My definition of responsible drinking is pretty elastic. I think that if you make it back to the right house after a night out, if you’re unstained with vomit or any other unnamed substance when you get there, and if you don’t subsequently start a fire while trying to prepare some kind of late-night snack, you are probably a responsible drinker in my view. Which isn’t to say that I’ve never thrown up into a pint glass, just that I haven’t done it since I was 20, when I realised that my fondness for vodka was just about outweighed by my dislike of vomiting into a cup.
But if I had to name a couple of groups who I think have an objectively responsible attitude to booze, then Alcohol Concern, the British Medical Association and the British Liver Trust would probably be right up there. After all, if you name your organisation after the organ which processes alcohol, you’ve staked a pretty good claim to being responsible about the whole affair. And you obviously can’t get more concerned about alcohol than Alcohol Concern.
So when these three groups, amongst others, opted out of the government’s ‘responsibility deal’ on alcohol yesterday, alarm bells should surely have started ringing in Andrew Lansley’s otherwise uncluttered head. The reasons they gave were that the pledges the alcohol industry was making were neither specific nor measurable, that they lacked scope and there was no evidence they would even work, and worst of all, that there was a ‘lack of clarity’ over the consequences for the alcohol industry if it failed to meet their commitments. By this point, those bells should have been clanging loudly enough to wake anyone from a gin-fuelled stupor.
The exact nature of the pledges (a gratifyingly twelve-step word to use in this context) will be made clear later this week, but the BBC reported that they were expected to include commitments to label more products with unit content, promote responsible drinking, take action on advertising and keep alcohol adverts away from schools. One hesitates to pick sides, but those pledges do sound numbingly unspecific. And can it really be the case that alcohol adverts were previously allowed in schools? Are they pushing it during lessons or just between them? And are they marketing it at the staff – who one would guess probably need a drink – or just the kids?
It seems only moments since the current government was in opposition and declaring any moves on public health to be a sign of the nanny state. Yet now they can’t resist nannying us either – there can surely be no more nannyish phrase than ‘responsibility deal’: it doesn’t even have the S&M frisson of the naughty step. I suspect the newfound fondness for nannies is because if you looked at anyone in the current cabinet, you’d be hard-pushed to pick one who you didn’t think had grown up with a nanny. Well, maybe Eric Pickles, but that’s just because there’s the faint suspicion that he might have eaten his.
In one of the feeblest ripostes available for a Health Secretary being bitch-slapped by people who unarguably care about public health, Andrew Lansley pointed out that tough action was being taken. He reminded us that the government has whacked a tax on wife-beater lagers and banned the sale of alcohol for less than the price of the tax levied on it. So it can surely be only moments before they restrict the use of paintstripper as a mixer, and everyone switches to drinking milk.
In my mind, Queen Victoria remains the solemn-faced, perpetually mourning, ‘We are not amused’ figure of school history lessons. This version of her took a bit a knock, I admit, when she became Judi Dench and totally had a fling with Billy Connolly. And now newly-discovered diaries have shown that he wasn’t her only post-Albert crush. Abdul Karim was given to Victoria as a ‘gift from India’ in 1887, when she was in her sixties and he was just 24. He taught her about Indian affairs, helped her learn Urdu, and quickly became, like John Brown before him, a close friend of the monarch. Indeed, they spent a night alone together in the same highland cottage where she had stayed with Brown.
Although it seems unlikely that they were lovers, she occasionally signed her letters to him with numerous kisses, which is a lot more cute-teenager, and a lot less grieving-widow than one might expect. And when she died, she left instructions that he was to be one of the principal mourners at her funeral – a considerable honour. Only a few hours after that funeral, Karim was given the boot by her son, Edward VII. So is it possible that, in fact, the most accurate portrayal of the queen in popular culture is Miriam Margolyes in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol – giggly, flirtatious, and rather smutty? I hope so.
Waterstone’s managing director, Dominic Myers, has begun a plan to relaunch the book chain. Instead of piling Dan Brown and Jamie Oliver sky-high, the bookshop is to rediscover the qualities which made people love it when it was new: books, lots of books, ones you hadn’t read, and which weren’t a biog of someone you couldn’t pick out of a line-up. This is the best news I have heard in ages. A trip to Waterstones used to be such a joy, as you could almost guarantee that you would find a handful of lit-fic titles you’d never heard of, at least one of which would be brilliant. Then in recent years, it became a real trial, as finding any book which was over a year old seemed virtually impossible. Too often, I found myself walking to the shop, stomping home in annoyance, and ordering the book I wanted online, because it was the only way to get it at all. So here’s to the new incarnation of Waterstones, and the fond hopes that it will be exactly like the old one.