Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Binge drinking Britain: a history

Hysteria about 24-hour drinking everywhere at the moment. (Strange I must have missed the decree that we had to drink for 24 hours. Much as I haven’t yet found anywhere that actually does serve alcohol round the clock).

What we are talking about is really just a slightly more relaxed attitude to bar opening times (as opposed to the draconian restrictions put into place in the First World War to keep munitions workers sober and in the factory). It’s said that the liberalisation brings us into line with the rest of Europe – although I haven’t yet found anywhere where we can get a breakfast beer, as you can in Germany and the Netherlands.

The disapproving hysteria about the new laws opening the floodgates to binge drinking is just sanctimonious bollocks.

Maybe it’s the climate, something genetic or our cultural history but, for better or worse the British are, and always have been, a nation (or nations) of drinkers.

The Romans exploited the fact that the Ancient Britons would pretty much sell their own grannies for an amphora of Mediterranean wine and used it as a tool of colonial oppression, much as Europeans did to Native Americans.

For the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, social life centred on the mead-hall. The ability to hold your drink was one of the warrior virtues. It was even embodied in religion – an average day in Valhalla consisted of fighting all day, being revived by the Valkeyires and then embarking on an all night orgy and piss up in the mead-hall.

In the middle ages, the yeoman English longbowmen were feared throughout Europe not just for their prowess as mercenary archers that threatened to destabilise the knightly class, but also for their propensity for drunkenness, looting and brawling.

In the eighteenth century, as the working class took to the urban centres, binge drinking reached an epidemic much as heroin has blighted many inner city estates today. Hogarth exposed and satirised it as ‘gin alley’.

Poe-faced Victorian middle class reformers used alcohol as the dividing line between the deserving and un-deserving poor, seeing it as the curse of the working class and led ‘temperance’ crusades.

And that is exactly the point of the current hysteria, behind the sanctimony there is a common thread of the ruling and middle class disapproving of the antics of their inferiors:

Yes ‘binge drinking’ can fuck up both individual lives and city centres. Yes we should have a more mature attitude to alcohol – and develop better tastes than chemically lagers and alco-pops.

But the fact remains that if you knock back eight pints of Stella in Middlesbrough you are a disgraceful yob - have a couple of bottles of Pinot Grigiot at a dinner party in Islington and you’re just being bohemian.

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