I didn't fancy going to The Brink, a bar set up for "recovering" alcoholics, located in a part of Liverpool that was a derelict industrial area when I was a student there in the 1980s.
It sounded worthy and dull. I imagined desperate-looking people, obsessive conversations about the evils of alcohol, a shabby interior, unpleasant smells, weird teas, depressing music, religious posters and bad food.
But my friend Claudiu had recently published an article about the place. He said it was the first recovery café in the UK and well worth a visit.
Having spent a night in Liverpool's Home of the Titanic hotel, I wandered into the centre of this remarkable city and thought, "what the hell. I may as well go and visit The Brink. I'll do my duty, have a quick look and get the hell out."
Within minutes of entering The Brink my expectations had been demolished. The pub was full of normal looking people (not a depressing looking drunk in sight), light poured into a big space from huge skylights, the décor was inspiring, the artwork on the wall was good and the music intriguing.
I went to the bar and ordered a "Bollywood Sour": lemon, ginger, elderflower and apple, mixed with sparkling water and garnished with lemons, limes and crushed ice. It was so tasty that I started imagining a day when non-alcoholic cocktails were as popular as the usual sort.
They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach and after eating their Thai Curry I was in love with The Brink. It was better than the curry I had eaten the night before in one of Liverpool's most recommended curry houses: The Sultan's Palace on Victoria Street.
Who is Jacqui Johnstone Lynch?
I hopped in a taxi and went to the Old Swan part of Liverpool to find Jacqui Johnstone Lynch, the founder of The Brink. I also did a quick Google search on her and found an in-depth profile which explained that it was the death of her brother, who was killed by a drunk driver, that inspired her to set up The Brink. She is quoted as saying she turned "pain into purpose".
Since setting up The Brink, Jacqui has established a rehab clinic called Tom Harrison House for addicted veterans of Britain's many wars. Like everyone I met in Liverpool, she is warm and friendly and tells me her main interest is "leadership and legacy." She describes The Brink as a "legacy project", in other words one that she set up but has left for others to run. She is critical of founders of businesses who hang on for too long: "if you have good leadership skills you should set up new projects rather than going stale."
Jacquie explained that they had to raise £500,000 to set up The Brink. Most of that money went on renovating the property - it was a former garage - and setting up a modern kitchen, bar and restaurant. "It's not an easy business model," she says. "It's hard to make a profit when you offer fresh food at low prices as well as discreet services for people with an addiction. 80% of the costs are covered by sales but we needed to fundraise for the shortfall."
The concept of "stigmitization" keeps coming up in our conversation. People in recovery feel stigmatized because almost every venue serves alcohol; they also feel stigmatized by the labels "alcoholic" and "addict" and as a result avoid asking for help. Jacqui's aim with The Brink was to set up a "non stigmatized venue" that offered basic services ("for those who are considering becoming abstinent") as well as a cool and contemporary place to hang out.
The Brink was the first of its kind in the UK and they are keen to encourage others to follow suit. They offer courses in how to set one up and Jacqui tells me there are now recovery cafes in Cardiff, Glasgow, Nottingham, Manchester and London.
Back from the Brink
The Brink reminds me of the people who recover from devastating addictions and become enthusiastic members of society. It was a dirty, abandoned garage that now employs people and provides free "group support work" to addicts and binge drinkers every morning.
It also reminds me of Liverpool itself which was in desperate economic straits when I went there in 1982 to study History and Politics. One of my politics professors gave this quote to an American journalist in 1991:
"Liverpool is a declining city which cannot be saved," said Fred Ridley, professor of politics at Liverpool University, adding that the place has even less to build on than other cities in England's long-depressed north. "It's a town that's surplus to requirements. I can't see any way out of continuing, gradual decline."
Against all the odds, Liverpool's economy has recovered, its population is growing and it's a cool place to shop, party and live. Rough Guides have just published a book with "50 unforgettable things to do before you die" and number three on their list is "Liverpool's Nightlife".
Lonely Planet's 2015 guidebook to England wrote: "Few English cities are as shackled by reputation as Liverpool, and none have worked so hard to outgrow the cliches that for so long have been used to define it."