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Hitching the wagon

9 March 2013 5,247 views One Comment

For years, the Scottish-born Jill Stark, who had her first sip of beer
at 13, was a binge-drinking health reporter. During the week, she wrote
about Australia’s alcohol-soaked culture for Melbourne’s ‘The Age’ and ‘The Sunday Age’. At the weekends, she usually wrote herself off.
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Subtitled “My year without booze, ‘High Sobriety’ is a brave and lively memoir charting Stark’s tumultuous 12 months on the wagon
which was prompted by a massive hangover at the age of 35. As Stark
recounts it, despite all the difficulties and the many internal and
external pressures, an alcohol-free 2011 was the most rewarding and
productive year of her life. Indeed, she thinks that she achieved more
in that time than she had in the previous decade. Also, after a year without booze, she maintains that addiction is not as black-and-white as [she] once thought there are so many shades of grey.

What is utterly fascinating is how the pressure to drink alcohol in Australia is often enormous and unrelenting. As Stark explains, when she decided to lay off the booze for a time, she knew it would be tough. But, as she points out, she initially thought it would be a simple proposition of abstaining from the act of consuming alcohol. She wasn’t prepared, for example, for the complex moral maze [she’d] have to navigate along the way. Moreover, as she explains, if one doesn’t drink alcohol in Australia (or Scotland for that fact), it is extremely difficult not to feel the odd one out and to be somehow coerced into resuming drinking booze.

While Stark writes powerfully, and with absorbing and intricate detail, about her alcohol-free odyssey, her forays into Australian history are sometimes less successful. Thus in dealing with wowserism and the misnamed “temperance movement , which usually involved abstinence – Stark does not seem to realise that, in the 19th century, the most militant Australians, including William Lane and Dame Mary Gilmore, were total abstainers who believed that alcohol was the opium of the working class and which dulled revolutionary possibilities. Similarly in writing about the scourge of alcohol in indigenous communities, Stark does not mention that, of all non-Muslim groups in Australia, Aboriginal peoples have the highest rates of total abstinence. If one thinks about it, this makes sense, as those groups that most experience alcohol addiction are most likely to spawn the opposite. Think of Ireland and the totally- abstaining Pioneers.

On Australia Day 2012 Stark became an Australian citizen at an enthusiastic ceremony at the Coburg Town Hall in which she totally abstained from alcohol.

As it happens, this Australia Day, I was 43-years-sober , which means that I’ve had 43 more years on the planet than if I hadn’t stopped drinking. But unlike me, Stark does not really think of herself as an alcoholic and seems to believe that, through will-power, she can moderate or control her drinking, rather than need to totally abstain, one day at a time, which often requires help.

Surprisingly, in ‘High Sobriety’, there is no mention at all of Alcoholics
Anonymous, which is by far the most successful agency in enabling problem drinkers to stop using alcohol, and to stay stopped.

After extending her year of sobriety to almost 14 months (413 days to be exact), and with the active encouragement of some of her friends, Stark started drinking alcohol again. As she puts it, this was in the hope that now she’s just like everyone else. It will be intriguing to learn about Stark’s
situation in relation to alcohol in, say, three to five years time – which
is when, if she has successfully continued to moderate her drinking,
Stark could safely claim that she has her intake of alcohol under

I certainly wish this feisty, richly talented, writer well. Moreover I can only endorse Stark’s statement that life is so much richer when you let yourself truly feel, unanaesthetised by alcohol or other drugs.

Co-author of ‘Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in
Australia’, Professor Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An
Alcoholics Journey’ is now available as an e-book.

Review of Jill Stark, ‘HIGH SOBRIETY’ Scribe. 307pp, $29.95.
‘The Canberra Times’, Saturday March 9, 2013

One Comment »

  • Dr P. A. Smith said:

    Riding the wagon
    Ross Fitzgerald wonderfully exemplifies the normality of the bulk of AA members in his review of Jill Starks book, ‘High Sobriety’ (Hitching the Wagon, Panorama, March 9, p25).
    There is no missionary zeal, but simply the reality that people in trouble with alcohol and other drugs may find AA useful and if, like Ross, they are alcoholics or addicts, then AA can be a life saver for them and the people who love them.
    As Ross Fitzgerald makes clear, for alcoholics and addicts, AA is a wagon worth hitching up to.
    Dr P. A. Smith, Mount Archer, Qld
    The Canberra Times, 13 March 2013

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