'If I said I was within the safe drinking limit, I’d be lying'

Hilary Fannin: Recently I read with a frisson of fear and recognition about the number of Irish women dying from alcohol-related illnesses

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock


My brother is currently cycling from Splott (an apparently unremarkable town in Wales) across England and France, then over the Alps and all the way to Split in Croatia, a journey of 1,400 miles. He’s making the trip on his Sweeney Todd with little more than a bicycle pump, two panniers and a tent on his back.

My brother is not a particularly avid cyclist. He’s not super-fit, he doesn’t have any specialised equipment or a set of spanking new wheels, and I’ve never actually seen him in Lycra (one should always be thankful for small mercies). Furthermore, his route, from Splott to Split, does not, as far as I’m aware, feature too brightly on anyone’s bicycling bucket list. He chose his starting point and destination simply for their alliterative appeal, the “spl” factor, I suppose.

“I’m going to cycle from Splott to Split,” he said one afternoon in my kitchen.

“Why not Portmarnock to Portadown, or Kimmage to Kinnegad?” I suggested, wondering if everyone’s mangy old cat stands in the kitchen sink to drink from the dripping tap when there’s a perfectly good bowl of water on the floor, and also why anyone in their 60s, especially the person standing in front of me with the peanut butter sandwich in his mouth, would subject themselves to such misery.

But no, sold on the poetry of his intention, he pushed off from Splott on August 1st, accompanied by a bevy of cloudbursts and a couple of encouraging mates who peeled off in Bristol, and the last I heard he was still pedalling. I’ll let you know how it panniers out for him.

The real reason for his odyssey – the spur – is that he is still alive, which three years ago looked very unlikely. When he was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2013, the prognosis was bleak, but after pioneering treatment at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, his surgical team was able to operate and, remarkably, he survived. Monies raised by the Splott-to-Split cycle ride will go to Macmillan Cancer Support, which was also vital to his recovery.

My brother used the word “bedlam” to describe some of the liver wards he frequented during his treatment. He described with dread and compassion the physical and mental condition of his wardmates in end-stage liver cirrhosis: the viciously distorting oedema, the tremors, the bruising, the shrunken bodies cowering in paper-thin skin. An Alpine ascent, I suppose, pales in comparison with the journey those patients were making.

Recently, I read with interest (and a frisson of fear and recognition) about the number of Irish women dying from liver disease and other alcohol-related illnesses. Three people die every day in this country as a result of alcohol abuse. In the past these were mainly men, many elderly; now, women in the 40-50 age bracket are swelling the ranks. It’s the kind of gender balance we could live without, brought on, or so the experts speculate, by the increase in home drinking, by the Sauvignons under the stairs and the Burgundies in the box room.

Please don’t think I’m being censorious or disapproving; I’m not. I’m just feeling a bit rattled. Apparently, “safe drinking” for women is 11 standard units a week. (A standard unit, by the way, is not a bucket-shaped glass of Chardonnay while you’re shouting at The X Factor; a standard glass is one of those lousy measures you get in a bar. A bottle of wine, at 12.5 per cent alcohol, contains about seven standard drinks; I always thought it contained about four glasses, certainly four of my voluminous wine glasses.)

I’d like to lie through my withering teeth here and say that I’m well within that safe limit, but it’s not true. Whatever about term time, when I try not to drink during the week because I have to get up in the dark to shout at the cat and find the mouldy lunchboxes, holidays are a different matter.

I ran into an old friend last week who was walking down to the off-licence to buy more wine. She has had a hard couple of years. We sat on the wall for a while in the fading light, talked about death and life, about finding the energy to face the day. Parting, I said: “We should go for a few drinks some time.” She agreed.

Maybe it’s time to think outside the box, to get on my bike and tackle the mountain.

Read about Robert Fannin’s cycle ride on splott2split.wordpress.com

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