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Marks out of 10 - Wasted youth

The Truth About Leo

By David Yelland

Puffin, #163;6.99

By Anthony Seldon

Alcohol is the biggest problem facing young people today, worse even than drugs, schools, the media or society - and politicians are not taking the problem seriously enough.

The earlier children start drinking, the greater the chance of problem drinking later in life. The Australian champion of adolescent well-being, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, has found that if children start drinking before they are 14 they double the risk of alcohol dependency after the age of 21.

The Australian Drug Foundation has now changed its advice to parents: do not "induct" your children into alcohol from an early age with a quarter glass of wine at special dinners, but delay the introduction of alcohol as long as possible, preferably until the age of 16.

A staggering 47 per cent of those who start drinking before 14 become alcohol dependent, compared with just 9 per cent of those who wait until the age of 21. We now know much more about the damage done by early alcohol consumption to the wiring of the brain. Lasting and accumulating psychological, mental and physical damage is being caused to our young people by their regular consumption of alcohol.

Alcohol is a life destroyer and a life limiter, and its abuse is such that it needs to be taken far more seriously.

The ease of purchase of cheap vodka, wine and lager has helped fuel the increase in consumption among young people. For far too many, alcohol is a way of dulling the pain or boredom of life, or finding new highs. Parties are not parties unless one gets wasted, nor is it a good evening out unless one is rendered semi-conscious.

The search for oblivion and abnegation has become a compulsive drive of many young people. The example set by the media, and by many adults, including parents who should know better, does little to deter them.

David Yelland, in his debut novel The Truth About Leo, has written an important book about alcohol, and it should be bought by every school and parent (along with Elizabeth Burton-Phillips' Mum Can You Lend Me Twenty Quid?, which tells a story of equal emotional power about young people and drugs).

Yelland was the editor of The Sun from 1998 to 2003. Already a heavy drinker, he became an alcoholic, confessing to having been drunk for the entire time that he was in charge of The Sun. He was saved by rehab in 2005, shortly before his ex-wife, Tanya, died of cancer and he was left to take care of their young son.

The novel is narrated by a ten-year-old called Leo, who describes the anguish he feels when his highly regarded father, a GP, gets drunk and violent each night. The premature death of Leo's mother deprives both males of their key female figure and leaves them locked into head-on clashes.

"I mean, why keep on drinking that stuff if it turns you into an idiot and ... makes everything bad?", Leo asks.

Leo has to take the role of parent, scanning the home for secreted bottles. When his father accidentally sets the house on fire, the time has come to take stock. Dad goes into rehab and Leo goes to live with his grandmother, where he discovers that drinking runs in the family.

Yelland has clear talent as a writer of fiction. The book is a passionate cri de coeur. Having damaged his own life, and that of many others during his years as a tabloid supremo, and having done untold harm to his son who had to cope with a dying mother and an alcoholic father, his mission now is to do good in the world.

His target is children, an audience he clearly understands, which is why the book is so accessible. He wants others, particularly the young, to avoid the mistakes he made with booze.

Without his privileges of wealth and connection to protect them, many do indeed drink themselves into an early grave, to the unimaginable agony of their families and friends.

If The Truth About Leo makes just one young person reflect on their alcohol consumption, and pledge to be the master rather than the servant of alcohol, the book will have been worth publishing. I suspect it will save many more, though, than just one.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College. His book, 'Brown at 10,' will be published in the autumn.


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