Saturday, 1 August 2009

England's binge drinking culture

Broad Street, Birmingham on Saturday night, courtesy Daily Mail

Yesterday evening I went to an office party function with some of my work colleagues for their end of quarter get together. These events can be quite enjoyable although I wish we could go to better places. Although the drinks are on a company tab we usually go to those dreadful trendy bars, with the dark, worn decor, their noisy atmosphere and the fact that they rapidly become far less salubrious as night falls.

It not uncommon for some people to have about two pints of lager to start off, and then they would go to another club or bar, and drink themselves silly, to the point where they would have about as much as five pints of lager together with several cocktails and spirits. That is if they haven't gone the whole hog for drinking. In Birmingham Broad, Street late on Saturday night is a sight almost out Dante's inferno. On the way back from the cinema I have had to negotiate vast teaming masses of people, totally inebriated out of all recognition.

If however we should think of this to be a particular malaise of today, it should be born in mind that England has had a centuries old tradition of inability to handle drink. In eighteenth century gin caused massive problems of drunkenness, to the point that there was a saying: 'Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence, straw for threepence.' To get an idea of that, look at Hogarth's Gin Lane.


Faced with the appalling consequences of England's gin fuelled squalor, it was to some extent Methodism that sobered the country up. It promulgated a very strict temperance movement whereby alcohol became a almost a taboo. During the nineteenth century abstinence from drink became a feature of working and middle class respectability. Birmingham, a bastion of non - conformist protestantism, became a city with few pubs and no nightclubs right up to the 1960's.

But the temperance movement did not really answer the problem at it's root. Part of it is that we do not have the continental culture of drinking, while it is seen as very much a social thing of which it is quite normal for children to partake. I myself have come from a family where we drank from an early age under parental supervision: hence most of us can handle drink.

However for most people it is often seen as an adult and semi - illicit activity, and for adolescents an act of rebellion. Hence in the majority of cases most people don't start to drink until adolescence, and specifically to get drunk. Consequently in many ill - formed characters, alcohol exists only for complete inebriation. Wine is not appreciated for it's subtle aromas, and nor is real ale enjoyed for its local flavours: all that usually matters are the effects of alcohol, irrespective of the drink.

The Protestant temperance movement, for all its successes, was as G.K. Chesterton saw, fundamentally Manichean and actually has laid much of the foundation for the chaos we see today. To make drink an evil is to increase its appeal as a form of adolescent rebellion. What very few of the poor souls who drink themselves into oblivion can grasp is the Catholic attitude to drink: one of the great joys of our mortal life, when taken in moderation: an important skill to be learned as part of reaching manhood.

1 comment:

Lorraine said...

You're talking garbage about Birmingham being a bastion of Protestantism and having few pubs until the 1960s - huge numbers of boozing, Catholic Irish settled in Birmingham from the mid-1800s onwards.