Teen drinkers on road to Gin Lane
One image has always haunted me: that of Gin Lane, the print by William Hogarth that dates back to 1750, portraying a grotesque scene to an almost desperate degree.
Fast-forward nigh on 260 years and can we really say anything has changed? To me, all I can see is that the favoured tipple is no longer gin, but cheap vodka or lager, and cans and bottles seem to endlessly litter the streets, along with bodies that sometimes appear only barely alive.
Hogarth claims that his picture was, in part, a scathing attack on the Government and Church and it was used in an attempt to restrict the sales of gin.
I am not quite so dutiful as Hogarth and, certainly, this piece is in no way the beginning of some campaign on my part, yet all of us reading this cannot help but notice that binge-drinking is a huge problem, especially among kids barely out of short trousers. And it has been for a while now.
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The glazed eyes, aggressive nature and vomit – something that is thought to be new to each generation. But it never is.
My lot were no different; some continued to drink heavily, others settled down. But I wonder how many of those kids out there, or their parents, know what it is like to lose friends to alcohol abuse.
Would parents be so glib about their teenagers' whereabouts if they knew what their babies might become? Suffering from jaundice the colour of tarnished gold, livers swollen, dying on park benches or alone in hospital beds, hanging themselves because of the depressive effects of booze?
How it breaks my heart to still remember one friend of mine who became such a chronic alcoholic that I once saw him so drunk, homeless, asking change not from passers-by, but from his own reflection in a shop window, eyes yellow. Two months later, dead, a blistered liver that could take no more. Such a slow, lonely death.
I have lost three good friends to alcohol.
As Big Chief says in Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, when talking of his father: "Once he drank from the bottle, but in the end, the bottle drank from him."
But what is it about our culture that seems to make us rampage around the streets completely slaughtered with an unquenchable thirst for the crushed grape?
About 800,000 hospital admissions a year are alcohol related and, as I'm sure you are aware, not all of them are above the age of 18. A staggering statistic.
Another statistic that is, well, a wake-up call, for me at least, reveals that our nation's youth, and by that, I mean from the ages of 10-17, are now drinking more heavily than those in Russia which, though a rather generalised opinion of Russia, I would never have thought possible here.
The underclass: that's what Hogarth was depicting, and that's what still exists here, bereft of hope through the lack of a good education which, surely, in a democracy is every child's right.
Those glazed eyes, the sneers, the aggression that I spoke of – these are the manifestation of children with no future and not, conversely, malevolence for the sake of it. No different to 1977 when kids abused solvents and listened to the Sex Pistols scream "no future".
Yet again, a burgeoning underbelly of society that these days can merely fill its stomach with absolute volume bought cheap from the supermarket.
I spoke to some kids on the street the other night. They were celebrating a 16th birthday. At first wary of me, an adult about to issue out retribution: "Why the drink, lads?" I asked.
And slowly they told me that no one was listening to them, there were no job prospects and that, just for a few hours at least, there was a release from no future. Again, that phrase. No future.
More policing of the streets, pubs and shops would, of course, reduce teenage drinking. Figures for the last four years, released by the Lib Dems yesterday, reveal more than 500,000 under-18s were served alcohol in bars, 350,000 bought booze from shops, so yes, clamp down further.
But, in my opinion, that's not really tackling the one neglected area: a better education. Bang someone up for the night, even fine them, give them that dreadful acronym, an Asbo but, if someone has nothing to look forward to except another bender, they'll find a way.
All those close to me who died had one thing in common. All hope had gone, either through lack of employment or heartbreak or both. All decent people who had nothing further to look forward to except what was tantamount to a slow suicide.
Do you, reading this, know what acute alcohol withdrawal really looks like at first hand, where at best a seizure occurs, at worst a heart will pack up from DTs, or a liver finds it can't cope a second longer?
C an't we at least give our children hope, a future? Surely it is this country's duty to give our children something to look forward to and, as stated earlier, this must start at school.
If tens of thousands of children, for that is what they are, are being excluded from school for drunkenness, I think this is surely a warning sign to those in Whitehall that many still at school have scant regard for the education system.
Blind us with figures suggesting better exam results but I think our children's behaviour speaks for itself. Our children are going to end up on Gin Lane – a disgrace – as surely that scene should remain firmly rooted in the past.