CRIME IN A BOTTLE

Not necessarily a product of lockdown – though one I can imagine flourishing during it – the plentiful YouTube videos in which young (generally black) American males watch videos of old music they’ve never heard before can be quite an entertaining way to spend a spare ten minutes. Any members of a generation raised on the kind of sterile, personality-free, pre-programmed and Auto-tuned white noise that a cursory visit to yer local Superdrug or Wilkos guarantees unwanted exposure to are bound to have their minds blown by receiving a dose of something completely different. Unsurprisingly, the most animated reactions tend to greet the unfamiliar and alien freeform wildness and weirdness of the pre-production line age, i.e. the 1970s, and some of the strangest sounds from that uninhibited ‘anything goes’ era of music generate the best responses. I watched a handful the other day wherein the viewer was able to observe unsuspecting ears ingesting ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Dutch prog-rockers Focus for the first time. Following the gentle head-nodding to the ‘rockier’ moments, the fun began when the yodelling kicked-in and jaws surrendered to gravity by swiftly hitting the floor. A fair amount of ‘WTF?’ moments were in abundance and it was a genuine joy to see the youth of today realise the youth of yesterday were far more radical than they had any notion of.

If lockdowns have achieved anything from which any crumbs of comfort can be retrieved (a tall order, I know), perhaps forcing people to look beyond their usual sources of stimulation and venture into areas that haven’t been recommended by Spotify algorithms has been one unforeseen development. Being spoon-fed pre-packaged entertainment 24/7 is an insidious trend that maybe more than one generation has now been subjected to; but if some of the YT review videos of previously-unknown songs I’ve seen are anything to go by, it would seem a few bored youngsters are tentatively stepping out of their preordained cultural comfort zones and sampling something free from the endorsement of influencers whose knowledge of pop barely stretches back a decade, let alone into that wicked old last century. It’s just a solitary example of hope that the destabilising turmoil of the past twelve months might have opened a few fresh horizons and fractured the rigid listening habits imposed upon the young by the corporate hegemony. Good on ‘em.

As for their parents, cultural exchanges don’t quite work the other way round, and it would appear many have fallen back on reliable stimulants to see them through the worst. The Office for National Statistics has this week released stats revealing alcohol-related deaths (Covid not included) have increased 16% on the corresponding timeframe from the previous year. Between January and September 2020, 5,460 fatalities attributable to drink were listed, the highest tally since records began in the surprisingly recent year of 2001. Perhaps the largest-recorded number of alcohol-related deaths coming during a period when people are locked away and socially isolated for months on end shouldn’t be a great shock; but when one considers house-arrest and fear over catching the Chinese lurgy has also impacted upon hospitalisation for non-coronavirus illnesses such as liver disease, maybe the dramatic increase is even more understandable. There has also been a constant suspension of traditional in-person support groups such as AA ever since Covid closed the country down, preventing another avenue of rehabilitation for the committed consumer of the demon drink.

In response to the stats, Professor Linda Bauld from the University of Edinburgh said, ‘These are preventable excess deaths, and are a stark reminder that there are indirect harms from this pandemic beyond the immediate threat to health and life from Covid-19.’ You don’t say! Whilst surveys conducted during the first lockdown implied intake of alcohol had initially decreased amongst many with pubs, clubs and bars suddenly out of reach, realisation that the hospitality industry wouldn’t be opening its doors again in the near future appears to have prompted a rise in consumption. Those already prone to the bottle simply turned their homes into their own private snug whilst those who had previously kept their intake at a manageable level gradually followed suit once it became evident we were in this for the long haul. Of course, in Soviet Scotland and the People’s Republic of Wales, the Puritan mindset at the heart of the bodies governing those nations has attempted to limit the sale of alcohol and ration fun on the grounds of public health; but who can blame a populace denied virtually all avenues of pleasure from seeking solace in drink? For many, there’s not a lot else to do.

One of the perennial problems with drink is the way in which its effects can be so variable. Few drugs have the capacity to inspire euphoria as well as despair, laughter as well as tears, joy as well as heartbreak. Yes, it can create a marvellous sense of camaraderie amongst strangers, inspiring communal singsongs and the loosening of inhibitions in the shy and socially reserved. But at the same time, the loosening of inhibitions can also release less appealing traits, sometimes leading to sexual assault and/or physical violence. It can erase the short-term memory as effectively as a course of ECT and leave the guilty party oblivious to their actions when under the influence; if those actions constituted some ‘mad’ albeit ultimately harmless behaviour that can enable witnesses to dine out on anecdotes for years, fair enough; but the consequences are not always so entertainingly memorable. Lock a lone drunk in a claustrophobic household with a family for months on end and chances are there won’t be much in the way of a happy outcome.

The ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme that was briefly sold as a pseudo-Dig for Victory patriotic duty back in the summer may have provided the economy with a short-term shot in the arm, but it was also criticised in some quarters for promoting an unhealthy diet of the kind public health experts are constantly railing against. There has been no ‘Drink Out to Help Out’ equivalent, so drinking has remained an exclusively indoor activity throughout the numerous national and regional lockdowns over the last ten months. The stats certainly suggest long-term drinkers have continued to ride on the oblivion express whilst the train has picked-up passengers en route that would ordinarily jump on and off between stations without once considering purchasing a ticket taking them to the end of the line. But these are not ordinary times.

The aforementioned decimation of the in-person support network as well as the reluctance of those suffering from alcohol-related ailments to turn up to A&E means both the lack of outside help and the decline in emergency admissions have undoubtedly pushed up the death rate. Dr Sadie Boniface of King’s College London said, ‘Because of the way alcohol-specific deaths are defined, most of these deaths were as a result of chronic health conditions caused by longer higher risk or dependent drinking. Around four in every five alcohol-specific deaths is from alcoholic liver disease; this means the increase is not explained by people who previously drank at lower risk levels increasing their consumption during the pandemic.’ In short, the unique conditions of 2020 certainly pushed moderate drinkers into unprecedented excess, but it was the sudden removal of treatment for those already well beyond that stage that caused the rapid increase in fatalities. Sadly, the prioritisation of Covid has probably led to more deaths from innumerable illnesses that would usually receive immediate attention than anyone anticipated; yet this likelihood should have been bloody obvious from day one. A drink may well inspire a joyous burst of air guitar to ‘Hocus Pocus’ or even a bout of amateur yodelling, but it unfortunately inspires less celebratory side-effects, ones than are currently being criminally ignored.

© The Editor

7 thoughts on “CRIME IN A BOTTLE

  1. And yet, data published only days ago reported that total national alcohol sales during the pandemic period had reduced markedly. For sure, drinking at home will have increased, but by nowhere near as much as the decrease in the alcohol volumes sold within in the hospitality trade. So where’s the problem?

    I suspect two factors may be at work, firstly those with a propensity for excess alcohol consumption will have found that, at home, there is no moderating factor (landlord, co-drinkers, travel home etc.) to inhibit the amount consumed, indeed the vastly cheaper price of home-drinking may act as a further incentive to drink more. The second factor, as you observe, may be the temporary unavailability of support services for those same people.

    There may be a third factor caused by worklessness: when you’re furloughed or even working-from-home, the pressure to wake with a reasonably clear head the next day is not the same, there’s no boss around to impress or colleagues around to take the piss, so you might as well get pissed the night before, you can drink coffee in your pyjamas all the next day if you need to.

    I’ll admit that I comment out of ignorance: my alcohol consumption declined as a teenager to the level of barely-noticeable once I acquired a driving license – no amount of booze could ever tempt me to compromise my mobility, a precious facility which enabled my career and has enhanced my life immeasurably for more than 50 years and still does. It doesn’t stop me enjoying a glass of red wine each evening or the occasional refreshing G&T, but that’s my limit, always has been. Boring perhaps, but that’s where I am on the booze-front, nothing to see here, move on.

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    1. My own personal intake hasn’t increased during the various lockdowns, but I think that’s due to two reasons. Firstly, I’m not really a ‘social drinker’, so tend to drink at home anyway; therefore, the factors you mentioned that constitute a night out on the piss aren’t there for me to begin with. Secondly, I got a grip on it just over a year ago, before it got seriously out of hand. For once in my life, the right timing was achieved. Already maintaining a vigilance on my intake has been a considerable aid to moderation in these testing times.

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      1. You are to be applauded (and fortunate) to have the acuity to recognise and the will-power address it before it became a problem. Respect. I’ve known those who could not and it’s a very difficult road back, some don’t make it.

        It’s odd that such a potentially damaging substance as alcohol enjoys lack of censure, yet a spliff or two never caused folk to become aggressive wife-beaters or closing-time brawlers, but its trade, possession and use remain criminalised. Regulating and taxing weed could save a lot of trouble elsewhere.

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      2. I can only ever think alcohol being so engrained in the historic fabric of the nation has enabled it to evade the censure afforded latecomers to the party like weed (a latecomer in the West, anyway). I suppose the ‘gin craze’ of the early 1700s was the nearest comparable moral panic where drink is concerned, and then renewed concern of course spawned the rise of the Temperance Movement in the late 19th century. But even then, the thought of alcohol being outlawed and branded a Class A substance was unimaginable. Prohibition in the States more or less proved this doesn’t work. That said, I suspect if alcohol had first appeared as a recreational substance along with the widespread use of cannabis in the 1960s, it would probably have been recognised as the most potentially dangerous one of all.

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    1. Yes, the first time I heard that I had a bit of a double-take, accustomed to the ‘If You Leave Me Now’-era Chicago. As someone who grew up in an era before specialist music stations and therefore was exposed to a far wider variety of music than later generations, it’s refreshing to see some young ‘uns taking the plunge and using YT to broaden their horizons.

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