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One over the eight

11 October 2013

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BACK in my student days, my friend Mark gained legendary status as the drunk with the mot juste. One night, having necked a skinful, he was approached by a po-faced sociologist doing a study of student drinking habits. Questioned whether he had drunk to excess that night, Mark did more than just tell the researcher the answer: he demonstrated it in a way so vivid that the sociologist was left in no doubt.

And that sums up the problem with discussions about why people drink, and drink too much. Before they drink, you get promises of moderation; when they are sobering up, you get shame and self-justification; and when they are drunk, you get dirty shoes.

In Victoria Derbyshire (Radio 5 Live, Monday of last week), the answer provided by a 17-year-old alcoholic, Rob, came as close as anybody is going to get: we drink because it is fun. It relieves boredom and stress. In some instances, it also tastes quite nice.

Derbyshire's programme on teenage drinking was prompted by the results of a Freedom of Information-based survey that asked hospitals about alcohol-related admissions of children and teenagers. I suspect that Radio 5 Live planned the programme before getting the results, since the figures turn out to be less depressing than you might suspect.

For the under-17 age group, the number of such admissions has gone down slightly over the past five years, and the number of 11-year-olds and under is about the same - approximately 300 per year.

None of this is to downgrade the importance of the problem for those people whom it affects; and they may be people who, through sheer bad luck, come into contact with a violent drunk - like Adam, who was punched to death during a night out, and whose father, David, phoned in to tell the tale. It is the testimonies of people such as David that make a programme such as this so powerful.

At the celebrity end of our alcohol-dependency culture stands the Betty Ford Center. In Witness (BBC World Service, Friday), we heard from Joseph Cruse, the doctor who treated the former First Lady, and who became the first director of the clinic that bore her name.

This interview told how Betty Ford was persuaded to enter rehab: the whole family was flown in, each member telling her how her behaviour was affecting them. The final blow came when her daughter-in-law Gale declared her unfit to be allowed access to her grandchildren. The rest is history.

How does a blind person go sightseeing? In Blind Man Roams the Globe (Radio 4, Saturday), Peter White has been trying to answer that question, while enjoying the sounds, feel, and smell of various European cities. Last week, he climbed up to the top of the cathedral in Budapest, and then wondered why he had bothered. "It's so beautiful," his American companions cooed unhelpfully.

White is disarmingly honest. Touch is not sight, and there is no point pretending that it is. But he maintained a highly engaging attitude throughout - and seemed to be having a great time on the subway system.

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