Britain's battle with the bottle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 September, 2007, 12:00am

Here's a question: if the eskimos have many words for 'snow', so much is their world dominated by the white stuff, how many phrases would the British have for getting drunk on the 'hard stuff'?

The answer? Hundreds, probably. After all, they have liked getting drunk for centuries; licensing laws from the first world war, with shortened hours to stop armaments workers crying off work with hangovers have only just been reversed, and part of the unpopularity of Britain in the puritanical American colonies was its drunken 'redcoats' (if you ever ventured into a Wan Chai pub where the Black Watch were drinking you would sympathise). Hogarth's fabled print of the depravities of Gin Lane, depicting all manner of public drunkenness and lewd London behaviour, was etched in 1751.

Mark Hastings, spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association, says there is even a theory that King Harold II lost the Battle of Hastings in 1066 because his army drank too much mead the night before while the Normans gently sipped claret with their beef bourgignon.

When it comes to drinking to get drunk, the British have form. This is borne out in the plentiful idioms and euphemisms. Linguists may note, however, that such phrases are more numerous and harder in tone, reflecting the changing nature of British drunkenness, not just at home but abroad - be it the stag party capitals of northern Europe or Mediterranean beach resorts.

The older generation understated insobriety, using 'jolly', 'squiffy' or 'merry' to denote intoxication. If they were 'three sheets to the wind' they might admit being 'well oiled' or 'toes up'. Getting drunk when young was a rite of passage. but you didn't brag. Getting stupidly drunk was taboo.

No longer. Some younger Britons still couch their antics with understatement, saying they had been over-refreshed, tired and emotional, full of loudmouth soap, or 'jober as a sudge', but most are less circumspect. They boast of getting 'ratted', 'trolleyed', 'mullered', 'banjoed' (as if hit by the instrument), 'spanked' or 'plastered'.

Britons in their teens, 20s and 30s, celebrate the act of getting drunk, visibly and frequently.

There are TV shows revelling in it - and demonising it. The social taboos have gone.

As a result, weekends, in provincial city centres become virtual no-go areas for sober adults - full to bursting with badly behaved, brawling, bloodied boys and girls in heels and short skirts, bawling into their clutch bags or being sick in the gutter. Midweek drinking, once frowned upon, is rife - more urban singles and childless couples have the time. And not everyone works nine-to-five any more.

So-called 'binge drinking' has had the government clambering of late to ease the growing despair and anger over a litany of alcohol-fuelled disorder, deaths, and worrying statistics: of more liver damage, more alcohol-related illness, and children as young as 12 and 13 bingeing.

Peter Fahy, chief constable of Cheshire in northwest England, has called for the drinking age to be raised to 21. Unthinkable, many replied. Besides, 14-year-olds drink now.

British youth always drank to get drunk, says Dick Hobbs, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, but this phenomenon is worse because it is done by younger people, is concentrated in city centres and is visible, not hidden in pubs. He blames governments for pandering to the drinks industry and promoting urban regeneration through a nighttime economy that creates ill-policed clusters of city centre bars, teeming with young people plied with cheap drink.

'The rise in alcohol consumption started under [former British prime minister] Margaret Thatcher. The old city centres were in decline, and the alcohol industry stepped in to revitalise them.

'Various policies helped this: it was easier to get late licences, the breweries' monopoly on pub ownership was broken up and a spirit of entrepreneurship was put on [local] councils to create jobs and wealth. The easiest route to success was creating a vibrant nightlife.'

Manchester led the way, he said. 'It now has drinking space for 250,000 on any weekend night.' The result? Carnage.

Pubs and clubs clustered together, with police and council collaboration, for maximum sales and became a pantheon to drinking. Tony Blair's Labour government kept these policies going and even speeded them up. 'Remember the infamous text message to young voters promising the liberalisation of licensing laws?' asks Professor Hobbs. 'Labour promised an all-night cappuccino society. It failed spectacularly.'

The Blairite vision of people sipping coffee at 3am in a northern post-industrial town hasn't happened. 'Alcohol-related disorder has gone through the roof, as have alcohol-related health problems,' says Professor Hobbs.

He says the young have been demonised, with Labour scapegoating the individual for its own failed social planning. 'It has blamed the consumer - labelled them binge drinkers - but not looked at the context of why this is happening. It's very convenient. The term 'binge drinker' is a misnomer, just a new term for what 15 years ago was a 'lager lout', but which in my book in the 1960s and 1970s was just drunk and disorderly.'

The problem is the nighttime economic formula, not the British youngster, says Professor Hobbs. 'There's no problem in London, where the nighttime economy is mixed, with theatres, restaurants, cinemas, shops. The provincial cities have targeted the under 25s, those most prone to violence and disorder and plonked them drinking all together. Only now are people thinking, 'Hang on, this can't be right'.'

Professor Hobbs says you don't see this carnage in foreign cities, where bars are spread out and young people are not being plied with slickly marketed and cheap shooters, alcopops and cocktails.

Then again, most of Europe didn't have such a mass rave culture, one in which teens went out and took Ecstasy in such numbers that the drinks industry sought ways to lure them back. Kevin Brain, at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, says the brewers promoted new, stronger drinks, such as strong lagers, shooters and ready-mix spirits to give youngsters the instant hits they craved, and made pubs like clubs.

Cost used to put youngsters off drinking. Now drink is at a historically low price, says Professor Hobbs.

Is alcohol too cheap? 'Not if you look at the reaction to small rises in beer prices at our pubs. Prices are rising above inflation,' says Mr Hastings. He also claims alcohol is cheaper in France, without the social problems. But he does blame supermarkets, which he claims sell 60 per cent of all alcohol in Britain, often as loss-leading promotions.

The Campaign for Real Ale is also worried about supermarkets. 'One of the major problems with binge drinking is nothing to do with pubs,' a spokesman says. 'It is the supermarkets selling it at a loss, with two-for-one deals, often on premium lagers. You can buy a pint for 57p (HK$9).'

Professor Hobbs concurs. 'Some blame growing affluence, but alcohol is so cheap anyway; you can buy a 2-litre bottle of cider for GBP1. The supermarkets aren't the problem, but they don't help.'

'Licensing laws are not the problem,' says Mr Hastings. 'Far from drinking more, we are drinking less. We are 11th in Europe in consumption. We are drinking 25 per cent less than we did in 1900.'

The British indeed drink less per head than some of their European neighbours but the problem is those drinking it and how. For instance, 80 per cent of alcohol Italians and French drink is with meals. Only half the alcohol Britons imbibe is with food. More adults may be becoming more European, but younger Britons are not. Why?

'The problem is youngsters are not taking their first drink in a traditional pub, one once full of various ages and social constraints,' says Professor Hobbs. 'Their first drink, the experimentation, is with a pub full of other like-minded 17- and 18-year-olds, in large, open-spaced, standing-room-only venues aimed solely at that age group.'

So how do we stop this? Planning restraints, says Professor Hobbs. 'Don't let venues be grouped together, make it harder to get a licence, make venues smaller. Emergency services need more resources, and stronger policing.

'And raise the price of alcohol - the price at the moment is at an all-time low.'

An Academy of Medical Sciences report advised recently that taxes be returned to 1970 levels, when drink prices were much higher in relation to disposable income. The cheapest bottle of wine should double to GBP8, a pint to GBP5 and a bottle of scotch to GBP20. But pricing drink out of people's reach won't stop disorder until the British change their passion for drinking to get drunk.

'Plainly speaking, no one really knows why the Brits drink to get drunk,' says Rachel Seabrook at the Institute of Alcohol Studies. 'Nor are they likely to find out. And we should be careful here - saying we drink more than Europe is wrong. Northern Europeans such as Danes, Swedes and Norwegians all drink a lot, with similar drinking habits.'

Says Professor Hobbs: 'Britain, I guess, has been a pretty buttoned up society for a long time. We industrialised first, way ahead of Europe, and the regulations and rules of that industrial society led people to see alcohol, and getting drunk, as an escape from their lives. We've lionised the celebrities, writers, singers who have broken away from those rules. Alcohol has become celebrated.'

The last time Britons were deemed to have a serious drinking problem, says Dr Seabrook, was gin consumption in Hogarth's times. Brightly lit, chandeliered gin palaces prompted an explosion in alcoholism and bad behaviour, all fuelled by a government subsidy to prop up grain prices. Some see echoes now - a drinks industry not subsidised, but indulged.

Overindulgement. Now that's a real understatement for getting plastered.