Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Binge Drinking (or "Chance Would be a Fine Thing")

Thinking about the debate about alcohol pricing today.

The minimum prices put forward by the government would appear to be so small as to be meaningless - tell me when you could last get a bottle of drinkable Scotch for less than £8? - and will therefore have no impact on the binge drinking which has become such an issue. 

Conversely, if they whack the prices up to the level the experts suggest, this will impact on the 'stuck-at-home', sensible drinkers (people like me, with childcare issues which restrict our access to a night out) and will probably do little to limit binge drinking.

I don't think price is the issue here, it's culture. Britain has always had a slightly ambivalent attitude towards alcohol, informed by historical and religious influences. The uptight, Protestant distaste for drinking as sinful (funny how it's never struck Catholic countries in the same way?), the peculiar licensing laws brought in to meet the demands of wartime industrial production.

I enjoy a drink. I come from a family who like a drink. My friends can attest to the fact that in my 20s, I was able to knock it back with the best of them. My 'local' at that time was ostensibly a Wine Bar (although I seem to recall it didn't sell a lot of wine). Run by two former Met officers, in a rather lovely 15th century, half-timbered building in the middle of the cultural desert that is Maidstone, it had an upstairs and lower bar, and was frequented by the the 6th formers from the local grammar schools and some twenty-somethings, along with a small, but select, group of older punters. The upper bar was jokingly referred to as "the creche", but as they got older people somehow gravitated downstairs to where the conversation flowed along with the beer. 

It was lively, but I don't remember things ever getting out of hand. There were sports teams, poetry nights, the infamous Talent Show (remarkable chiefly for how little of it we demonstrated!) It was more a licensed youth club than a bar, and our hosts always made sure we eased up if we were the worse for wear and made sure we all got off the premises and home safely. A friend's mother has since said that she never worried when she knew we were all there. That's not to say that nobody ever got drunk or misbehaved, but for the most part it was high spirits, did no harm to the surrounding community and we could all pretty much remember what we'd done the next day. 

As I got older I drank less, as I suspect, most of today's binge drinkers will do, and these days my new year's resolution is usually to drink more! Now, it's the occasional bottled ale or bottle of wine from the supermarket, drunk in front of the TV. Nights out are a rarity when you have kids, but then I feel I had had my time for socialising before they arrived and don't regret the change.

Which brings me back to the point (I think). It's the culture of drinking which has changed for the worse over the last few years. I started going into pubs at 14, under the watchful eye my parents, sat drinking Coke (after a childhood of sitting in the car with the aforementioned Coke and packet of crisps). At that point in history, I was probably more at risk from passive smoking than from alcohol. The landlord knew  his customers and, as landlord rather than manager, it was in his best interests to tell a customer when they'd had too much and refuse to serve them. No need for bouncers, just a landlord with authority and a regular clientele who would back him up if things got nasty. Going to the pub was a social occasion with added beer.

The traditional pub, with 'regulars' is now a dying phenomenon, though, having given way to noisy booze warehouses where throughput is all and the manager and his staff are there simply to maximise profit for the owner. Conversation after about 6pm is impossible, as the PA then gets cranked up (presumably to get rid of us older, slower drinkers) and if you're really unlucky, your evening is 'enhanced' by a dodgy Robbie Williams tribute act. Such places do not have drinkers' welfare at heart and rely on a steady stream of 'crawlers to keep spending and drinking long after they can remember where they are, who they are or where their wallet is.

The relaxation of licensing laws was supposed to free us from the tyranny of 'last orders', where everyone was presumed to squeeze in more drink before the bell went. With no fixed hours and bars able to choose (there's that "choice" thing again!) their opening hours, now no-one is sure when anywhere closes and so the drunken masses migrate across town like wildebeest looking for the next open bar until they collapse from the effort.

Cafe culture will not work in this country. We don't have the climate for it, for a start, and our pubs have been hijacked by 'hospitality' companies who's outlets are the same wherever you are. No wonder drunk youngsters are disoriented when a Revolution looks the same whether you're in Manchester, Bristol or London. Local councils do not seem overly worried about giving licences to a clutch of such places in one area

At the same time, traditional pubs in towns  are dying on their feet because reasonable drinkers have deserted town/city centres. Faced with the prospect of hordes of drunks in town, or driving to a country pub (and therefore not being able to drink!), most of us just stay at home.

If governments really want to address the health issues surrounding binge drinking, they need to look at the culture of drinking, so that the pleasure of people's company while drinking is valued more than the race to be first to get bladdered. I'm not advocating a return to the dingy pubs with red formica table tops and regulars who glower at you if you come in through the wrong door, but something which normalises social drinking would be good for all of us.

Heaven knows we ALL need a drink these days!

1 comment:

  1. As Keir and I don't drink more than about five alcoholic drinks per year, we really feel the need for evening cafes. They don't have to have seating outside, which given our climate would indeed be useless, but it would be so nice to go go out for coffee.
    I've never liked pubs. Not the'charming' old country pubs with corpses all over the walls and locals who spit at you if you ask for a vegetarian meal, not the chains and not the dives. Wasn't the point of them only ever to drink and/or pull? If I want someone's company I go to their house, or a restaurant.