A Wasted Life: An interview with Elspeth Muir

Think of the typical problem drinker, and we usually imagine alcoholics, drink-drivers, underage drinkers and the perpetrators of one-punch attacks. The brother of Brisbane writer ELSPETH MUIR was none of these things. But three days after a heavy night of drinking, he was found dead in the Brisbane River – his blood alcohol level was 0.25 at his time of death. Elspeth tells us about her memoir, Wasted, an investigation into Australia’s drinking culture, and what might have been done to prevent Alexander’s death. A 5-star review of Wasted appears in this month’s Good Reading.

What prompted you to commit to writing a memoir about your brother’s death and carry out a broader investigation of Australia’s drinking culture?

After Alexander died I became fixated on figuring out how he arrived at a point where his drinking was so out of hand that he jumped off a bridge, and why none of us who knew the extent of his drinking thought he had a problem. I wonder if he had been a crack or heroin addict if he might still be alive. We considered illicit drugs alarming, but alcohol seemed harmless in comparison. Alexander’s death started me thinking about the way I drank as well, and how many of the actions I most regretted had happened when I was very drunk.

At the same time I started paying more attention to the public dialogue around alcohol in Australia. I felt there were particular groups in Australia who were picked out as having an alcohol problem, and that this splintered examination of our drinking culture seemed both unfair and ineffective. It deflected attention from critical examination of the culture as a whole and the alcohol industry’s place within it.

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I wrote an article about Alexander for an issue of Griffith Review. A few publishers got in touch with me about writing a book based on the article. At that point I realised it was something worth talking more about.

I chose to use journalism for a few reasons. I was uncomfortable writing at length about
my family – I figured they had gone through enough without me picking over our lives. I felt uneasy about taking a story that belongs to all of us and making it my own – as if my grief was the most important.

I am usually pretty private, but I used my own stories for this book because I figured that if I was going to analyse and criticise the drinking culture, it would be hypocritical for me to ignore my own problems with alcohol abuse. The journalistic approach I took was also a way of removing myself and making the book less about me and my brother and more about placing it in a culture of similar stories. I was also really interested in finding out why Australian drinking culture had evolved the way it has.

How involved were the rest of your family in the creation of the memoir?

I interviewed my brother, mother and father about Alexander: what they remembered about him, what they thought about his death, what they thought about the drinking culture and their own drinking. My mum was very involved in helping me talk things through and also dealing with my mental health. Someone told me the other day that I seemed pretty calm through the whole process, but I wasn’t. I was an absolute mess, and she bore the brunt of that.

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Elspeth Muir

You’ve lived in Buenos Aires. How does Australia’s drinking culture compare to that of Argentina and other countries you’ve visited?

One night in Stockholm, I left an umbrella in a bar. When I went back to get it, the bar had closed. I was very drunk; it was astonishing I remembered that an object called an umbrella existed, let alone that I had one. I tried to get the bar to reopen by pounding on the glass with my fists and yelling very loudly until my partner at the time, who was charming and polite, told me to shut up and negotiated with the bartenders for my umbrella to be retrieved. They threw it unceremoniously through a side door. I don’t remember very much about the evening but I do remember the bartenders’ expressions of contempt. Nobody had ever been so disgusted at my state of inebriation before.

In my early 20s I was chucked out of the same bar in Brisbane four times in half an hour. Once evicted, I would go back around the corner, and the crowd would pull me over the bar railings onto a little balcony area. Even the fourth time I was thrown out the security guards seemed resigned rather than angry.

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In other countries I have been to, except for South Africa, I have found that people drink far less than Australians. There is also more shame associated with being drunk. In Australia drinking is a pastime – an activity rather than an accompaniment to other activities. In my experience we steadily drink to get drunk.

In Argentina, and Buenos Aires in particular, there is also a real night culture. People of all ages won’t go out to eat until 9pm, and entertainment precincts are not given over to people who are going out to get drunk.

What aspects of our culture contribute to Australia’s dangerous relationship with alcohol?

  • Most years since I’ve been researching and writing Wasted someone has been arrested for drunkenly riding a motorised eskie to the bottle store. The act is irreverent, anti-authoritarian, and it always makes me laugh. It embodies the larrikinism of our drinking culture, which is a cultural trait I think we are fond of – and forgiving of. It becomes problematic when behaviour tips from funny and irreverent to dangerous. For instance, Alexander’s behaviour leading up to his death was in hindsight alarming, but at the time when he told me about things he had done, instead of alerting someone, I just laughed.
  • Australians have an ingrained scepticism of wowsers and a need not to be perceived as one, which Donald Horne, author of The Lucky Country, attributes to a struggle between puritans and boozers dating back to the Temperance movement and the introduction of the 6 o’clock swill.
  • The English introduced a ‘wet’ culture, which is typified by periods of binge drinking and periods of sobriety.
  • I don’t think Australians are particularly extroverted. It seems as if we rely on alcohol for courtship and communication.
  • Australians prize egalitarianism – I wonder if drinking and drunkenness is an act of rebellion against class structure and the ruling classes – and for this reason we’ve inherited a culture where drinkers are given licence and encouraged to be unruly. For instance, Bob Hawke’s drinking of a yard glass of beer is a highly regarded act that cemented his reputation as a regular bloke.
  • Typically in Australia, adulthood and recognition as an Australian citizen is also tied to unfettered access to alcohol. Perhaps that’s why it’s considered an untouchable right and such a large part of our identity.

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Do you think most parents are aware of how readily available alcohol is to their young teenagers?

Probably. In my experience hunting down alcohol was a teenage preoccupation. I think when I was a teenager parents dealt with the inevitability that their child would get drunk at a party by supplying a small amount of alcohol in the hope that this would stop us from buying a bottle of spirits and drinking most of it.  That solution is now really discouraged. But research shows that far fewer Australian teenagers are drinking underage anyway.

Were you taught about alcohol in school or by your parents, and did any of the warnings stick?

From when I was young, my mother talked with my brothers and me about drinking. It was something she was always worried about. Her father was an alcoholic and my father was a very bad drunk – in that he didn’t have to drink much to get drunk and he often vomited.

We had a few lessons at school in Health and Physical Education about the dangers of drinking, but they were pretty technical and scientific. No – the warnings didn’t stick. I was determined to do the opposite of what I was told, and for the most part I was successful.

Are the dangers of alcohol downplayed in comparison with other drugs?

Before we got the coroner’s report I was sure Alexander must have taken illicit drugs. I guess I thought of alcohol as too innocuous a substance to have caused his death.

When I found out he had only alcohol in his system, I looked up alcohol-related deaths and discovered in Australia that alcohol causes 15 deaths each day. That’s 5475 per year. By comparison, there were 170 methamphetamine-induced deaths in 2013.

Yes, the dangers of alcohol are downplayed in comparison with other drugs.

Are there changes we can make to reduce the incidence of alcohol-induced violence and sexual assault in the future?

I have asked so many people the same thing and everybody has responded in kind: we need both legislative and cultural change. Legislative change can include volumetric alcohol taxation, lockout laws, restrictions on alcohol promotion and sponsorship, and restrictions on availability. Cultural change is slower, but organisations such as the hugely successful Hello Sunday Morning have been challenging Australians to look at and try to change the way we drink.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 10.17.48 amHaving met and interviewed Paul Stanley, whose son Matthew was killed in a one-punch attack, what’s your stance on the lockout laws in Sydney?

I feel pretty wary about answering this question. On the one hand the lockout laws have been proven to cut down on alcohol-related incidents. On the other hand, many venues in Sydney’s lockout area have closed since the laws were introduced.

Lockout laws are a high-profile way to quickly have an effect on alcohol-related violence, but they’re localised, and they unfairly target small businesses that don’t have the political clout or money of casinos or take-away liquor conglomerates.

If the police raid a restaurant in Darlinghurst for having their drinks board too close to the window, then why aren’t they also raiding every Coles and Woolworths store for the cheap alcohol deal advertisements on their shopper dockets?

But then I meet with someone like Paul, whose sadness and anger was still so raw even years after his son Matthew’s death, and it’s evident why people fight hard for any law that will help reduce violence. I have thought a lot about the lockout laws and remain conflicted. Ultimately, if people are dying something has to be done to stop that.

Considering alcohol’s addictive undertow, its expense, and its implication in sexual assault and other forms of violence, should we just avoid it altogether?

It depends on who you are. If you are addicted to alcohol and it’s having an adverse impact on your life, then yes, it’s worth giving up. But I don’t think asking a society to give up alcohol is the answer to combating violence and sexual assault; the failure of prohibition in America shows this approach doesn’t work.

Humans have always drunk alcohol, and if it’s imbibed thoughtfully, it can be helpful and pleasurable and harmless. It’s also a substance that is often beautifully and carefully crafted. It’s easy to understand why people become obsessed with wine or beer or particular spirits when you drink really good alcohol.

What are you reading at the moment?

This is what’s on my bedside table:

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Wild Man by Aleicia Simmonds

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright

Storycraft by Jack Hart

Wasted by Elspeth Muir is published by Text, rrp. $29.99.

 

 

 

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