Friday, 8 June 2007

Food for thought on our drinking culture

Published: 08 June, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

LAST Friday we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition in Wick with a charity ball at Pulteney Distillery just as the new Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, who is in charge of alcohol licensing, was warning of imminent action against the promotion of "buy two, get one free" beer offers at cheaper prices than supermarkets sell individual bottles of water.

With all funds raised from the most enjoyable charity ball going to the RNLI, a picture came to my mind of Grace Darling's open boat struggling to reach a distressed ship on a boiling sea of booze. Seriously, the drunkenness involving fishermen and others led the women of the parish to seek prohibition after the First World War. These were the women who at the age of 30 gained the vote in 1918. They were much influenced by the squandering of men's lives in drink and the violence and poverty to families that resulted from that male pub culture.

On the other hand, a fund of stories grew around the ingenious ways of avoiding the ban on liquor. Total abstinence was embraced by some churches and individuals but eventually less strict times returned. The prohibition era in the USA is well known but that in Wick only a local memory. Nevertheless the issue is as alive today as it was then, even if the fishing has long since shrunk to a shadow along with the shoals that were once so plentiful. Today, pubs across the country sell 39 per cent of drink because it's from the supermarkets like Tesco in Wick that 80 per cent of wine, 75 per cent of spirits and 60 per cent of cider is sold as off-sales.

Before you think I'm angling to ban fun or curb people's freedom of enjoyment, let's stop to think about a little-reported Holyrood debate at the end of the last year. It stated: "That the Parliament notes with concern the serious rise in alcohol-related crime figures, released by Northern Constabulary, which show a year-on-year increase in drunkenness, drink-driving, serious assaults and alcohol-related deaths; notes in particular the increase in the number of people being arrested for drunkenness, including the charge of being drunk and incapable..." Former MSP Maureen Macmillan led it and other many Highland members such as Eleanor Scott, Jim Mather and David Petrie took part.

Issues they considered included our Northern European behaviour that emphasises the disruptive effects of drink while Mediterranean folk drink as much but don't behave the same. However, the combination of drinking while you eat is an important moderator of behaviour. Alas, the social habits of eating together around a table, as in Latin countries, are far too infrequently observed in Scotland. Also the consumption of fast food after the booze-up is much more the norm here.

So valuing food for its taste and the congenial company it can bring is part of the answer. Even people playing music in a social scene drink less than the listeners. All the calls for more sports facilities and midnight football and the like are part of a cry for a more balanced lifestyle. Yes, how we enjoy ourselves and what we do with our non-work time is a vital component of our culture, our overall health and how it leads some in the community to anti-social behaviour. If the black picture of police statistics doesn't improve, government action is very likely. I will argue strongly for more carrots than sticks, but it's up to families to change and not blame our young.

LINDA Fabiani, the new SNP Culture Minister, has publicly praised art for art's sake and promised to reduce political interference in publicly supported cultural matters. "There's a balance to be struck, because you cannot censor creativity or you are not really promoting the arts at all," she said in a major interview. This sounds well from the new Culture Minister. Hopefully some of the bright ideas in the SNP manifesto can be delivered fairly soon to offer artists and writers grants equivalent to social security payments to allow them space and time to be creative. I am mindful of the words of my fellow columnist George Gunn, who wrote in the Groat last week, as passionately as ever, that "the history of social success in a place like Caithness shows that it depends on active individuals. Individuals working together for a common purpose are the generators of culture. The arts are the pinnacle of cultural achievement."

That means the government and the council as well as the arts agencies have to ensure the facilities, the show and performance spaces, are available in each area. I believe that Orkney and Shetland residents were able to build better halls and venues due to the oil funds they negotiated from big business. Caithness should also seek such boosts from marine and other renewables for the community good. That's why I disagree with the former Energy Minister, Labour's Brian Wilson, who opined some months ago that there will be no more royalty deals like the oil funds from clean energy production. Promoting the arts on a tight budget, as devolved Scotland has to do under the Blair/Brown regime, will need ambition tempered with ingenuity to cash in on all our local assets.

TALKING of local assets, I've secured a member's debate next week on Scottish/Norwegian commercial co-operation. I do recall during the recent elections that one of my opponents, who wasn't local to the North, was rebuked by a member of the audience at the Thurso hustings for smirking when I mentioned Norway. The price of their beer was derided but the enviable lifestyles and incomes of our Norse neighbours can't be ignored.

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