Not everyone’s Christmas looks like this. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty
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Suzanne Moore: I never learned exactly what my mother put in the buckets brewing under the bed

Jay the lesbian gannet made our Christmas much less tense than normal. The home-made Baileys flowed.

You always knew it was Christmas in our house because my mum would start on the Baileys. Not just drinking it, but making it. It was one of her proudest achievements. She had the “secret recipe” for Baileys. She made it in buckets stored under the bed.

“What’s in it, Mum?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” she used to say as she decanted the beigey cream into real Baileys bottles to flog to our neighbours.

Another of her sayings was, “One of these days I’ll be gone for a soldier,” which really terrified me. What did it mean? She never answered that either.

The fake Baileys, a concoction of condensed milk and knock-off scotch, was a big hit, even though the Christmas dinner itself was often fraught.

“Here you are, you bunch of gannets,” she would say as she slapped it down on the table, refusing to eat any herself.

She sat smoking while we ate and would talk about how her life was “a fight against dirt”, a fight to feed us, the gannets. For as with so many women of her generation, she had glimpsed a better life and could never settle for the one she had.

She tried upgrading it the only way she knew how. Men. Getting different ones. Husbands, boyfriends, lovers, all initially promising something different. All somehow ending up much the same. That is why we were surprised when she suddenly announced, “This year we’re having a lesbian for Christmas.”

Jay the Lesbian would be arriving soon from New York. This was exotic beyond belief. My mother had met her when she was married to my father. The main thing about Jay, my mum said, was she was fat and needed to lose weight. She arrived in shocking pink tights and heavy-rimmed glasses. She ignored us children almost completely, except for once telling me that “Shakespeare is worth the effort, honey”. By this I understood she had a life of the mind.

She was always making some vile soup thing in the kitchen which I now see was a proto cabbage-soup diet.

“It’s ridiculous,” my mum said. “I know she sneaks down in the night and stuffs herself out of the fridge. She’s a gannet just like the rest of you.”

Yet Jay the lesbian gannet made our Christmas much less tense than normal. The home-made Baileys flowed. It was the only time I ever saw my mum enjoying the festivities. The house was a castle of tinsel and smoking and cabbagey smells. Then, just like that, Jay was gone and another man who would make Mum cry was installed.

Many years later I asked her about Jay. “Oh yes, she did try to interfere with me,” she said. She often referred to sex as “interference”. “It’s not my cup of tea but as it was Christmas I thought I should get on with it for a bit of peace.”

Oh, the sacrifices we women make for our children.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.