Iain Murray: Abstinence is often harder than the hair of the dog

It’s blindingly obvious that when Portman launched its ‘do drink, don’t do drunk’ ads, whoever came up with the idea had spent very little time in a pub, says Iain Murray

Alcohol comes with its own inherent aversion therapy. It’s called a hangover. I cannot believe that readers of this magazine are unfamiliar with the condition, but in the unlikely circumstance that there are a few who confine their consumption to the medically approved limit of three units a day, and, even less likely, that there are some who are immune, here is a brief summary of the principle symptoms.

The eyeballs throb and pulse, and not always in unison. They also burn like hot coals, welding the lids to their surface. Any attempt to prise them open and admit daylight produces a searing pain on top of those already being suffered elsewhere, most notably the stomach. This organ, fixed and stable in normal circumstances, becomes in the body of a hungover party, a lurching item, bubbling with molten lava and performing an arhythmic samba between the intestines and the throat. Speaking of the throat, this item is itself transformed into an arid, parched tube of the kind down which rats scuttle. The tongue is like a half-sucked boiled sweet that has been rolled along a dusty floor. The brain has somehow admitted a large leaden weight, which, at the slightest movement of the head, shifts violently about, banging into the sides like an untethered load in a lorry. Not surprisingly, any signals it attempts to impart to the limbs are returned to sender unanswered. Curiously, while all other organs are dulled or malfunctioning, the ears become hypersensitive. A door being closed two streets away sounds like a medium-sized thermonuclear explosion.

Those, then, are the key symptoms. There are others such as sweating, trembling, and the loss of speech, but you get the picture. The hangover usually lasts for several hours, though it may seem like days, and when at length the sufferer emerges, weakened but restored, is it into a brave new world of contrition and calm resolution that he or she gingerly steps? No it is not. For there is nothing to compare to a couple of stiff ones for restoring the tissues, bringing a spring back into the step, and generally making the sun shine once more.

In short, the purgatory of a hangover, severe though it is, is not a deterrent. And if that doesn’t work, what will? Well, according to the Portman Group, that somewhat unlikely alliance between the tut-tutting alcohol researchers and the alco-popping drinks industry, shock tactics might do the trick.

Alarmed by a Mori poll, which found that 17 per cent of drinkers aged 18to 24years old set out at least once a week with the intention of getting drunk, the Portman Group came up with a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers and risks associated with drunkenness. In addition to the usual tools of the propagandist, such as posters and a slogan (“If you do drink, don’t do drunk”), this campaign has something new, a mini-drama in one act.

Actors go into a real pub and play out a drunken argument with the aim of shocking onlookers, if not into instant sobriety then into a more sombre, reflective state of mind.

“The incident starts off with three chums, who have obviously been drinking, sitting around a table. They make sure their behaviour has been noticed,” explains a spokesman for the Portman Group.

“Then a guy bangs the table, gets up on to it and starts screaming that he loves the girl. The other one tries to wrestle him down and he throws up in her handbag. It really gets the other drinkers’ attention.”

Well, it would, wouldn’t it? Your correspondent has spent more time in pubs than it is wise to admit, and has yet to see a man clamber up onto a table and declaim his affection for a member of the fair sex. Of course, the spokesperson from Portman has of necessity provided only a brief synopsis of the plot, which unfortunately creates some confusion, starting with the dramatis personae. One assumes the three chums comprise two men and one woman. This is not, however, certain. There may be one man and two women. That might explain why, when the “other one” tries to wrestle him down from the table he vomits into her handbag. If, on the other hand, it is another man who tries to pull him down, he, the first man, is presented with the tricky task of vomiting into the awaiting reticule. Does he do this on the way down, in which case he will need a good aim or a big handbag, or, better still, both? Perhaps the woman holds her bag aloft, like someone trying to catch a ball in a bucket. Or does he, the vomiter, wait until his descent is complete and then bury his head in the receptacle, making muffled honking sounds to add verisimilitude?

And what happens next? Do all three take a bow?

As for the efficacy of the drama, Portman Group director Jean Coussins says she is not expecting quick results. “It took between 20 and 25 years to change public attitudes about drinking and driving,” she adds.

It would be nice to see actors maturing and growing old in the roles. What one would have given to see John Gielgud climb on the table, get pulled down by Ralph Richardson, and throw up into Dame Edith Evans’ handbag.

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