Alcohol can be an item of diet, a medicine, sometimes an element in religious ritual. It is a valued object for the connoisseur, a traded commodity and a symbol of national pride (wine for instance in France, whisky in Scotland). But at another level it is just a molecule. That molecule is an instrument both of pleasure and of destruction and hence the fundamental ambiguity. The range of social and medical problems associated with alcohol and the history of related treatment methods (including the temperance movement, prohibition, aa and a range of contemporary approaches) are considered here. Griffith Edwards identifies what can be learned from this experience and the accompanying science so as to set more rational and effective policies in the future. What will happen about alcohol is in part embedded in what society will do about dangerous, pleasure giving drugs in general.
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In every part of this great metropolis, whoever shall pass along the streets, will find wretchedness stretched upon the pavement, insensible and motionless.
No, this is not a scene after closing time in an English town today, although it could well be. It comes from a House of Lords debate on the social dangers of alcohol in 1743. Such historical map-drawing forms the robust skeleton of Alcohol: the Ambiguous Molecule, Griffith Edwards' superb and riveting survey.
Alcohol is a compelling subject for such a survey for at least two reasons: first, because there is a critical mass of historical and scientific material that remains inaccessible to the lay reader; second, because booze seems to be so naturalized in British culture that, whilst we make shake our heads at scenes of drunken football hooligans, we actually know very little about our chemical companion. What really impresses is how much Edwards fits into a compact volume. He gathers together the streams of alcohol running through our culture and our bodies and assesses their effects in elegant and clear prose. Along the way, he explores the meanings of alcohol reflected through our religious and lay rituals and the bawdy coupling of Britannia and beer, as well as investigating the alchemy of alcohol that allegedly turns us into our real selves "only more so". He also unpacks the chemistry of our metaphors of the social lubricator, the poison, and the hair of the dog. And for those in need of pub conversation, the vivid descriptions of the different effects of alcohol in different cultures will startle and disturb your fellow drinkers. Whether you are an abstainer, social drinker, or concerned about the effects of drinking on your health, your relationships, and your society, this is a measure of alcohol that can make you feel even clearer headed in the morning. --Christine ButteryExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From the Preface:
Alcohol is a fact of life. Walk down any street in the Western World and before long your feet will kick against an empty beer can, or your attention will be caught by an alluring advertisement which suggests that alcohol can magically transform your lifestyle. You will pass by an off-licence or two, and there will be a bar or a pub at the corner. Over there are young people drinking at a pavement caf. Perhaps a sad inebriate will lurch against you. But, in the midst of all the casual pleasures of drink, the problems caused by it are more often indoors - hidden, or known only to the afflicted family.
This book seeks to present a mix of important facts on this pervasive fact of life. Its aim is to stir and inform debate and to engage attention, but not to take sides. To that end a number of different perspectives are explored. The earlier chapters examine aspects of the history of drinking and of social attitudes towards drinking in different eras and cultures. This material is fascinating in its own right, but it is being deployed with a serious purpose. The world's image of alcohol, its love or hate for it, and decisions on what to do about this drug, are profoundly coloured by value-laden perceptions of many kinds. Alcohol is a fact around which are created myths, and those myths themselves then become powerful facts.
The book goes on to describe what recent medical science has revealed about the impact of alcohol on the individual's mind and body, the pleasure it gives and the harm it may do, and why for some people it becomes hideously destructive. Alcohol needs to be looked at both in terms of its effects on the individual and in terms of what it does to populations and communities. The spectrum of sciences involved is wide, and their salient findings are here presented in plain language, and illustrated with case studies.
We turn finally to the question of how, in the light of this knowledge. Society may in future make a better attempt to deal with this pleasure-giving, somewhat dangerous and ambiguous molecule. How is society to get its pleasure out of alcohol with less likelihood of mass pain?
Most adults anywhere in the world would probably be able to characterize themselves either as drinkers of alcohol or as non-drinkers. Each of those categories, of course, has within it a great mix of persons. The drinkers may be drinking every day and devotedly, or taking no more than a sipped glass of sherry at Christmas. The non-drinker category will include lifetime abstainers, but also those who have stopped drinking because alcohol has made them ill or addicted.
Society seems at present too often to be ill informed, misinformed or indifferent to the facts on its favourite drug. That's dangerous. This book is written with respect for everyone's unique personal free choice, but in the hope that the facts it lays out will help readers make choices which are well informed and with the myths distinguished from the science.
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