A slight case of bottle fatigue
A timely memoir of one woman’s alcoholism is grimly fascinating but little more than another cautionary tale. By Lesley McDowell
HIGHSOBRIETY:CONFESSIONSOF ADRINKER Alice King
TOrion £16.99 he issue of alcohol consumption by women and by the middle classes is “enjoying” something of a media moment. It’s an issue because both groups are, according to recent medical studies and social surveys, drinking more than ever before, leading to Daily Mail-esque apocalyptic visions of posh, drunken mothers destroying their beautiful detached homes, and ruining the futures of their boarding-school-educated children with their addictions to Cristal and Chardonnay.
To that extent, then, Alice King, former best-selling wine writer and selecter for Tesco’s, conforms perfectly to type. She had the beautiful home, the handsome husband, the three perfect little boys. She had a fantastic career, writing well-paid books on wine as well as numerous newspaper columns and articles, all of which took her to the fanciest hotels and the greatest vineyards, and allowed her to afford the best to drink herself. But she threw it all away. Her drinking destroyed it all.
Given the genre – “misery”-lit that only works so long as it’s “survival”-lit as well – it’s not surprising that King is now dry, has been for three years, and has recovered a great deal of what she lost, not least her relationship with her three sons. Actually, not very much is surprising in her memoir of those wine-sodden years. King is not the most self-reflective person, possibly something that made her such an accomplished alcoholic in the first place. The sixth of nine children, she was born to a wine shipper who encouraged her interest in wine from an early age. Summer holidays spent in glamorous locations in France helped it along; after taking a fashion degree at college that she decided she didn’t want to use, she wrote to a number of wine magazines, looking for a job. Decanter took her on straight away.
King makes it clear that she felt very young and inexperienced right from the start, and that, although she was good at her job, she would drink to help calm her nerves when she faced difficult or intimidating situations. She also implies that if she hadn’t then married a wine merchant, perhaps her dive down into winey depths wouldn’t have been quite so swift. But, with too much money and far too glamorous a lifestyle, she and her husband pretty much egged each other on. As the book progresses, the amount they consume in an average day is quite an eye-opener, as is the cost of it all. No discounted Lambrusco for them, even if it’s what their studenty counterparts are drinking. They can afford the best.
But, of course, it can only go one way. So, in spite of producing three gorgeous boys, the marriage drowns in an ocean of boozy arguments and recriminations, and King finds herself washed up with no home, no job, no family. The drinking has taken over completely – it’s all she cares about.
She has been very frank in this book about the depths to which she sank. She had to be – this genre might not require the gifts of a great wordsmith, but it does demand honesty, as much of it as possible: the one-night stands with strangers, the neglecting of her children, the vomiting and bleeding and all the other horrible things our bodies do when we don’t respect them.
What stands out the most, though, is not when she finally attends her first AA meeting – reluctantly, and still in denial – but another, much earlier moment in the book, when she bumps into her own sons, happily shopping in a supermarket with the woman her ex-husband has now married. This woman fits the maternal image in a way that King, with her tight skirt, leather boots, heavy make-up and basket with a bottle of Smirnoff in it, just doesn’t, and the heartbreak of this
moment is not that it spurred her on to do something about herself, but that it made her so much worse.
I’m not sure what readers will learn from King’s story that they don’t know already: alcoholism is destructive but if you’re strong, and have some good fortune, you can get better? That even the most successful people can fall apart? These are familiar stories, but somehow they’re stories we never seem to tire of hearing. King’s own tale fits a current conservative fear – that the pressure of taking on a man’s role, in the workplace as the boss or in the family as the main breadwinner, is too much for many women, turning them into drunken sluts. While taking on traditional male roles may seem to make women more open to traditional male pressures, the reality of the situation is far more complicated. King’s story, alas, doesn’t touch on those complexities, keeping it essentially another simple, cautionary tale.
Alice King was a wine buyer for Tesco and wrote about drink in newspapers before her descent into alcoholism