There are many remarkable things in Ma'am Darling, Craig Brown's hilarious biography of Princess Margaret. But one of the most remarkable is a line from the Princess herself about her then husband Lord Snowdon, around the time he was conducting an affair with one Lucy Lindsay-Hogg:
"I would only know he was back at night when I heard him banging around in the bathroom - it was all hours. And he was drinking a lot of vodka in the morning, a bottle of wine at lunch and he even used to take a bottle up to his room afterwards. He was like an alcoholic."
Ah it's a good one all right - he was like an alcoholic…
For a start the use of the word 'like' is interesting here, and perhaps a tad superfluous. After all, if one is drinking in the morning, at lunchtime, and in the afternoons, and one is making a lot of noise when one eventually gets home late at night, one is indeed behaving like an alcoholic - but perhaps it might be simpler and more accurate to just say that one is an alcoholic.
That one is 'like' an alcoholic in the way that, say, an alcoholic is like an alcoholic.
But that is a relatively minor point to note, next to the fact that this criticism of Snowdon by the Princess comes on page 308 of the book, and that for the previous 300 pages or so, we have been reading many descriptions of Ma'am Darling herself behaving 'like an alcoholic.'
All those vodkas in the morning, the wine at lunch, or maybe the whiskey which had to be The Famous Grouse or there'd be trouble... and on and on through the night, at the end of which there might be noisy scenes in the bathroom or any other room in which Margaret happened to be still drinking.
A personal favourite was the image of Margaret trying to glue a box of matches to the side of her glass, so that she could keep lighting up her cigarettes as she drank, cutting out all the bother of having to search for matches in the usual way - the tedium of wanting to light another cigarette, only to find that you'd lost your matches, and were now faced with the horror of having to ask somebody else for a light, thus wasting a few seconds of precious drinking time.
It wasn't a success, this all-in-one smoking and drinking contraption, but it's the thought that counts.
Yes, I have known a few alcoholics in my time, and some of them might well have the odd bright idea late at night, in order to heighten their drinking and smoking pleasure, but none of them actually tried this one. To the Princess Margaret they would raise their glass and they would say: "Respect ma'am".
And still in an article published after she died, a friend of Margaret's ridicules any suggestions that she was either an alcoholic or just 'like' an alcoholic. "Of course the princess grew up in an age when smoking and drinking were much more acceptable. We all did," the friend mused. "However I don't believe she was addicted to alcohol. It's preposterous. She just got very used to it."
Ah Lord... she just got very used to it.
And the denial is strong here too, the friend is not just disputing the evidence, she finds it "preposterous".
What we are looking at here is not just the natural inclination of the upper classes to distance themselves from the rest of the human race, to claim a kind of diplomatic immunity from these big bad words like 'addiction', and 'alcoholism.'
It raises again one of the most enduring difficulties for all of us, that we are still struggling with the bigness and the badness of these words.
It shouldn't be that complicated, for anyone: you're an alcoholic.
Get over it.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine