This morning I awoke sharp and fast. My sleep was like a bubble that broke free from the bottom of a glass and shot to the surface breaking instantly at the top – my sleep dissipated instantly. Sometimes, rarely but when it happens it is so delicious, I come to consciousness imperceptibly slowly and as I become aware that has happened I can choose to remain in the moment – fully aware of being cosseted in an all-encompassing duvet, of being gorgeously warm and of just hovering on the sleep side of being alert. Then my sleep is like the bubble that gently edges up the inside of the glass, stopping just under the surface and staying there below the surface.
A few years ago coming round from (minor) surgery I experienced an awakening like that but, incredibly drowsy and really barely awake more so that I can describe. In some pain however I called out and was given morphine and pethidine. The effect was like someone taking a warm blanket of love and, starting at my toes, pulling it gently up my body so that I had never felt so happy, relaxed, loved and comfortable in my whole life, hovering as I was just there under the surface yet to pop. I was aware that I had fallen deeply in love with my drug of choice. I haven’t had it again since, and no-one has offered it to me and I am very clear that that can only be a really good thing.
We had the busiest lunch ever this Sunday and it made me muse on my earliest Sunday pub lunches. When I was at school (with parents abroad I used to board here in the UK from an early age) around the age of 15 a group of us took to ‘signing out’ on a Sunday to go fishing. So we would all jump on our bikes and cycle to the pub for lunch – I suddenly remembered the name last night it was the ‘Carpenters Arms’ in Tonbridge, just far enough away for us to be safe from teachers. When we got there we would have scampi and chips in a basket, drink two or three pints of Guinness or Director’s (if memory serves), smoke Chesterfield, Rothmans or Winston with Café Cremes for after we had eaten or sometimes a cigar from behind the bar. What we wouldn’t do is misbehave, get drunk and loud or draw attention to ourselves. There was absolutely no way that the publican or his staff thought that we were 18, but we both maintained the pretence and what we were desperate to do was be accepted in the grown up environment and not called out by staff or customers. As a result we learnt how to control our alcohol intake in a social environment and how to behave when out drinking. The publican was obviously breaking the law, as were we, and there would have been consequences if he had been ‘caught’ – but I suspect in those days there was more of a culture of the landlord being trusted to manage the situation and use his or her discretion.
I am not advocating that any publicans take a similarly discretionary approach to underage drinking now – the penalties and possible threat of losing one’s licence are way too severe and with a culture of ‘challenge 21’ I found myself challenging a 24 year old just a week ago (perhaps a sign of my distance from 18 and failing eyesight as much as of the assiduousness with which we enforce the rules!). I am however, as my sons arrive at a similar stage in life, curious and concerned about the consequence of this robust enforcement of the rules and what it means for young people who wish to drink.
I don’t think anyone pretends that young teenagers will not drink at all – sometimes in controlled ways with their families and at other times in less controlled ways with other adults. Where do you think that might happen and who do you think sells them the drink? It is a shame to me that my children will not be able to enjoy the illicit going to the pub adventures that I enjoyed – and that they will not have that lesson in how to behave – but it is not my main issue. What preys on my mind is my assumption that the source of booze will be some guy in a park, rec or estate who is probably also prepared, interested and motivated to sell drugs as well. I am not so naïve to think that no-one is ever going to sell drugs to kids, or even to my kids, but the timing (how old they are) and social context concerns me. If the buying of alcohol is simultaneous to and equivalent to the purchase of drugs and takes place within an unfamiliar and high pressure environment when being cool, appearing to know how to behave and with peer group pressure and (possibly alcohol induced) impaired judgement how far and how fast can they get involved and how soon? What if someone offers them their drug of choice, the one they fall in love with when they are small, only partially formed and not ready to recognise the danger and stay in control?
I have never to this day been offered heroin, but I can’t but shudder at the consequences had I been at the time that I was desperately trying to find my way and establish my identity in this world. I led a pretty sheltered life up to leaving school and wasn’t in fact offered drugs at any time through my teenage years. I don’t aspire to that necessarily for my children or for yours or anyone elses because I accept they are part and parcel of contemporary society. Perhaps I should give other young people more credit for being more grown up and less desperate, needy and keen to belong and please than I was (am). But…. if there is something that sometimes keeps me awake at night it is the idea of children being pushed out of convivial, kindly managed and caring pubs into the shady and ill-lit spaces where they fall prey to people who don’t really have their best wishes at heart.