Killing the worm in ourselves

C2H5OH, or ethyl alcohol, is a clear, colourless, volatile and flammable oxygenated hydrocarbon produced by the fermentation of sugar that is used, among other things, in the preparation of beverages. It is also one of the oldest and most efficacious of psychoactive drugs – and we love it. Anecdotal evidence – and, for most of us, personal experience – leads to this conclusion; OECD figures (2008) confirm it. Australians over the age of fifteen consume an average of ten litres of pure alcohol per capita each year. This puts us in the mid-range of comparative countries, with Luxembourg (which is, incidentally, estimated by the World Bank in 2008 to be the world’s most affluent nation) way out in front with 15.5 litres. The National Health and Medical Council of Australia concludes that, while most Australians enjoy a drink for relaxation and enjoyment, a ‘substantial proportion of people drink at levels that increase their risk of alcohol-related harm’ (my emphasis).

To abstain from drinking is to be regarded with a certain suspicion, as if you are not quite trustworthy or, in the case of men, not masculine enough. The right to drink is sacrosanct. Along with the beach, the barbie and the football oval, alcohol is emblematic of the Australian way of life and an icon of our democracy. It is ubiquitous across lines of class, education, profession and gender. Walk down the red carpet at any gala corporate event and you will find a gauntlet of waiters bearing libations. In Kings Cross on a Saturday night you will see young girls sitting in the gutter, eyes glazed over, stiletto heels awry, mini-dresses stained with vomit. Out in suburbia, attend the average eighteenth birthday party and watch the guest of honour chug-a-lug vodka shots until the bottle is drained.

Alcohol is the world’s favourite drug – and in Australia, where it has long been identified as a social and a health issue, it is also a political problem.

In his memoir My Name Is Ross, Australian writer, academic and political commentator Ross Fitzgerald reveals that between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, he spent every Christmas Day in a mental hospital receiving treatment for alcoholism. Ironically, Christmas Day was also his birthday. Those nine years were a rampage of sexual promiscuity, violence, degradation, humiliation, drug abuse, shock therapy and deep self-loathing.

For Fitzgerald, even today, to drink is to die.

The relationship between writers and grog is, of course, long standing and full of legend. Baudelaire once said that Edgar Allan Poe used alcohol as a weapon ‘to kill something in himself, a worm that would not die’. Poe did his best to affirm the great poet’s observation by dying on the streets of Baltimore wearing someone else’s clothes, penniless and alcoholic.

F Scott Fitzgerald famously referred to alcohol as ‘the writer’s vice’, an observation supported by the work of Nancy J Andreasen, a professor of psychiatry who tracked the drinking habits of writers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop over fifteen years. Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, John Cheever, Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor were among her sample, in a study that found that 30 per cent of the writers were alcoholics, compared to 7 per cent of non-writers.

The critic Leslie Fiedler refers to the writer’s need for a ‘charismatic flaw’. What could be more convenient than the liquor cabinet? A high proportion of American recipients of the Nobel Prize for literature were alcoholics: Eugene O’Neill, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway among them. John Steinbeck, Raymond Carver, Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Henry Melville, Jack London and many more resorted to the writer’s vice, whether to kill the worm or write the book or both.

By a stroke of good fortune, Fitzgerald met a recovering alcoholic who steered him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. For an atheist who once tried unsuccessfully to join the Communist Party but was rejected because of his taste for grog, the philosophical leap required to appeal a higher power could not have come easily.

Carl Jung, marginally influential in the establishment of AA in the 1930s, once observed that the craving for booze was ‘the equivalent, on a low level, of the spirited thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.’ Jung’s maxim for the alcoholic – spiritus contra spiritum, spirit against spirit, power against power – suggests that alcoholism is, in a sense, not so much a failure as the transference of the will, in which the worm takes control with a promise of psychological and, in extreme cases, physical obliteration.

E M Jellinek, one of the world’s best-known authorities on alcoholism, developed a typology that ranks alcohol dependence. In general, alcoholic writers from the English-speaking world, such as the young Ross Fitzgerald, fall into the gamma category, which is characterised by a capacity to abstain for periods between bouts of aggressive binge drinking. French writers, on the other hand, tend to the delta type, unable to abstain but able to control consumption.

In his fascinating book Alcohol and the Writer, Donald Goodwin profiles the Belgian author Georges Simenon who had the distinction of qualifying, at different periods, in both categories. Having never regarded himself as an alcoholic while living in France, his drinking habits changed when he moved to America, where he encountered a convivial and perpetually parched ‘freemasonry of alcoholics’ that drew him willingly into ‘manhattan after manhattan, dry martini after dry martini’.

The Australian obsession with alcohol disembarked from the First Fleet, with early settlers resorting to drunkenness as a means of ameliorating the blistering sun, poisonous critters, understandably hostile Indigenous inhabitants and the rule of the lash. In their useful and informative book Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia, Trevor Jordan and Ross Fitzgerald note that Australian political culture has long been closely associated with alcohol, as veterans of the Left might attest. The most obvious historical episode of alcohol-fuelled political upheaval was our only military coup, the so-called Rum Rebellion of 1808, in which the infamous NSW Corps overthrew Governor Bligh in retaliation for his attempts to rein in their power, which rested on the use of rum as a form of currency. Lesser known may be Gough Whitlam’s admission that had he been aware that Sir John Kerr had a chronic drinking problem – twice admitted to hospital to dry out while in office, according to Whitlam – he would not have recommended him for governor-general.

There is an unhealthy relationship between effort, reward and alcohol in Australian culture, perhaps rooted in our tainted colonial past and reflected in the methodologies used in the marketing of alcohol today. Over time, the once popular masculine ideals of the shearer, the drover and the digger were joined by the sportsman. By the 1950s, Australia had a subculture of pub art depicting square-jawed rugby players and cricketers on the walls of hotels across the country. The sweat of the worker morphed into the sweat of the sporting hero.

Today, multinational companies like Lion Nathan, Fosters and Diageo continue to exploit the entrenched relationship between sport and alcohol, contributing more than 80 per cent of the total amount of corporate sponsorship of sports-related enterprises. Meanwhile, alcohol kills at least 3000 people a year nationwide, causes more than 70 000 hospitalisations at a cost of $7.5 billion. A total ban on alcohol advertising could reduce drinking by 25 per cent, road fatalities by 30 per cent and the yearly social costs of alcohol abuse by several billion dollars. But the vodka in the fridge will freeze solid before we see that.

Alcohol abuse begets acts of a human being’s lower nature. As that great dishevelled chronicler of dipsomania Charles Bukowski puts it, ‘Sometimes you just have to piss in the sink.’ Compare, in an Australian context, the larrikin pranks of Julian O’Neil, one of rugby league’s most celebrated drunks, infamous for the ‘poo in a shoe’ episode at a regional motel while on tour – or, indeed, the numerous far more sinister incidents involving footballers, sexual assault and hush money.

For a country with, according to a 2004 survey in the Economist, the world’s highest rate of serious assaults, a reduction in operating hours in Australian pubs would seem long overdue. Licensing laws that favour increased access to hotels result, predictably, in increased harm. In 2008, 12 per cent of inner-city hotels in Sydney were responsible for 60 per cent of all assaults on hotel premises. In Newcastle, the figures were 8 and 80 per cent, respectively. The hotels in question operated under extended hours. By contrast, recent trials in which fourteen NSW pubs adopted earlier closing times led to a 30 per cent decrease in cases of street violence. But the Australian Hotels Association continues to behave like a latter-day Rum Corps. As social researcher Hugh Mackay points out, politicians of all persuasions continue to resist substantive change by deferring to complaints from the hotel industry ‘as if a dip in the profitability of hotels is a social issue on the same scale as street violence’.

Alcohol is a weapon, as Baudelaire said, and in Australia it is used to satisfy a self-destructive but lucrative compulsion.

By now you could be forgiven for thinking I was that most despised of characters, the wowser. You may well be right: I haven’t had a drink for six months and the self-righteousness of the reformed is notorious. I was never really a booze hound, more your two-glasses-of-wine-at-dinner-and-a-couple-of-beers-in-front-of-the-telly kind of drinker; by definition a ‘social drinker’, even when I was alone.

I stopped for two reasons: firstly, I had a very demanding year ahead and needed to be sound of body and mind; secondly, my children were in their teens and I realised that almost every adult member of their immediate family was a ‘social drinker’ – and some far more social than others. I wanted to lead by quiet example, to show that choice was possible, dissent from the norm an option.

An old bar room joke goes that you know you have a drinking problem when your doctor finds traces of blood in your alcohol stream. Perhaps in Australia today, that’s no longer quite so funny.

Boris Kelly

Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in theatre, literary fiction and politics. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for work on his first novel.

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