Digging up into the drinking habits of cricketers of yore has been quite a sobering exercise. The frequency of boozing was at levels that could easily qualify a majority of them as alcoholics. I am not talking solely of West Indian cricketers here.
Oh no, they were part of a global fraternity for whom alcohol and promiscuity were customary elements of the cricketer’s life. Among the Test-playing nations from as long as a good 80 years ago, the English, the Australians and the West Indians had been celebrated as heavy drinkers. This was a way of life that still prevails in the cultures, but which appears to have diminished somewhat in the last decade or so within the sporting communities. Clearly, the rise of structured fitness programmes has influenced the decline.
But as I’ve been going back in time, I can’t help wondering how they managed to perform as well as they did when they might have been hungover nearly every morning of play. Think of a match under blazing sun; coming out with scarcely any sleep, depleted by frolicking and probably already dehydrated; how did they do it?
Understanding the why is fairly straightforward; they were young, zesty, ignorant and full of the elixir of confidence. And alcohol was a symbol of manhood.
Many times I have seen parents celebrate the 16th birthday of their sons by presenting them with an alcoholic drink. You are a man now, they say, equating the arrival to this state of adulthood with the capacity to toss back some spirits. There was an occasion when a group of young boys, from about 11 to 16, were fed alcohol by an already-drunk uncle. It was fun for him; at least three of them puked.
The symbolic transition from childhood is thus entwined with the concept that imbibing alcohol is a marker of a manly status and that is given even more stature by the fact that it has been parentally endorsed—a rite of passage.
The only time alcohol is cloaked in any kind of negative shroud is when its excessive use has led to some calamity. Otherwise, up and down the Caribbean it is a natural part of anything with any celebratory aspiration; every gathering, every lime. A dry house of celebration is to be shunned; but a car trunk can easily remedy the deficit. It is a way of life, and that can be seen by the genuine distress of those facing the closed doors of the bars, rum shops and recreation clubs that form part of their daily routines.
Last week, the Pan American Health Organisation published the results of a study that showed an average of 85,000 annual deaths from alcohol consumption from 2013 to 2015 in 30 countries of the Americas. The majority of deaths were people under 60, and more men than women died. The study has been widely published if you care to see the details, but it is really coincidental to what prompted me to write about our region’s alcohol consumption.
Why is alcohol so embedded in our cultural identity? Yes, this part of the world produces the finest rums, and a whole tourism fairy tale has been spun on the basis of the sexy cocktails to be had under the sun, lying on the sand by the sea. But that is the thing we sell.
What is the thing we have bought?
I have been trying to understand it because I have been immersed in the drinking culture that surrounded our West Indian cricketers mainly, but mostly seeking to figure out the different strains of attraction.
Yes, they were young and giddy, and propelled into a stardom and lifestyle that they had never even dreamed about. But although many came from fairly impoverished backgrounds and were swept off their feet by the wave of parties and fame and seductions that came their way, alcohol already seemed to have been a strong component of their daily lives. The only thing that might have changed is the quality of the liquor and the number of drinks they could afford.
It struck me then that a major aspect of the Caribbean relationship with alcohol (I restrict it to Caribbean because I have not seen as much information on other cultures) is that it is a symbol of masculinity. A particular kind of masculinity. The kind that is in control, assertive, maybe a badjohn, maybe a sweetman, maybe a man of power who could call the shots. Whatever the specifics, it appears to be linked to empowerment.
Perhaps it came from the wretched days when life was all drudgery—slaving for the benefits of cruel masters—when, to be able to find the wherewithal to keep going, one had to dull the reality with some spirits. Drowning one’s sorrows is the expression, isn’t it?
There are many who still hit the bottles hard to cope with challenges; but on the whole, it seems we are gregarious and social drinkers. The spirits are there to lift us, although there is the dark side. You hear the stories about violence associated with drunkenness. That is universal, not a regional phenomenon.
We have had many descriptors attached to our identity as Caribbean people, it would be interesting to get to the root of why our brand is so inextricably linked to the spirits we drink.
• Vaneisa Baksh is an editor, writer and cricket historian