Alcoholic policy

BOOKS: DRINK & DRUGS: DRINK: An Informal Social History by Andrew Barr, Bantam Press pounds 16.99
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THIS splendid and original sprawl of a book is designed to place British drinking habits in their social, economic, cultural and sensual context. But not even Andrew Barr's best friends could call the result well-organised, beginning as it does with a discourse on the Muslim attitude to coffee and ending with an equally learned analysis of the use of wine in the world's religions. But in between we are treated to much fresh thinking and pyrotechnical displays of knowledge - did you know that the father of Miss Muffet was a physician who disapproved of giving children cow's milk, or that Jonas Hanway, an early opponent of tea-drinking, was the first man to carry an umbrella in London?

For, even though Barr is one of those enthusiasts who is not going to let a little thing like coherence or relevance get in his way, this book contains more thoughts, and more food for thought, than anything published on the subject since I don't know when. Barr is also a specialist in putting forward iconoclastic notions which turn out to have more than a grain of truth in them: "the development in the last century or so of traditions of matching wine and food has coincided with the development of an ethos that does not permit the taking of any pleasure in the process." True, though he is underestimating the cultural upheaval which transformed a social scene in which it was totally nie culturnie to discuss food to a world in which, only too often, it is the dominant subject .

Barr's appetite for finding an answer to every socio-alcoholic question often leads him to excess. Have adults, as he claims, really given up sucking their drinks with noisy appreciation in public because of the "sexual connotations"? It is easy for a veteran drinker to find fault with details: contrary to Barr's assertion, we do know when dry champagne became fashionable - it was with the 1874 vintage, which was good enough not to have to be smothered in sugar. Gin was not drunk only by women before the war - whole generations of chaps warded off diseases with Gin and It or pink gin. By trying to fit too many imperial gallons into a pint pot he fails to explore properly such important phenomena as the British pub in its role as social club (involving class divisions between the public bar, the saloon and the snug). And like so many middle-class British he romanticises the situation in France, where, despite a laudable freedom from licensing restrictions, virtually no cafe in the countryside is open after 8pm.

These minor caveats apart, one is free to enjoy a panorama of the changes in British drinking habits - from gin to port, to wine, to beer and back again to wine - and the underlying changes in living and eating habits. For instance, the more sedentary lives led by the Victorian middle classes encouraged a move away from heavy foods, and heavy wines like port. To many drinkers, the lighter wines barely count as alcohol at all (hence Alan Watkins' immortal observation that journalists, like the French for that matter, do not consider wine as alcoholic, quoting the expression, "I've given up drinking, I'll just have a glass of white wine") .

Barr is rightly hard on the neo-Prohibitionists who subscribe to the idiotic notion, propounded by a French statistician, Sully Lederman, that reducing the average intake of alcohol within a country reduces the danger of alcoholism. The logical conclusion of this absurdity is that Prohibition would equal the disappearance of alcoholism, when plainly the opposite is the case - the best example being the steady decline in drunkenness in Scotland after the increase in opening hours in the 1970s.

But then doctors have always swung wildly in their attitude to alcohol, constantly constructing "new theoretical models to explain the beneficial actions of alcohol in treating disease". And surely it is not only old fogeys like me who look back with nostalgia to the days, less than 40 years ago, when my wife was allotted a nourishing bottle of Guinness a day after giving birth to our first child?