Tuesday, 20 September 2016

I don't want to be a 'Soberhero'

Mine's a Daiquiri

It seems that barely a month goes by these days without it being hijacked by a charity eager to encourage us all to stop drinking.

Once upon a time, January was the month when people - normally of their own volition and not for charity – would lock up the drinks cabinet and forswear the public house to give their body a break after the excesses of the Christmas season. A very worthy and sensible ambition (though I remember lunching with an elderly politician and his nephew at The Gay Hussar one rainy January day and a cascade of abuse was directed at the nephew for having the temerity to emerge for lunch and not drink). Dry January has, of course, been adopted by charity and last year more than two million people took part, raising money for Alcohol Concern.

We are now, however, in the middle of a Dryathlon, promoted by Cancer Research, which urges us ‘to give up alcohol this September and become a Dryathlete’ after a ‘summer of overindulgence’. And after labouring through an abstemious month, one would be forgiven for desiring a snifter, but then we are being encouraged to become a ‘Soberhero’ for Macmillan Cancer Support, and remain booze free for the 31 long days of October. Australia has a Dry July campaign; I wouldn’t be surprised to see that emerge here too soon.

Now, this isn’t a criticism of these individual charities who all do tremendous and valuable work but rather a concern about the unintended consequences. Figures released by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) in August showed that 21 pubs were closing across the country every week. Supermarkets, which still continue to sell alcohol at prices so absurdly cheap it is impossible for a pub to compete, taxes on pubs and the role of pubcos are all cited as major reasons behind these closures. But these charity events do have an impact on the pub trade. The loss of two million customers for a month will inevitably hit the bottom line. One publican admitted to me it was ‘hard to quantify’ how much of a direct hit pubs took but said its impact was ‘significant’.

It is easy to forget how much of an important role the pub plays in British society. It is a home away from home, a meeting place, a community hub. An IPPR report in 2012 said:

‘One of the most important contributions pubs make to local community life is that they act as hubs for the development of social networks between local people. Our national opinion poll found that outside the home the pub scored the highest of any location as a place where people “meet and get together with others in their neighbourhood”’.

And a study by University Hospital in Basel found, unsurprisingly, in a report published this week, that a single glass of beer can make people more sociable.

The continuing loss of pubs damages the fabric of society. But, this seems to be the ambition of some anti-alcohol campaigns. One representative, from the World Cancer Research Fund, has repeatedly claimed: ‘About 24,000 cancer cases could be avoided every year in the UK if everyone stopped drinking alcohol’. Any, albeit inadvertent, damage this could cause to social cohesion - which, in itself, contributes to the health of individuals - is, it seems, ignored.

And then there is the Institute for Alcohol Studies, which claims to be an ‘independent voice on alcohol policy’, but is in fact mainly funded by the Alliance House Foundation, once known as the Temperance Federation. Four people linked to the IAS were recently among the ‘experts’ advising the government to recommend the reduction of safe weekly drinking limits for men from 21 units to 14.
Roger Protz, the editor of the Good Beer Guide, at the launch of the 2017 edition just this week, warned:

‘the restrictions urged by the medical officers are taking us on the road to Prohibition…. All the real scientific evidence shows that moderate beer drinking can contribute to a health lifestyle. We should listen to the experts – not the kill-joys of the Temperance movement.’

There can be few people who are not aware of the risks posed by the excessive consumption of alcohol, and charities should be congratulated for finding ever more innovative funding techniques in a competitive world, funding vital work. And yes, we should probably all drink less alcohol. But, I hope we have reached saturation point when it comes to month-long dry-outs; it's enough to make one turn to drink.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

UB40 for satirists please

It always used to be the case that the Labour Party attracted the support of cool celebrities, musicians and artists while the Conservatives were left with the meagre joys of end of pier comedians and Peter Stringfellow.

Just think of those early days after Tony Blair's election in 1997 - the moment when Cool Britannia flowered briefly before being hastily deadheaded - when the likes of Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher were eager to be photographed with the new, rockstaresque, prime minister. And, in 2000, while Nelson Mandela addressed the Labour Party conference, the Tories had Jim Davidson instead. This is despite the alleged comedian having been happy, in his 1993 autobiography, to write about poking his then wife in the eye, ending with the hilarious quip: 'I actually went for the mouth. Thank heaven I missed, I'd have fallen in. I just took a playful punch.' How the blue rinses must have laughed.

Yes, this was the stuff for satirists. And, more recently, the Three Brexiteers, Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – awkwardly yoked together by the canny Theresa May – could easily have entertained us all in their own sitcom with their bickering over who nicked the milk or failed to replace the toilet paper in the Chevening House farce in which they all star. But, think of the poor satirist being faced with Jeremy Corbyn’s recent liaison with UB40 – or, at least, one version of the group, if not the one with the original lead singer: what is he to make of this?

Today, for reasons I have yet to fathom, Jeremy Corbyn was joined by UB40 on stage at the Royal Society of Arts where they endorsed him as leader of the Labour Party, claiming he had:

're-ignited an interest in politics for people who no longer felt included, and engaged and inspired a new generation of young voters who, for the first time, believe that they have an incorruptible politician who truly represents them.'

UB40, of course, is hardly an up and coming band riding on the crest of a popular wave of youthful fans; it is an ageing band that was involved with the not entirely successful Red Wedge movement of the 1980s, had split up famously acrimoniously and featured a set of siblings who no longer talk to one another. As this event was being planned, that no one within Labour's strategy team piped up and questioned, just for a moment, whether seeking the backing of such a group an might not be the best metaphor for the modern Labour Party, is little short of astonishing.

Last week, Jeremy Corbyn unveiled an interesting, ambitious, arts policy, pledging to reverse Conservative cuts in arts education and widening opportunity for pupils to participate in the music and arts. How exactly it was to be funded was not entirely clear, but there is a theme to develop, though this event provided no such opportunity. Moreover, I think, prior to the event, there were were very few people on the planet who wondered where UB40, or indeed UB40 with Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue, stood in the Labour leadership battle.

But, for a moment, just think of that satirist. When Ed Miliband emerged with his tablet of stone with his elections pledges for the May 2015 General Election, it was easy to imagine such a scenario appearing in The Thick of It or Yes Minister. But, it is impossible to imagine Armando Iannucci would have come up yesterday's scene, where the Labour leader was presumably trying to garner support rather than appear absurd. Similarly, it's hard to think any writer of fiction would invent the desperate, colour of Donald Trump, who seamlessly combines extremist bile and egregious banality without ever knowing the difference. Strange days indeed.