.

Sansom's fall from grace has made the papers intermittently for a couple of years - arrests, confessions and the like. But that doesn't mean we should become jaded to his plight and fail to raise sympathy. Because, let's be honest, there but for the grace of God go you or I or those we know.

Who knows what compulsions drive an alcoholic - an unhappy childhood, emotional inadequacy, chance or a taste for the sauce. But we all know one. Not as bad as Sansom, perhaps. But you know what I mean - the person who is the life and soul of the party until they fall over and bash their head, the person just managing to function in the workplace, the one who constantly wants another drink "just for the road" or because "it's five o'clock somewhere".

And what do we do? We turn a blind eye. Worse, we pretend to admire them, to see them as "buck eejits", "real characters", "great fun", the anarchic agents of mayhem and merriment. How better would it be if we told them to wise up and go home to their families? But then that would involve looking someone in the eye and saying, by implication at least, that they must be unhappy. Or, in other words, that there is something wrong. If our hard-drinking pals delude themselves, maybe that's in part due to the baloney we call tell ourselves about boozers. I mean, when it comes to the famous, we see an attractive dark allure about the "drinker", "the hellraiser", "the dangerous truth-teller". They live life on the edge. They are dark and brooding. Self-destruction is often represented as kind of sexy.

Just look at our own George Best. True, he never fell as far as Sansom. Bestie never ended up sleeping rough in a park and asking friends for pills. And, with the exception of the times he was very ill, George kept his good looks to the end. But he was a deeply unwell man who destroyed himself, who could not strike out for the shore, even when given chance after chance. And do we hold up Bestie as an example as how not to do it? Not at all. What's the most famous story about the Belfast Boy? That would be the one about being in a hotel room with Miss World, sipping champagne and surrounded by cash, when a hotel porter arrived on the scene and asked: "George, where did it all go wrong?"

On one level, it is funny. Yet on another, the porter was right. This was a life that had gone disastrously wrong and, in some ways, we should admire the porter for pointing out the bleeding obvious. Blowing your money, talent and ultimately your life isn't funny or romantic. It is distressingly tragic. But as a society, we seem to find it all but impossible to say the obvious: drunks are bores and gropers, menaces to themselves and others, self-obsessed and self-justifying in a nauseating fashion. If you want evidence, read about the "antics" of the legendary booze merchants: Gazza, Reed, O'Toole, Burton. Breathtakingly talented, meteoric ascents, then ravaged by waste and decline.

Perhaps saying the obvious would be a frontal attack on our attitudes to drink. We just can't look at ourselves too closely in the mirror. All those nights pretending to enjoy ourselves in bars and clubs, unable to move or hear the "hilarious" stories of our companions. All those social occasions that simply must begin and end in the pub. Going for a date? See you for cocktails.

Given how central booze is to our social existence and how we refuse to acknowledge the consequences and casualties of a drink-centred culture, who can be surprised at those who fall from grace, whether spectacularly like Sansom, or in silence like Arnold from accounts? Some wrap their car around a tree, kill themselves or others, stumble into the grave by an accident sobriety would have avoided. But alcohol doesn't appear on the death certificate. Maybe if it did, we'd all wake up to the death toll drink exacts in support of our "fun-loving" lifestyles.

True, they are responsible for their lives but we are - we have to be - our brother's and sister's keeper. Maybe if we didn't look at alcohol through rose (or should that be rosé)-tinted spectacles and just said the truth that booze makes you dull and stupid without being described as killjoys, prudes and hypocrites, society would be better off. Let's not drink to that.

Follow me on Twitter, @GWalker9

Belfast Telegraph


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