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

The Herald - Arts - - Books -


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

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