When I made a documentary on alcoholism for the BBC a couple of years ago, one of the first people to get in touch was Lucy Rocca who, together with a friend, had set up an online self-help group for women worried about their drinking. Www.soberistas.com is one of the growing number of groups reflecting the concern that the normalisation of alcohol abuse among women – not least thanks to the brilliant marketing of wine – has become a real problem. Recently Lucy asked me to write a guest blog for Soberistas about my novel on a young woman’s descent into alcoholism, and here (slightly updated to take in recent Lib and Lab meetings towards the end) it is…
Among the most asked questions in the interviews I have done to promote my new novel, My Name Is, which coincided with the Alcohol Concern campaign to get politicians to face up to the damage being done by booze, are these:
What was it like writing as a woman?
Why did you choose a woman as the lead character?
And why someone so young?
Of those three questions, I can only answer the first with some degree of certainty. I enjoyed it. It was different. It was challenging in some ways, but I was encouraged by none other than TV star and former Mirror colleague Annie Robinson, and Celia Walden of the Daily Telegraph, who had said of my earlier novels that they found I had an uncanny way of knowing how the female mind works.
The book begins with a one line opening chapter, ‘My name is Hannah, this is their story,’ and every subsequent chapter is written in the first person by different people, starting with her mother on the day Hannah was born, then her father, other relatives, friends, teachers, boyfriends, and as she descends into alcoholism doctors, psychiatrists, police officers, magistrates, fellow patients in rehab. Most of the characters are women, so maybe as I got into it, I started to think and feel like I imagined a woman would think and feel.
In one scene, Hannah is in a police cell, and a Woman Police Constable is looking through the spy hole to check on her. Hannah is self harming with her nails. When I sketched out the chapter, I had envisaged the WPC, whose daughter has a history of self-harm, charging in and getting her to stop. But as I wrote it, I felt that no, that is what a ‘see a problem, must fix it’ alpha male would do. I felt that a woman – and maybe this is rubbish but it is what I felt this particular policewoman I had invented would do – would wait till the harming was done, then go in to console. That is what she did.
As to why I chose to write as a woman, and chose a young woman as the heroine, who knows where creative impulses all flow from? I had a drink problem as a young man, and I have poured a lot of my issues, memories and experiences into the novel. But I think the creative spark may well have been provided by a Southampton liver specialist, Nick Sheron.
I first got to know of Soberistas when I made a BBC documentary called ‘Britain’s Hidden Alcoholics’ a couple of years ago. Dr Sheron was one of our interviewees and he said that over the course of his career, the male-female breakdown of his patients had gone from nine male to one female, to fifty fifty. Wow. That is major societal change. It is a fact I include in the novel, in a radio interview with a doctor who inspires a journalist to make a documentary which never gets made because it puts at risk a major alcohol marketing contract being signed by ITV. So yes, parts of all novels are surely part autobiographical.
The documentary had a big response, not least from Soberistas, and I noticed among the letters and emails that there were more from women than men. I also became aware, as I talked to more and more people, of the incredible success that the wine industry had had in marketing itself almost as a non alcoholic drink – ‘a glass of red is good for you.’ Imagine going into work on a Monday morning and saying to colleagues that you and your husband spent Saturday night downing a bottle of neat vodka. Alky alert! But ‘we had a bottle of wine over dinner then watched a film and had another.’ Oh how nice. What a lovely perfect couple you are.
I had been trying to write a novel about alcoholism for a couple of years. My original idea was to start with an AA meeting and then tell the stories of how the people in the meeting arrived there. But I couldn’t make it work. Hannah – though she started out as Helen until my own teenage daughter told me I needed a younger name – was one of those characters. One day last December, in the back of a cab, I just wrote that first line. The writer’s block had gone. The dam broke, I went to Scotland, and did not stop till it was done.
It is selling pretty well, and when I pop up to my local Waterstones in Hampstead, where they take orders for personally dedicated signed copies, I notice that they are mainly being requested by women. Now novels are read mainly by women, so perhaps I should not overstate the significance of this, but it does seem to be by the kind of majority Dr Sheron used to see in the other direction among his patients.
Part of me thinks this is because more and more women worry not just about their own drinking, but about the kind of country their children are growing up in, where not only major cities but small towns now resemble war zones at the weekend as police and ambulance services struggle to cope with the violence and disorder and A and E sickness caused by what is now seen as normal drinking behaviour; where young women seem to want to rival young men in their determination to get drunk as a precondition of ‘having a good time’; where students are targeted with cheap booze – one Midlands club was selling ‘any drink for a quid for first hour’ in Freshers’ Week – when they arrive at university; where you can now get cheap booze not just in supermarkets but at the petrol station for heaven’s sake, and where children watching sport on TV are bombarded with adverts for alcohol and gambling, the kind of advertising several other countries have rightly banned.
On the day I was due to launch the book I was in the Royal Free Hospital in London with dysentery. The doctor treating me, as I said how awful it must be working in A and E on a Saturday night, replied :’A and E is just the start of it. I can take you to any ward in this hospital and show you patients who are in here because of alcohol abuse.’ As Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, who heads an alliance of alcohol policy and campaign groups, said in that documentary:’we are facing an epidemic.’ I intend to take up my doctor, Gautam Mehta, on his offer, hopefully for another documentary.
I took the book, and the Alcohol Concern campaign, to Labour and Tory conferences. We were trying to get both parties to commit to two measures to start off with – there will be more to follow as an election nears and we try to get them to take alcoholism seriously as a policy issue. First, we were asking for a commitment to Minimum Unit Pricing which had worked in other countries, which David Cameron said he supported, but then changed his mind under pressure from colleagues and the alcohol industry. And second, a pledge to raise the number of Britain’s 1.6m dependent drinkers getting treatment from six per cent – yes six measly per cent – to a not much less measly fifteen per cent. Imagine the outcry if only fifteen per cent of cancer victims, diabetics or asthmatics got treatment, let alone six per cent.
At the Tory conference, I made a little film for the BBC Daily Politics programme. As is the way of TV, they could only use a fraction of the interviews we did. But in the course of the day I reckon I spoke to over one hundred people, and asked their views about alcohol and these campaign issues. And by eight to two, they backed the call for action, and were disappointed that the Prime Minister had gone back on his word.
People who are regular visitors to Soberistas will be familiar with many parts of Hannah’s story. The reason I wrote it from so many perspectives was to show the tsunami effect of this horrible disease, and the volume of people drawn into the wreckage of the problem drinker’s life. I also tried to show that all of us have a relationship with alcohol – whether the kindly family who take her in who cannot do without a couple of glasses of wine over dinner, or the magistrate who likes to read her case notes over a drink, or her doting younger sister who cannot understand why Hannah drinks as she does.
I know as a problem drinker that the first important step is to recognise the problem. Only then can you devise a strategy to regain health. It is the same for a country. We are living in denial of the grip alcohol has of every level of our society, and as a country – led by the government – we should face up to the problem, and act.
My book is ‘only a novel’, but I think the cultural space can be an important part of the development of arguments about policy. Some of the most powerful drivers of changed attitudes to mental illness, for example, have been in films and soap operas. Leaving the Tory conference in Manchester, I decided to leave behind a few free copies of My Name Is – for the Prime Minister, Chancellor George Osborne – (he gave me the idea because he asked for one, and later expressed an interest in what an alcohol strategy might look like), Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Education Secretary Michael Gove, Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby – thought to be behind Cameron’s U turn because he wanted to drop ‘non-core issues’ – and my successor as Number 10 communications director, Craig Oliver. In the interests of political balance, ahem, I have since bumped into both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, who have both been excellent on mental health, and given them one too. I know they are all busy, but if even one or two read it, and it helps change their understanding of alcoholism, it will have been worth whatever half a dozen books cost me.
I dedicated the books for the politicians to them and their wives, thinking that maybe the women in their lives might be more drawn to the story of a young woman’s descent into alcoholism. But I do hope the ministers and Mr Crosby read it too. I hope it helps them see that alcoholism really is an illness, that some people fall into it and others don’t, like cancer or diabetes, that once it happens there is not much they can do about it till they reach rock bottom, that the havoc it wreaks on their lives and the lives of everyone around them is horrific. An illness, not a choice; and like all major illnesses one that governments must take a lead in showing it is recognised as such, and dealing with it accordingly, with a strategy that focuses on price, availability, marketing and treatment, education, and the encouragement of healthy living that for some reason millions of women in Britain are rejecting.
My Name Is… is published by Hutchinson, £18.99, signed copies can be ordered via firstname.lastname@example.org
It can also be purchased at www.amazon.co.uk/My-Name-Alastair-Campbell/