Euan McColm: Take pride in battling blight of my young life

Some people dissolve in alcohol. Over time, that which once gave comfort begins to take away.
High spirits soon give way to self-loathing in the everyday experience of the alcoholic. Picture: Frank Martin/BIPs/GettyHigh spirits soon give way to self-loathing in the everyday experience of the alcoholic. Picture: Frank Martin/BIPs/Getty
High spirits soon give way to self-loathing in the everyday experience of the alcoholic. Picture: Frank Martin/BIPs/Getty

It corrodes the interesting edges, blunts the wit, and wreaks havoc on the body, beckoning in the risk of cirrhosis or cancer or heart failure.

Drink destroys the person who once existed and replaces him with an unconvincing replica, someone slower, and weaker; someone sadder.

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This grinding process is painful to watch in others and terrifying to recognise in yourself.

Booze killed my father, Hugh. The brief official version is that his heart gave out but the death certificate doesn’t tell the full story.

A lifetime of years-long drunken binges, interspersed by brief periods of sobriety when junk food would replace the bottle, wrecked his body and made dull a brilliant mind.

By the time of his death, aged 62, my father was estranged from various friends and relatives and existing on meagre benefits. He was going to conquer the world before alcohol got him.

At the age of 31, just a few months before Hugh’s death, I stopped drinking. I hadn’t reached the point where I’d wake in the morning needing a slug to get going but I’d get up every day knowing that, at some point, I’d go into a pub and, whether that was at noon or 7pm, the rest of the day would be lost to Guinness and gin (Cork Dry, if you have it. I’m a connoisseur not a lush) and, then, whatever I could lay my hands on.

I didn’t much like the man who stumbled home to bed after these daily sessions; it was like being trapped in an episode of Mr Benn where the only costume at the back of shop is “tiresome, self-pitying arsehole”.

And so, in October 2001, fearful that if I carried on the way I was, I would pay a heavy price, I walked out of the pub, leaving my first pint of the day untouched on the bar. It was a rare moment of clarity leading to a rare example of me making a good decision.

In the foreign country of 17 years ago, a political editor – as I was then– was expected to rack up lavish expenses claims taking MPs and MSPs for boozy lunches; each bottle opened increased the possibility of an indiscreet remark that would make a story.

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A drinking culture in newspaper journalism was not only tolerated, it was encouraged. On my first day as an 18-year-old trainee reporter in 1988, my new colleagues took me for lunch and bought me so much to drink that I was concealed in the gents toilet for the afternoon because of an unexpected visit to the newsroom by a management team, squares who wouldn’t understand why the new boy was insensible by 2pm.

But my relationship with alcohol was not created by my line of work, it was enabled by it. I first fell down drunk, aged 13, having downed several measures of sherry provided for residents of an old folks home who were visiting my school to watch a tiresome variety show in which I, and the rest of my second year German class, would be performing a traditional dance which involved lots of slapping of knees.

Horrified by the prospect of appearing on stage in lederhosen, I spotted trays of sherry backstage and fashioned a workable solution. Several glasses of Croft Original found their way into a plastic beaker already containing 
Kia-Ora orange squash. This sickly sweet proto-alcopop slipped down easily and by the time I had to take to the stage in the school gym, I was away with the fairies.

At some point during the performance, which I entered into with a gusto I had not displayed during dress rehearsals, I lost my footing and clattered down on my backside. My first drunken experience was to include my first drunken humiliation. Well, start as you mean to go on…

By the time I was 15 years old, drinking was a regular thing. At weekends, I’d head into Glasgow with pals and we’d scour the off sales around Central Station for special offers. Once a suitable deal had been identified – 60 cans of Skol for 8p, say – the one of our number who had begun shaving at the age of 13 and had an Adam’s apple like a Rubik’s Cube would be sent in, his pockets stuffed with our pocket money and paper round tips, to make the purchase.

Weekend after weekend, I’d drink until I was sick and it was always on the cheapest booze I could find.

Those days are long gone, but so, too, are the days of anyone being able to drink themselves into a ditch for a couple of quid.

The introduction, on Tuesday, of a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol was, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon believes, a significant step in doing something about Scotland’s booze culture. I agree with her.

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The minimum pricing policy is not window dressing. The Scottish Government faced down serious opposition from the alcohol industry, including the deeply cynical suggestion from drinks companies that legislation raising the price of two litres of knock-your-socks-off cider above that of a ham sandwich out of Boots would somehow affect the Scotch whisky industry.

Minimum pricing does something on top of making alcohol more expensive. It says that not only does the Scottish Government recognise – as any fool can – that Scotland’s relationship with alcohol is unhealthy, but that it’s serious about doing something about it.

There comes a point in some people’s relationship with alcohol where nothing – including cost – will get in the way of them drinking. More expensive booze won’t do much to help those who are already lost to it, but removing it from the easy reach of young people is a good thing and I will not, I’m afraid, be convinced otherwise.

If this policy makes it less simple for people to begin – or develop – a damaging relationship with alcohol, it will be as fine a legacy as any First Minister could hope for.