Sunday 25 August 2019

Television review: Keeping a subject complicated

  • Claire Byrne Live, RTE 1, 10.35
Hugh Wallace. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Hugh Wallace. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Hugh Wallace, the architect and one of the judges on RTE's Home of the Year, was talking to Claire Byrne about his being an alcoholic. He had no problem about saying that word, because "I have a disease". And the "medicine" he is taking for that disease, is that he doesn't drink... "except for a little glass of wine", which they would discuss later.

It is surely proof of the elusive nature of this condition that even someone like Hugh, who has enough understanding of his alcoholism to call it by that name, can still be mentioning that "little glass of wine". At which point a large number of Ireland's population of recovering alcoholics would have been thinking: did he really say that?

And personally I would not exactly call it a "disease", though that is perhaps a more esoteric point.

The main thing here is that Claire Byrne Live had an interview with a man who is, by his own description, an alcoholic, who has mostly stopped drinking but who still, as it were, drinks. The background to the interview was the controversy over drink-driving, so it was admirable to have someone on the show who really knows about drink - a "professional" as it were, in the field, the sort of expert from whom we rarely hear on these current affairs programmes.

Indeed Hugh Wallace, I hasten to add, was not "representing" any school of thought on the nature of alcoholism, he was mainly calling for Ireland to wake up from its denial about the scale of the problem.

And yet the tendency of such programmes is to have guests who are "representative" in some way, so I suppose I am curious about the way that they arrived at this particular choice.

Clearly he is a well-known, highly accomplished man who looks good on television, so all that would obviously be an advantage. And yet his personal story would be quite untypical of the experience of many alcoholics, who regard not drinking as being the very essence of the challenge which confronts them.

Sure enough near the end, when they got to discuss that "little glass of wine", Claire Byrne said that she had "never heard of that before", of someone who identifies as an alcoholic being also someone who drinks alcohol, albeit in smallish quantities.

Wallace said it was "horses for courses", that some people can never drink again, other people can "learn to respect alcohol", to fear it even, in such a way that they can have that glass of wine.

Which again would not be the approach recommended by most practitioners in this area, down the years, even if it works for Hugh Wallace.

"Why would you do it to yourself?", is the usual rhetorical question. Why would you keep tormenting yourself with just a tantalising taste of the stuff that you loved so much you were prepared to die for it?

"Horses for courses" it may be, but for the alcoholic horse, there is usually just one course that suits him, the course that has least complications - you could call it the Flat course, this track that is clear of the obstacles presented by drink.

To be still maintaining some relationship with your old friend John Barleycorn, can be more akin to negotiating a National Hunt course, to be faced with hurdles all the time, or even to be jumping fences.

Basically, you have a lot better chance of coming to grief on those courses, you can take a nasty tumble or two and you may even have to be put down - you're usually gelded at some stage too, unless you're exceptionally lucky.

This would be known to most card-carrying alcoholics, so I would be more concerned with alcoholics who don't yet know that is what they are, or who may be just pretending.

Simplicity is the key to understanding these issues. So while I accept that the experience of Hugh Wallace may be exceptional, as a general rule when these issues are being discussed, would it be possible for programme makers to favour the type of alcoholic who doesn't drink?

Would that be just too simple?

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