This morning, well before 9am, I was on my way to the shops to buy essential breakfast supplies when I passed a guy, in his twenties or so, swigging from a can of lager. This is not at all a remarkable event in this neighbourhood. I routinely see guys (and it is always men) drinking beer at the bus stop in the mornings. It’s always one of the extra-strength lagers, in the dark blue can, or the one in the black can. They’re don’t seem to be particularly drunk, any of them, or worried that anyone can see what they’re drinking so early in the morning. I really have to think that this is routine, that there are men in my neighbourhood for whom the morning can of Tennant’s is as routine as my morning cup of tea is for me.
It is probably this that is the most alien experience of England for me (well, that and the inexplicable popularity of mushy peas). I don’t have much of a relationship with alcohol myself, neither a good one nor a bad one. I tell people I don’t drink, but that’s not really true. I do occasionally drink, but I seldom think to. My first thought in a restaurant when asked what I want to drink is usually water, or maybe lemonade. It hardly ever occurs to me to order alcohol, and I tend only to drink it when it is very visible, and everyone else clearly is (which means I have drunk more alcohol in the last two years in the UK than I did in the previous ten in South Africa and the UAE). I only ever buy alcohol for cooking purposes.
This is a university town, and one kind of expects that there will be a lot of drinking, and the area around campus definitely shows the evidence of that, but I live far enough away from campus that there are few students around. Despite that, of the little two block strip of shops near me, there is a pub, and two small grocery shops, of which at least one third of their shelf space is taken up by alcohol, and four takeaways.
Alcohol consumption is high in the UK, and it carries a heavy social cost. It’s a point of some contention, carrying with it aspects of class discrimination and snobbery, as well as social opprobrium. The problem is, it’s hard to not sound like a moralising harpy when criticising people for their drinking habits; no matter how much you try to make the conversation about health, or social disorder, it always seems to come back to a kind of puritanical list of ” shoulds and shouldn’ts”. On the other hand, it would be hard to really defend the level of alcohol consumption that is prevalent here. Seeing the guys at the bus stop in the mornings, and knowing that there is no local industry that runs a night shift (ie, there is no reasonable possibility that this is the end of their day, and they are heading home to bed), I can’t help concluding that these are people showing up for work in the morning already slightly drunk. At the risk of sounding flippant: this can’t be good.
Of course, as someone who doesn’t drink, and never really has (I’ve been drunk three times in my life, all in my late twenties, and all because I decided I needed to get drunk to see what all the fuss is about), I feel as though I shouldn’t really comment. I don’t know why I don’t drink, honestly. Alcohol was neither prevalent nor taboo in the house – I saw my parents drink on special occasions, we were allowed wine or sherry from a pretty young age. I grew up in a pretty typical Canadian way, friends got drunk at parties from around 16 or so, although I never did, I know a few kids who died as a result of drunkenness, but nobody really close to me was affected. I did spend a fair chunk of my university life being the only sober one in any given [likely vomit and blood-spattered] room, which is never fun, but I also avoided the most drunken environments after a while. The fact is, I don’t like the sensation of being drunk, and it doesn’t make me enjoy social occasions more: the contrary, in fact – alcohol makes me sleepy and weepy. In fact, the only time I ever seek out alcohol is when I’m wound up with insomnia and desperately need to sleep, and have nothing else available (don’t get me started on my relationship with zolpidem – now that’s a drug I would probably buy on street corners if I had to).
Which is why I found this research interesting. I know it’s not new, I know it’s not really an “alcoholism gene”, but the idea that I metabolise alcohol differently from the guy at the bus stop this morning is extremely seductive, if for no other reason than it doesn’t leave me with nothing but moral s fall back on. I don’t like smugness, especially not in myself.