Monday, May 16, 2005

The Boozing Brits

A fine image by my good friend Peter Dench - of some typical Britons on the sauce (check out the pink-hued puke between the guy's ankles). Some people will be appalled at this image of national shame. I'm not so sure. Here are my thoughts on the subject...


As regular readers of Ye Old Toffeewomble will know, in my time, I’ve binged on lots of things. Such as: marijuana, codeine, valium, hash oil, LSD, Ecstasy, cocaine, freebase cocaine, crack, heroin, speed, psilocybin, Rohypnol, morning glory seeds, opium, morphine, DMT, qat, temazepam, nutmeg, and Tippex. Frankly, I don’t recommend trying all of these: sniffing Tippex gives you a headache; eating nutmeg makes you smell like a trifle topping; simply sampling heroin can sometimes land you with a horrible ten year smack addiction.

Did me, anyway. Nearly five years ago my long-term heroin addiction became so bad, I decided to call a halt. I was 36 years old, entering the traditional menopause of drug abuse (most people seem to give up drugs between 35 and 40; either that or they die or go to prison). I can still remember the poignant climacteric. One morning I woke feeling sick, wretched and, for the first time, suicidal. It was then I decided the time had come to sue for peace with God. ‘God’, I said, ‘I’ll stop bingeing on drugs; if only You keep me alive’.

It worked. God kept his side of the bargain; I kept mine. Since that day my sole means of intoxication have been the odd bottle of wine, or a few glasses of beer. I’m proud that I’ve stopped bingeing.

Or at least I was proud - until I read last month’s official report of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit into ‘British drinking habits’. According to this in-depth study, many if not a majority of young British people are going out several times a week and getting deliberately and dangerously intoxicated. The word the report used for these wicked liquor-fests was ‘bingeing’. The definition of a male binge, according to the report, was four pints of beer in an evening, or a single bottle of wine.

Four pints in an evening? A single bottle of wine? That’s a binge? By this
definition I am a dangerous binge drinker, and so are my friends, and so are most members of my family, and so is everyone I know down the pub, and so, no doubt, are half the people reading the 'Womble. All two of you.

This survey certainly had a point to prove; it also had the facts and comparisons to ‘back it up’. Apparently 40% of British pub-sessions count as a binge; only 10% of French drinking sessions similarly qualify. The British drink two gallons of pure alcohol per person per year: more than almost all other Westerners. One third of British 15 year olds report being drunk before the age of 13, only one in ten French or Italian 15 year olds can make the same claim.

The report generated lots of supportive comment. Various involved bigwigs, from the head of Alcohol Concern to the Home Office’s junior minister Hazel Blears MP, all rushed out to agree that we British are a bunch of ill-disciplined dipsos. These tutting voices even added their own slants: one pointed out how noticeable it was that our young European cousins don’t drink in noisy boorish groups like British youths - rather, these clever young Euro-types consume their drink ‘in family settings’; another commentator claimed the report showed that the British as a nation, compared to the Europeans, were ‘failing to drink sensibly’.

And here, I think, is the rub. What on earth is ‘drinking sensibly’? Let’s look at those binge-thresholds again. Four pints of beer, or a single bottle of wine, in an evening? I may be weird, but it’s at about the four pint stage that I start to get pleasantly, properly drunk. It also takes about a bottle of wine for me to begin to really enjoy the sweet escape that wine provides. Yet the PM’s ‘strategy people’ say that this is precisely the point when I should stop. In other words, what they’re saying is: it’s OK (ish) to drink - just as long as you don’t get enjoyably pissed (a spookily similar argument to the one used against red-coated fox hunting - that it’s OK to kill foxes, just make sure you don’t have fun by doing it on horseback).

Whatever the actual figures, the whole thrust of this report is palpably absurd. The reason anybody drinks is because they want to be drunk. Would anyone knock back lager, or vodka, or schnapps, or aquavit, or gin slings, or Long Island Iced Teas, or even the very finest wines from Bordeaux, if these things didn’t get you more or less smashed, soused, poleaxed, plastered, hog-whimpering, rat-arsed, and mullered? If intoxication is not essentially the sole motive for drinking intoxicating liquors, if perhaps taste and aroma are just as important, why aren’t sales of delicious non-alcoholic wine or scrummy low-alcohol beer as high as the sales of, say, orange juice, or Pepsi, or Irn Bru? Or proper booze?

But maybe I’m begging my own question here. It could be argued that the underlying philosophy behind the prime ministerial report is, however unpalatable, true: that intoxication is simply bad for you. Maybe drunken-ness is intrinsically wrong.

Can this be the case? If it is, the dubious pursuit of intoxication, of psychotropic escape, has had a remarkably long and tenacious life. Some of the earliest remains of recognisably human civilisation, in western Russia, show that primitive man liked to get out of his head, specifically by inhaling the fumes of burnt cannabis.

Almost all later civilisations, from the Aztecs with their peyote, to the Vikings with their berserker mushrooms, to the Native Americans with their tobacco-pipes, have had their own particular poison, their means of getting mashed. Such is the consistency of this thread in human history, some scholars believe recreational drug-taking is actually the engine of human progress, allowing us to ‘think out of the box’. Even if you don’t swallow that, it seems undeniable that intoxication is a normal and therefore healthy human pursuit. Perhaps for the reason that TS Eliot famously asserted: that mankind cannot bear too much reality.

From my own experiences (wider than many, I have to say) I can confirm that intoxication has definitely had its advantages. Many of the best experiences of my life, as well as some of the worst, have come about as a result of my being banjaxed.

For instance: I remember a time when I drank wood alcohol in a Mayan village in Mexico and I ended up teaching the sombrero-wearing natives a happy medley of songs from Oliver. I also recall the time when I deliriously smoked dope through the thigh bone of an antelope with a tribe of laughing Kalahari Bushmen. Then there’s the time I found God on acid in Regent’s Park; or the time I risked arrest to smoke opium in the misty mountains of Burma; or the time at an Islington party where me and my friends took so many magic mushrooms we all ended up in fits of laughter so fierce I thought I would actually die of a strange, yelping happiness.

All these were examples of quite serious intoxication; times when I did things I certainly wouldn’t have done if I’d been stone cold sober. And, you know, I’m wholly glad for them. They’re precious memories; I wouldn’t want to change a thing.

Some might say, however, that this government report isn’t about drugs, it’s about drink, which is different because it’s the most commonly available and socially acceptable intoxicant. These people might further add that alcohol lacks the harder drugs’ rhapsodic highs, and also causes many more miserable lows: because of its propensity to fire up violence. But here I still differ. Some of the most cherished of my memories-of-intoxication are of simple good times in the pub. The times I was just having a beery laugh with my friends, times when we shared in each other’s extrovert abandon, each other’s dippy oblivion. Yes my drinking bouts (and my drug taking bouts), have sometimes concluded with sadness, hangovers, arguments, mishaps, and the occasional fatuous scuffle, but I would fiercely contend that all the sadness and errors are in the end outweighed by those gravely fun evenings of camaraderie and laughter. The high old times in the pub of life.

Ah yes, the pub. The great British boozer. I think the noisy British boozer is a living riposte to the Prime Minister’s strategy unit; because the pub proves that we sensible Brits have, almost alone in Europe, not forgotten the purpose of drink: which is to get you shitfaced.

Just think about those European equivalents to UK pubs. Go into an average French zinc and what do you see? A few old scrotes sitting around scowling at their pastis. Walk into some Italian bars and what do you find? Lots of overdressed people so concerned with the cut of their Prada corduroys they barely have time to acknowledge each other’s existence. Contrast that with the genuine high spirits of the most average British boozer on a Friday night.

Not that we’re perfect. Far from it. There’s no doubt the Europeans have a lot to teach us about pasta sauces and reliable railways and not fighting in bus stations and, of course, how to wear cashmere jumpers slung casually around the shoulders, but I think the Europeans have nothing to teach us about the more serious business of having a proper hootenanny. OK, British town centres can be a bit messy, punchy and spewy on Saturday nights, but on the whole I’d rather have our Hogarthian mayhem that than the aperitif-sipping somnolence, or ossified familial socialising, of so much continental drinking-and-entertaining culture. Ribald and effervescent intoxication is something we Brits do pretty damn well: as other peoples acknowledge.

And that’s not just me talking. Look at the economics; look at where the money goes. London is the greatest attraction in Europe for young European tourists. Are they in hot pursuit of the British Museum mummies? Does the London Eye have such a magnetic appeal? Well, yes, partly, but surveys also report that it’s our enviably vivacious, liberatingly frivolous pub and club culture that brings these youths flocking to our shores. And when these young tourists can’t come here, they try and recreate the scene at home. The exported British (sometimes disguised as Irish) pub is spreading across the world like the ‘flu in 1919; the most successful global media export of the last decade is the British lad magazine (which in their masculine rudeness and irreverence are basically pubs-between-glossy-covers).

Am I over-egging the pudding? Perhaps. But this is a serious pudding, worth fighting for. To my mind there is something in the up-for-it, let-your-hair-down, what-the-hell British pub culture that enshrines something seriously free, something preciously liberal in overall British culture. And British writers, of course, have always known this. From Shakespeare’s: ‘A man cannot make him laugh, but that’s no marvel - he drinks no wine’, to Keats’: ‘He who hath not been in a tavern knows not what Paradise is’, the best poets have long been aware of the value of a regular boozy knees-up: which is to keep us from taking life, or ourselves, too seriously.

Put it another way: a nation that doesn’t mind downing six Bacardi breezers and doing a group rendition of an Abba ballad before horribly chucking up over its kebab on the way home, is a nation that is unlikely to take itself so seriously as to embrace, say, Fascism. It’s because Italian first year students don’t walk around with traffic cones on their heads that they had Mussolini.

But anyway. Leave the last words to Byron, a true exemplar of this very British joie de vivre:
‘Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda water the day after.’

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