I was amused this morning to come across an article in the Daily Mail discussing how our British excess drinking habits appear to people from the US. The amusement was doubled by seeing a quote from my friend and ex-drinking partner in New York, Robert Kelsey – yes, he of book writing fame. The article can be summed up pretty succinctly in that we, as Brits, not only like our booze but actually need it to function as the witty, urbane folk that the rest of the world see us as. Alcohol in all its forms acts as a necessary launching pad to having a good time, impressing the opposite sex and finding a life partner – dictated perhaps by whether they have the same capacity for alcohol as ourselves, or maybe just enough propriety to not mention our drunken indisgressions once we sober up.
The whole world of British drunkenness has now been re-presented to me on my return from the US. As a Brit abroad it used to amaze me that our American friends would generally limit themselves to two beers a night, with rare exceptions. Now I have US friends who can, and do, imbibe to relative excess and handle it very well indeed, so I know that stereotype doesn’t hold true for everyone. The different does seem to be how drunk New Yorkers act when compared to drunk Londoners, and driving across town at 10pm last night after a great game of five-a-side football was yet another eye opener. The pavements of Old Street were overflowing with people barely able to stand upright, and seemingly intent on committing suicide with every passing car. Groups of skinny, rat faced boys, dressed in sharp shirts with slicked down mousey brown hair, seemed intent on catching our eyes as we drove past in obvious need of causing a fight with any excuse. “What you lookin at? I’ll fuckin’ have ya!”.
Drunken Brits at our best achieve Oscar Wilde levels of eloquence and witty banter, at least in our own minds and those of our drunken friends. At our worse, we’re lying on pavements in our own vomit, clothes in various states of disarray, blood on our faces from the last fight and looking forward, when we regain some small portion of our alcohol ravaged brains, to a chance to recount our heroic exploits to our friends, most likely over a pint. As an ex-ex-pat all of this is at times something to be embraced, and at other times a great source of embarrassment. Why can’t we just have a few, quiet drinks without feeling the need after the second to carry on? Why can’t we learn to get drunk while retaining some level of class? Perhaps this is the great leveller of class, with everyone from royalty down being a complete drunken idiot at some time. The only difference is that one drinks Krug by the carriage-load, the others drink cheap, strong Stella by the shitload. Social excess drinking is surely the glue of our entire empire.
A government review of the new 24 hour drinking laws in the UK has raised some level of debate in the house. There’s some disagreement as to whether extending drinking hours, intended to create a more ‘continental’ approach to our bar culture, has had the desired effect – with the opposition citing increased drinking related violence and a limited number of bars that have actually opened for 24 hours.
Well that’s not really surprising is it. I mean, how many places on the ‘continent’ or elsewhere for that matter, actually let you drink for 24 hours on the go? Seems pretty daft to me. Of course it comes as no surprise that with Britain’s accepted culture of binge drinking this can just cause more problems. Having being out of the country for most of the last ten years you start to recognise quite how bad we are as a nation – I’ve never been anywhere else that has the same destructive attitude towards drunkeness, which is eye opening.
So given extended opening hours aren’t going to solve the English attitude to over drinking anytime soon, then what might work? Here are my thoughts:
- The new smoking ban in pubs might help slow down drinking: as smokers now have to pause, go outside for their ciggie, then head back in. When New York first started their ban then you would see groups of people decide to change bar having just gone outside for a smoke, now though, people have established etiquettes that means they can leave their drink inside safely. I’d like to believe that would work in the UK, but the incidence of drinks being drugged is much higher which is very disturbing. So as a non-smoking drinking buddy, that puts me in the role of ‘drink guard’ most evenings out, but I digress.
- Start drinking later: this one is a cultural shift, that hopefully will happen given time now that licencing laws have been relaxed. In New York, Edinburgh or other towns with more civilized drinking hours (say to 2-4am) then many people go home, have dinner, get changed, and then go out – rather than rushing straight out to meet mates after work at 5pm and drinking straight through. I believe this is the desired effect that the government were hoping to achieve with the new drinking hours – so I question as to why they didn’t just extend the hours to say 3am in general – why 24 hours?
- Serve every drink with a fresh glass of water, especially shots: In some countries a jug of water is left on the bar, but I don’t think that’s a good option in the UK given the spiking issues mentioned earlier. Instead, require bar staff by law to serve a glass of water with every drink. This has two effects – first, it slows down the time to get a bar order in, secondly and most importantly, people at the bar might just drink their water while they’re waiting for the rest of the drinks – keeping them more hydrated, less likely to over drink and, double bonus, less hungover the next morning. Even without legislation this is something we can all start to do, by asking for water when we order round for us and our friends.
I honestly don’t believe any invasive legislation forcing people to stop drinking will work – English people like finding ways round such things. Education and subtle changes will work best, over time, but there has to be an agreed direction and plan to get into a new country wide mentality that’s more positive about alcohol. Drinking is part of English culture, and I don’t think anyone would want to change that, but being a drunken, violent d*ckhead should not be something we cherish, nurture or accept.