On Addiction

The subject of addiction gets a markedly varied treatment throughout the yearly cycle. For the first few weeks of Christmas, it is written about quite seriously. Lots of people, newspaper columnists included, are at that time emerging from the festive alcohol-induced haze wondering whether the various embarrassing or compromising predicaments in which they found themselves might be symptomatic of a larger underlying problem. The topic then gets quite a fair and sensible hearing for a few weeks, vying for equal coverage with other stories like new years resolutions, dieting, and finding love in 2014.

In a particularly good year, you might get a few slightly more scholarly articles at this time, focusing on the science, medicine and psychology behind addiction; pieces that weigh the comparative benefits and efficacy of different treatment models for addiction, or written testimonials about someone’s personal struggle.

And then, after a few weeks have passed you get the nonsense articles, the pieces ostensibly about addiction but really an exercise in self-aggrandisement, treading rhetorical water, hitting word count targets and powering through a slow news day. Lucy Mangan, writing in The Guardian, gives us one of this variety. She gave up sugar for the new year, and you’re going to hear all about it:

If you’d asked me 24 days ago if I was addicted to anything, I would have laughed in your slightly-overfamiliarly-inquiring face. I don’t smoke, I barely drink. I have one coffee a day. My entire drug consumption comprises five puffs of whatever the kids are calling marijuana these days – the last three were consecutive, after which I went cross-eyed, puked up everything I’d eaten since 1984 and fell asleep for two days. So, no, I would have said, I am a slave to nothing and to nobody, bar my toddler and my mortgage provider. Bring on the dancing girls – I have this life thing licked. That, of course, was before I decided, on 1 January, to give up sugar.

Cue revelations of a first world problem of the highest, most profound order. Waxing lyrical about her love for chocolate, Mangan writes:

When my tongue is coated in that ambrosial mixture of sugar, milk powder and vegetable fat, when the glucose hits my bloodstream, when my stomach is filling with caramel, peanut pieces, shortbread, wafer or any of the multitudinous other vehicles the ceaseless ingenuity of man has created to deliver yet more deliciously the very emptiest of calories to my Stakhanovite digestive system – that’s when I relax.

Multitudinous? Stakhanovite? Really? Lady, you just like to have yourself large quantities of chocolate every day. Dress it up with all the pretentious phraseology you like, but it basically boils down to just that. It’s quite hard to spin the simple fact of liking chocolate into a full-length column about anything at all, let alone a serious topic like addiction, not to mention rather insulting to those who suffer from more serious and potentially devastating ‘real’ addictions.

There should be a public health warning on the label.
There should be a public health warning on the label.

Mangan casually mentions these “other” addictions, which she knows all about through the educational vessel of anecdotes:

It’s been both ridiculous and terrifying to see how closely my (not even complete, remember) sugar deprivation has mimicked what we will, for reasons of limited time and space, just have to agree to call here “real” addiction – to booze, fags, drugs et al. I’m craving the stuff all the time. I can literally feel – or feel I feel – a hollow inside me that only Cadbury can fill. I can’t concentrate. I’m foul-tempered. Oh, and I totally lied before about how much I usually eat. I can’t bring myself to tell you now, but it’s much, much more than one measly bar an evening.

Yes, of course when deprived of something that the body is used to – be it sugar and caffeine or alcohol and narcotics – some of these symptoms will be experienced. The only real difference between her need for chocolate and the need of an addict for their mind-altering substance are those small details hardly worth mentioning (and indeed not mentioned) such as broken homes, physical and mental abuse, poverty and debt, criminal records, social stigmatisation, and the inexorable toll of wasted year upon wasted year of human life.

For Mangan to say that the pangs of irritability and withdrawal she has been experiencing in any way “mirror” addictions of a more serious nature is akin to her claiming empathy with the homeless because she was once caught out in a rain shower without an umbrella.

The most urgent issue of our times.
The most urgent issue of our times.

But the main thing as far as The Guardian is concerned, I am sure, is that the required column inches were filled and the word count met. Lucy Mangan’s editor was pleased with a forgettable, cookie-cutter puff piece about someone finding it hard to cut down on the old baked goods after the excesses of Christmas, and gave blessing for its publication. And so now we can all have a little giggle about how Mangan’s sweet tooth makes her just like your funny neighbourhood junkie.

In future, however, it might be better if idle newspaper columnists facing the January blues, a slow news day and writers block tried to steer clear of their love of chocolate, or biscuits, or chocolatey biscuits, when grasping for ideas thirty minutes before the filing deadline.

I, for one, would be grateful.


In England, We Call It Autumn

This, apparently, is a decorative gourd.


The bleak grey skies, rapidly cooling weather and the incessant rain did tip me off, I must admit. But I was only certain that fall (I’ll stick with autumn, thank you very much) was really upon us when I read this amusing piece by Colin Nissan in McSweeney’s, trumpeting the return of “decorative gourd season”.

He writes:

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get my hands on some fucking gourds and arrange them in a horn-shaped basket on my dining room table. That shit is going to look so seasonal. I’m about to head up to the attic right now to find that wicker fucker, dust it off, and jam it with an insanely ornate assortment of shellacked vegetables. When my guests come over it’s gonna be like, BLAMMO! Check out my shellacked decorative vegetables, assholes. Guess what season it is—fucking fall. There’s a nip in the air and my house is full of mutant fucking squash.

I may even throw some multi-colored leaves into the mix, all haphazard like a crisp October breeze just blew through and fucked that shit up. Then I’m going to get to work on making a beautiful fucking gourd necklace for myself. People are going to be like, “Aren’t those gourds straining your neck?” And I’m just going to thread another gourd onto my necklace without breaking their gaze and quietly reply, “It’s fall, fuckfaces. You’re either ready to reap this freaky-assed harvest or you’re not.”

I’m glad that someone is expressing excitement about the change of season, albeit satirically. From Semi-Partisan Sam’s perch in London, autumn tends to involve more desperate winter coat purchasing and wondering why only one radiator in the goddamn apartment seems to be working than dusting off seasonal decorations and festooning the place with harvest vegetables and fallen leaves. But to each their own. I assume that autumn enthusiasts must live in places that actually experience a reliably hot and enduring summer every year.

Of course, unlike the United States (which has Halloween and Thanksgiving to look forward to in terms of autumnal – sorry, fall – celebrations) we here in Britain jump straight from summer to Christmas. Indeed, the speed at which the charcoal and barbecue accessories are swept from the supermarket shelves to make room for Christmas ornaments and mince pies with an expiration date in early November is quite astonishing. *

* and unwelcome for those of us who like to continue grilling outside right through the deep midwinter.

Now on sale in our local superstore. In September.
Now on sale in our local superstore. In September.


So, here’s wishing a happy fall or Christmas season (depending where you live) to my readers.

In September.

From The Blogging Cave

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan, fresh from his two week vacation (during which time I had no one to tell me what to think about the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the potential upcoming military action), who publicised an interesting new Tumblr blog, entitled “Where Bloggers Blog“.

From the site’s description:

I pulled this tumblr together so that we can all see the workspaces of our favourite bloggers — the places where all the magic happens.  For the record, this isn’t a decorating blog — this is purely about sharing the diversity of creative spaces of our favourite bloggers, illustrating that blogging magic and inspiration happen in many different awesome, eccentric, spacious, cozy, neat, messy, colourful ways.

Whilst I am waiting for my own contribution to be uploaded to the site, readers can get a sneak peak of my current blogging cave below:

The Semi-Partisan Blogging Cave
The Semi-Partisan Blogging Cave

The American flag went up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last week, and will be brought back down when I have the inclination to do so. Fox News is playing on the television because (1) it is the only US news channel available in the UK (CNN’s pathetic International Edition does not count), and (2) you have to keep an eye on those crazy guys at Fox News Channel, because you never know what they will get up to if left unsupervised.

On Table Etiquette

I have never understood the American method of eating using cutlery, that long, drawn-out, fastidious process of holding the fork in the left hand while cutting the food, then putting down the knife and transferring the fork to the right hand to bring the food to the mouth. So affected, so inefficient.

Turns out (surprise, surprise) that it was a European custom, imported from France at some point during the 18th century, and unquestioningly adopted by Americans as a sign of great sophistication.

Just keep holding it with the left hand!
Just keep holding it with the left hand!

Slate magazine explains:

The cut-and-switch—like imperial units of measurement—counts among those European castaways that became Americanisms only when Europe itself changed. Today, the cut-and-switch is the equivalent of a mouthful of glittering white teeth, a calf-ful of glittering white sock, or a request for half-and-half—an absolute clincher that you stand in the company of a fellow lover of freedom. Jeanette Martin, the co-author of Global Business Etiquette, couldn’t think of another major country that fork-swaps. Even among Canadians, some zig-zag, but “Continental predominates.”

Well. We’ve had our fun. And now it’s time to stop. Americans prize efficiency—especially when it comes to food. Sure, a cut-and-switch partisan might argue that Americans already eat fast enough—whether we’re talking about actual fast food, practically predigested squeezable pouches and energy bars, or our enthusiastic and all but unique embrace of eating while walking and driving; you could argue that the cut-and-switch is just the kind of gastronomic speed bump we need more of. But what if we spend so little time at the table because we find fork-swapping so tedious?

Indeed. Although Britons are hardly in a position to talk, with their ludicrously inefficient use of the fork, tines pointing down:

Many Europeans stubbornly deploy their forks tines down—either as a spear, or, if the food isn’t stab-able, as a surface on which to awkwardly pile or smoosh food (awkward piling is particularly English—“How many peas can dance on the back of a fork?” asks Kate Fox, in Watching the English). But the pragmatic Americans who’ve abandoned the cut-and-switch almost always use the fork tines-up—i.e., as an efficient shovel—whenever it’s convenient to do so.

A shovel, there you go. Much more efficient.

More observations on British-American differences from Semi-Partisan Sam can be found here.

Music For The Day

O Magnum Mysterium, by Morten Lauridsen, sung by the choir of Westminster Cathedral at midnight mass, 2009.

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum.