...how broadcaster Janet Street-Porter would tell boys of the dangers of alcohol. Barry Hugill reports from a Portman Group conference
MONDAY evening at 7pm and if it hadn't been for the plush surroundings it could have been a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Actually it was a seminar organised by the Portman Group, the think-tank-cum-pressure group funded by the drinks industry. But just like an AA gathering people were falling over themselves to confess.
First off was Ann Widdecombe, probably the only member of the shadow cabinet likely to be recognised in the street. When a little girl she demanded her mother give her a spoonful of beer. It put her off for life. More palpable was the Scotch she experimented with at her convent school toga dance and ball.
Janet Street-Porter was 14 when she first ventured into the Dog and Duck on Fulham Broadway. But there were previous sins, most memorably the "ye olde Shakespeare cooking sherry".
In other words both women had normal childhoods. Statistics show 68 per cent of nine to 11-year-olds have tried alcohol and by the time they are 15, 80 per cent will have been drunk at least once.
Which is where the Portman Group comes in. The drinks industry can hardly wash its hands of the problem - it's booze the kids are swigging. So, in a gesture of enlightened self-interest, it is searching for strategies to promote sensible drinking.
Ms Street-Porter thinks schools are best placed to get the message across. David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, should abandon "all this rubbish about a computer in every classroom", and use the cash to train teachers to teach children about alcohol from primary school upwards, she said. Which is exactly what Miss Widdecombe doesn't want.
"Look what happened with sex and drug education," she protested. Teenage pregnancies are on the rise, as is drug abuse. No, best leave it to the parents, she said. Who are, according to Ms Street-Porter, the last people on earth who should get involved in such delicate matters.
"It's perfectly healthy not to get on with your parents. After 12 you stop talking to them. We can't expect the poor sods to start teaching kids about drinking. Especially after the mess they have made over sex."
Miss Widdecombe, a recent convert to Rome, raised her eyes to heaven, cupped her hands in prayer to ask forgiveness for Janet, who was by now in full flow.
"Sex is the answer. Let every teacher proclaim, to every male pupil, from as early an age as possible, that it is impossible to have a good sex life if you drink too much.
"That's a negative message," said a woman in the audience. "Right," said Ms Street-Porter "let's make it positive. Drink moderately to get a great sex life."
The brewers in attendance smiled broadly. And so did Ann Widdecombe.