Yesterday I was trapped in a sealed container for fifteen minutes with six very drunk and out of control men. It was an alarming experience.
The container was an underground train. It was a Glasgow Underground train. Oddly enough, the last time I travelled on the Subway in Glasgow (last month) I was in the company of a bunch of very drunk and very aggressive men who made the journey a nightmare for the rest of the passengers on a packed car. It’s beginning to feel that it’s normal to meet drunk people on the Subway during the day.
We Scots have a difficult relationship with alcohol. The cost of alcohol to society, in terms of health, criminal justice and social factors, is reckoned to be £3.6 Billion per year according to the Scottish Government. Kathy Gyngell, writing in ‘Conservative Woman’ says the SNP leadership blames our drinking culture on subjugation from London and a lack of ‘national self confidence’, but this is a provocative oversimplification of the position. The truth is we don’t know exactly why our drug and alcohol problems seem to be worse than in England or elsewhere.
Accepting the unacceptable
A blend of cultural, social, genetic and environmental factors may predispose us, but I have come to believe that there is something else at play. That something else can be distilled as a kind of denial. We tolerate the intolerable, we accept the unacceptable and we normalise the abnormal.
A year or two back a colleague was telling a bunch of us a ‘funny story’ about his wife who had gone to the pictures with a friend. At least that had been the plan, but they had gone for a drink before the movie and had not left the pub. They got so drunk that he had to go and collect her and then carry her up the stairs to their flat because she could no longer stand. In the morning she was very ill and amnesic for the whole episode. He recounted the story in a humorous fashion.
Everybody was laughing at how crazy the night had turned out, but when we measure how successful a night is by how little can be remembered, something has gone very wrong with our judgement. Our collective judgement. In reality it was a pretty sad night.
Lothian Road vs. Times Square
Not that long ago, I walked down Lothian Road here in Edinburgh on a Saturday night with my partner around 11.30pm. I promise you that this is an honest account of that ten minute walk. There was a trail of fresh red blood on the pavement for a few hundred yards. More than one fish supper or kebab had been vomited up onto the kerbside. Dozens of people were drunk and staggering about.
A bus was parked with its hazard lights flashing while a battle between groups of youths took place on the top deck. Sirens sounded. Everywhere there were groups loitering, men shouting. It felt like a war zone or something from a Hogarth print. If alcohol had been removed from the equation, none of this would have been happening. We don’t walk down Lothian Road on a Saturday any more.
Were the newspapers full of stories of the chaos the next day? No they were not, because it seems this kind of thing is pretty normal for a Saturday night in a Scottish city.
A week ago I was standing in Times Square in New York at midnight. It was packed, but nobody appeared to be drunk and there was no sense of danger or threat. My observation from trips to the States is that there is generally a different attitude to drinking and particularly to public drunkenness.
Collective sobering up
It is the normalisation of unhealthy behaviours in Scotland that concerns me and whether it is daytime drunkenness on the Subway in Glasgow, drinking to the point of blackout and thinking it’s a sign of a great night out or putting up with urban warfare on a Saturday night, we do need to have a collective sobering up about what we are prepared to put up with in Scotland in terms of our relationship with alcohol.