Government schemes to discourage excessive drinking are doomed before they start. They consist of a grand misreading of society, a reactionary hoodwinking. A battle on binge drinking comes unsettlingly close to that of a war on "drugs" and "terror’ – it gives a tactic a poor conceptual padding, nothing more. Abstractions suddenly assume a concrete form and we have the enemy in our sights.
It is in this vein we find Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s socially conservative campaign against the errant drinkers of Australia. They are many: the Prime Minister cites a figure of 168,000 Australians between the ages of 12 and 17. Heath Minister Nicola Roxon has this to say about heavy drinking: "It’s hurting our kids, it’s hurting our communities, but it’s also hurting our hospitals."
Rudd suggests terrorising binge drinkers into temperate submission. Underline brain damage, he argues. Emphasise the destructive effects of alcohol in the manner of AIDS advertisements that used the motif of the Grim Reaper in the 1980s. Stop grants to sporting organisations responsible for inciting excessive drinking. Through an attack of moral apoplexy, the Rudd Government will turn Australia into angels of temperance.
All this is predicated on one assumption: liquor is bad. Good and healthy beings are imperative in Rudd’s Australia. We are to treat our bodies as ecosystems: the right balances of fluids, the right foods, the immaculate diet. We are not merely going to clean the planet, we are going to clean ourselves. News reports featuring Rudd’s announcement focused on intoxicated, staggering, well-dressed youngsters.
The binger issues from the drinking process. A corrected process, a revised approach to drinking, is what will neuter the binging. A suggestion then for an anti-binge campaign that is less like an anti-terrorist warning and more like a culture course: put the food back into drinking.
Drinking, accompanied by food, couples liquor with cuisine. Drunkenness is delayed, and might even be discouraged. Drinking ceases to be a ritual whose object is annihilative inebriation. Many an Australian function, notably those with young drinkers, tends to place booze over tucker. Liquor is king; food is the stuff for sissies. Unlined stomachs receive an inevitable pummeling.
This attitude is not helped by Australia’s ill-mannered love of segregating food and drink of the stronger kind. Supermarkets have everything bar one thing: alcohol. The place to get it is the ‘bottle shop’. Liquor, like sex, persists in being seen as the forbidden and the unclean. The solution: national culinary de-segregation. Do, as many European nations do so well: place the liquor alongside food. If nothing else, this encourages consumers to accept that drinking takes place alongside food.
Then, there is the nature of the drink itself. The world of liquor is dominated by a sturdy, immutable hierarchy. Brandy, as the good doctor Samuel Johnson argued, was the stuff heroes drank. The humble beer hovers at the bottom. In Australia, the hierarchy is reversed. Heroics are to be found in consuming beers with memorable names but less than memorable tastes: VB, XXXX. Batsman David Boon is the eponymous figure of swilling, famously consuming 52 beers on a flight from Australia to England.
Young drinking Australians are, relative to Johnson’s heroic consumers, lumpen-proletariat. They drink what is most readily available. Enter the plonk, or wine which by any other name would taste as foul. This ubiquitous demon exerts its devilish hold on the young drinking mind.
Plonk has its aesthetic properties. The Hills Hoist’s ugliness has been alleviated somewhat by decorative bladder packs of plonk, or "goon", that rest on its turning spikes. (In colloquial speech, this is called The Wheel of Goon.) Such behaviour, accompanied by the stresses of peer pressure, can only end in badly. While the teenager and student will gravitate to the lowest drinking denominator, they should at least be told about options.
These options might consist of a dip into John Arlott‘s old columns on wine, which were, in many ways, even finer than his cricket pieces. They gather dust in old library collections, but should be made readily available for the enterprising drinker. For the modern student, a speedy run through a Jancis Robinson program might suffice. These will no doubt be dismissed by some as snobbish Old World panaceas, but an enlightened drinking public is far from a bad thing. Poison can be taken in a learned way.
Rudd positions himself as a pragmatic micro-manager. But in extending his ideas to such things as drinking, he risks extending controls to the uncontrollable. Australia’s drinking culture has never initiated children into moderate drink, which is where the problem stops and starts. Establishments should not be discouraged from serving excessive drink to youngsters – they should merely be encouraged to serve drink in a particular way. Liquor might be a poison, but it is a manageable one
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