It’s said that Eskimos have more than fifty words for snow. Whether this claim, first touted by anthropologist Franz Boas, is true or not – and leaving aside the old skool name for the Inuit – it’s minor league compared to the number of words Scots use for getting drunk.
Pished, wasted, fu, fleein, steamboats, arseholed, wrecked, trashed, fannied, blootered, hammered, slammed, guttered, fucked, stocious, skiting, cunted, battered, wellied… the list goes on and on, not all of them family-friendly. Listing them like this sheds some light on our culture. There’s a discernible thread of violence running through our drinking vocabulary that goes way beyond the genteel land of tipsy.
Despite decades of po-faced health messaging, attitudes to our notorious drinking culture haven’t really changed much. It’s still considered socially acceptable or even hilarious to get so pissed you fall over, throw up, wake up in a ditch or an alley, or make a clown of yourself. Don’t think so? Have a listen in at work to folk talking about the previous weekend’s escapades. When someone gets drunk in company they’re usually the butt of gentle humour and much jesting. It is a universal truth that we tend to make eejits of ourselves once the shooters kick in. But we still have a laugh abut it afterwards.
Here is the point where most commentators veer off into sanctimonious tut-tutting and counting the cost in terms of health and anti-social behaviour. Understandable, perhaps, but is anyone listening? I’m in no position to take the moral high horse here, as I’ve done more than my fair share – giving and receiving – when it comes to having a laugh about the damage from the night before. This aspect of our lives is rarely commented upon but it’s deeply engrained in our culture.
Our social lives are organised around drinking. Booze is our primary social lubricant. Look into the eyes of the person you love and chances are the first time you looked lovingly into those very same eyes they were a bit blurry with booze. As were your own. Booze overcomes our shyness and amen to that or half of us might die virgins. Lifelong friendships can be forged overnight in our cups. We know this from experience. Sure, there are those who go OTT on occasion, or worse, get addicted and cause problems for themselves, their families and their communities, but they’re generally off radar in our social arithmetic. If ye cannae handle the bevvy then dinnae dae it. This is our inconsistent mantra.
Binge drinking, drunken shenanigans, and deathly hangovers were once considered rites of passage; a young man’s game, or the poor man’s solace. We now know that booze culture has made great strides in levelling up any disparities between the sexes. But another less acknowledged cultural shift has taken place. Youthful binge drinking seems to have developed into lifelong behaviour patterns.
According to a recent report by Drinkaware half of middle-aged men aged 45-64 – that’s my own demographic and it tallies anecdotally – are drinking an average of 18 pints of beer a week. I’m not totally convinced by the stats, the sample size seems quite low, but if it were true then half of us are now supping till we drop.
I’m not convinced Scotland can cope indefinitely with our level of alcohol consumption without breaking apart at the seams. When you add drink to the problems associated with poor diet, tobacco and other prohibited drugs – 1% of the entire Scottish population is addicted to opiates – our health service must be approaching the point of collapse. Something has to give.
But here’s the thing. Folk (myself included) know this is the case, we have all the facts at our fingertips, yet we’ll do it all again the following weekend, once the previous hangover is forgotten. We drink in rounds and de’il tak the hindmost.
For instance, in the unlikely event of Hibs winning the Scottish Cup tomorrow afternoon I can confidently predict Leith will have the biggest party in years, and the east of Edinburgh will drown in an ocean of booze, consumed by the happiest of happy campers. And why not. 114 years is a long time to wait between Cup victory parades. And should the improbable happen no one will have their head under the tap more than me. Such is life, such is football, and such is the nature of celebration. It doesn’t make it right. It just makes it feel better.
The point of this article is to honestly admit that alcohol is a fun drug and a social de-inhibitor much of the time. Forget that part of the equation and we lose. But also to recognise there are serious problems associated with booze that few in positions of influence know how to deal with. There are no easy answers, no simplistic quick fixes. Attitudes are deeply ingrained and won’t shift much in the short term. Not while we don’t have full control over our own lives, in a country where employment and housing is insecure, where menial bullshit jobs are degrading and mind-sapping, where poverty and low wages are entrenched, where stress, depression and mental health problems are endemic. When we talk about Scotland’s infamous drink problem it’s us we’re talking about; me, you, our family and our mates, not just the most desperate of alcoholics. As Iggy Pop famously said: Scotland takes drugs in psychic defence. Booze too. Therein lies a more complex discussion.
But until a more considered conversation takes place – linking cause and effect, positives and negatives – nothing much will change. There will be winners and losers. As always. I’ve been teatotal for the last 8 weeks, training hard, enjoying a break from alcohol. It feels good. But there are limits to one’s self-control. Mon the Hibs.