Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Drinking Life

Theodore Dalrymple, the ever-depressing chronicler of the dark underbelly of British social life, bemoans the rampant drunkenness that defines much of British youth culture, and the insane lengths to which the government will go to deal with the problem without holding individuals responsible for their own behavior:

That the British are now a nation of drunken brutes, justly despised throughout the world wherever they congregate in any numbers, is so obvious a fact that it should require no repetition. A brief visit to the centre of any British town or city on a Saturday night - or indeed, almost any night - will confirm it for those who are still in doubt. There they will see scenes of charmless vulgarity, in which thousands of scantily clad, lumpen sluts scream drunkenly, and men vomit proudly in the gutters.

The Government, whose solution to any social problem is to make it worse, now proposes that the British, having conclusively proved that they cannot (or rather, will not) control themselves, should be granted even more licence to make a public nuisance of themselves whenever they feel like it, which is often. They will henceforth be able to drink in pubs and bars at all times of the day and night, 24 hours a day, instead of just most of the day and night. If there were shares in debauchery, I'd buy them now.

Of course, the Government claims to believe that, by allowing drinking establishments to open 24 hours a day, it will reduce public drunkenness. If it really believes this, it is a terrible indictment of the British nation: that it can allow itself to be led by such a collection of hopeless fools. As to the suggestion that we might develop here the kind of civilised Mediterranean café culture if only drinking outlets were open long enough, you might as well preach the comforts of the igloo and the tastiness of whale blubber to the Masai of Kenya.

I find it hard to accept Dalrymple's depiction of British life without a grain of salt. Certainly it is not as bad as he makes it out to be in all places. Based on accounts of inner city crime from America in the 1970s, many Europeans got the impression that America was awash in murder and mayhem. But I've read enough accounts of the downward slide in British manners to not accept that such behaviors are a serious problem.

Certainly the government's response to the problem is laughable, and a perfect example of a misplaced faith in the power of the carrot over the stick as a motivational force in human nature. It is as if firemen decided to pour gasoline on fires instead of water, under the impression that the fire would soon get its fill and go out voluntarily. It is the same mistaken thinking behind the "self esteem" movement in education, which posits that success can be bred into a student by praising failure.

Of course, if people were self reliant and accountable for their actions, how would government bureacrats sell their indispensability to the electorate?


Blogger Brit said...

Dalrymple only exaggerates when he says that we are a nation of drunken brutes.

We are a nation of drunks, true, and always have been, but the brutes are a minority group colloquially known as ‘townies’. These are single, unskilled or semi-skilled workers aged 18-30: the males dressed smartly in black trousers and short-sleeve shirts (never jackets – no matter how cold the weather), hair cropped and gelled; the females in micro-skirts and stilettos. They go about in gangs of ‘mates’.

A townie night invariably consists of a pub crawl in which as much cheap lager is consumed as possible, then a nightclub in which more cheap lager is consumed, then a takeaway kebab on the street, then a vomit, and perhaps a bit of ‘aggro’ in the taxi queue.

The brutes are a minority, but a large enough one to make any virtually town centre in Britain appear thoroughly inhospitable to anyone else on any Friday or Saturday night. Therein lies the problem: the majority of people don’t feel safe venturing out to a town-centre restaurant, theatre or cinema when the streets are full of drunken, shouting, puking townies staggering between pubs; and the police are tied up dealing with the continual fist-fights and vandalism.

The theory behind the proposals to introduce 24-hour drinking is that townie culture is caused by the strict licensing laws in Britain. Whereas on the continent people can sit at a waiter-served table sipping a few glasses of wine for hours, Britain’s 11pm pub watershed has produced a culture of 'necking it', where pints are downed as quickly as possible, and done so while standing up.

The 'rounds' culture also doesn’t help: rather than splitting a bill, townie social etiquette demands that everyone in a group must buy an individual drink for all of its members – and no matter how large the group, everyone must 'get a round in'.

So the theory is that if you make drinking laws like the continent’s, you’ll make British drinking like the continent’s. The other advantage would be that you’d eliminate the two flashpoint times: 11.05pm – when the pubs are emptying, and 2am, when the clubs are doing the same – resulting in masses of drunken people all pouring into the street at the same time and literally fighting over the available taxis and takeaway queues.

That’s the theory, but I can’t help but share Dalrymple’s pessimism. After all, the same townies regularly disgrace the nation on their infamous 18-30 holidays to Spain and the Balearic islands – where they can enjoy all the freedoms of liberal continental licensing laws.

Changing the licensing laws might actually help, but will only make a difference if there are simultaneous attempt to change the culture. It's difficult to think of practical measures to achieve this, but you could try:

1. banning Happy Hours and cheap cocktail offers at weekends
2. refusing planning permission for any more giant city-centre ‘super-pubs’.
3. staggering weekend pub closing times to eliminate the 11.05 brawl
4. forcing city-centre bars to have significant seating areas
5. limiting the number of drinks you can buy at one visit to the bar on weekend nights
6. banning all drinks except warm, gut-rotting real ale, soup-consistency stout and vintage port.

Making people feel accountable for their actions is even more desirable - but even harder to manage. It tends to happen naturally when townies grow up, which is why you don't see many over 30.

January 05, 2005 3:34 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I lived in England for seven years (last in 1992) and all of it in Oxfordshire, so I missed the townie end of it.

The debate hasn't changed much in the intervening time--the apparent problem of 11pm closing (long before most people are tired enough to go home of their own volition), contrasted against the same behavior where closing hours aren't an issue.

One hopes the latter is due to the habit instilled by the former.

One dreads that townies are possessed of nihilism, the cure for which is much more difficult.

January 05, 2005 1:25 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter says: BTW, seeing as you believe that religious people, on their own terms, must hold literal, eternal views on everything about life, and seeing as you have a fair knowledge of scripture and assume all is revealed in detail, you should be able to pronounce definitively whether the Catholics or the Protestants are closer to the Truth, or at least more faithful to Christian tradition.Peter, my knowledge of scripture, while it is not exhaustive, makes me believe that it cannot possibly pronounce definitely on what is Truth and what is not. As you say, there is much ambiguity, which is a problem with something that should be an authoritative guide. Too much is left to interpretation, so in the end a beilever is left to his own judgements as to what is good and what is not.

As an example, when Lot is pleading with God to spare Sodom & Gomorrah if there be but one righteous man there, God agrees to spare the cities for the sake of one virtuous man. How to interpret? Is that to be taken as a law that men, in war, should never knowingly destroy innocent lives while trying to eradicate evil, as we do when we bomb terrorist sites, with the full knowledge that some innocent bystanders will most likely be killed? Or do we take such passages to represent only what God decided to do in this one instance and not interpret any general laws for mankind?
You can interpret it either way, and most people will do so based on their own sense of what is right or wrong.

Our criticism of the religious is not that you are hypocrites or that you fall short of perfection, but that the basic premise of your criticism of the non-religious, ie that we cannot have a system of ethics that is not based on God, is flawed, because, in the end, all moral judgements, whether God based or not, are based on the personal judgements of individuals.

January 06, 2005 8:03 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Thanks for the enlightening description of townie culture. It seems to me that there is a lot more tolerance for such behavior in the UK than here in the States. We have rowdyism here as well, but there is usually a crackdown by the local authorities when it gets out of hand, certainly if it interferes with the ability of normal folks to go out in public and enjoy the night life.
In Philadelphia there was a major problem at the Eagles football games, with drunken fans running amuck in the stands. Now they have a temporary court set up in the stadium, and offenders are arrested and arraigned on the spot.
Is there some sort of "boys will be boys" looking the other way going on there by the police & courts?

January 06, 2005 8:18 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Duck -

I'm not sure that the authorities 'turn a blind eye'. More that they haven't got the resources. It's a problem that the (now ex-) Home Secretary David Blunkett was trying to fix with ever more draconian powers for the police.

I've spent time and enjoyed the nightlife in major cities all over Europe, and also Boston and Chicago in the US, and the reason for the difference in atmosphere is pretty obvious: ours is the only country (apart from Eire) in which so very many young people deliberately get blind drunk, paralytic, rat-arsed, sloshed, pissed, wasted, hammered, blotto, legless. (we have more words for it than the proverbial eskimos have for snow)

January 07, 2005 2:13 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I think that Russia would qualify for that list as well.

January 07, 2005 7:30 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Why is that? Is it connected to football hooliganism?

By other than alcohol, that is. It seems to me there must be the consequence of nihilism. But that hardly qualifies as an answer, as it begs the question as to the nihilism's source.

Are immigrant groups as prone to this?

January 08, 2005 4:01 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I don't think it's really related to hooliganism.

Hooliganism came out of social alienation, boredom and misdirected masculine tribal instincts. It didn't need alcohol to happen (though alcohol doubtless helped).

I've posted an overview of hooligan culture on Think of England.

I think townie-ism is just the the British heavy-drinking tradition plus new-found affluence of young working people.

Why the British do drink so heavily is an interesting question. I've heard various theories: a need to overcome our natural reserve; the dismal climate rendering drunkenness the only form of entertainment; the influence of the pub as the social centre of virtually all communities etc. But it's certainly a long and strong tradition. Look at everything from Dickens' brandy-soaked Pickwickians to such legendary drunks as Oliver Reed, Peter Cook, Falstaff and Friar Tuck.

January 10, 2005 7:16 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

And no - immigrant groups are definitely not prone to it - it's an exclusively white phenomenon.

January 10, 2005 7:17 AM  

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