Drowning in facts (and lager)

Drink: An Informal Social History by Andrew Barr Bantam, pounds 16.99 Pete Davies knocks back an alcoholic treatise
God, but we're an awful lot - a nation of sots, gulls, prudes, philistines and hypochondriacs. In Drink: An Informal Social History by Andrew Barr, even the chapter on "The Civilisation of British Taste" ends with us swimming in a sea of lager and Liebfraumilch. But if Barr means at least in part to annoy us - and the rather self-regarding conclusion of his preface suggests that he does - there is little here that is really wildly contentious.

It's not news that French wine isn't always as good as it thinks it is, or that British pub design is largely execrable, or that government policy now and always has been a mix of prejudice, self-interest, and incompetence. Perhaps, if Barr had followed his generally sensible observations on the futility of attempting to ban or control our private pleasures to their logical conclusion - never mind the licensing laws being absurd, let's legalise every other drug too - he might have put a few more backs up. But he doesn't go that far. So he'll upset the Americans, about whom he's snobbishly rude (no cultural heritage, have they?) and he'll certainly upset the health lobby, because he skates pretty lightly over the more injurious effects of alcohol in contemporary society. But the general reader will not otherwise find much to disagree with.

That does depend, of course, on how far the general reader gets. Drink is compendiously knowledgeable and sporadically enjoyable, but it's also rambling and ill-arranged. A chapter entitled "For All The Tea in China", for example, covers not only tea but also the gin age, taxation policy in the Single Market, smuggling, coffee, chicory, cider and an incomplete history of South African and Antipodean wines. One result of this grab- bag method is repetition; the gin age, the rise and fall of milk and coffee bars, or the fact that the English drank oceans of port in the 18th century, are all covered at least twice.

The recent model for this kind of book - taking a subject, and building a discursive social history around it - is Bill Bryson's Made In America. That book has its longueurs too, but is saved by Bryson's zest and his fascination with character. Though Barr's subject is drink instead of language, his tone is altogether more dry. Early on we meet the Regency sportsman John Mytton who, after drinking six bottles of port a day for a dozen years, died at the age of 37; a man who once tried to "frighten away" an attack of the hiccoughs by setting fire to his nightshirt. In later pages, one cries out for a few more such sodden eccentrics to lend spice to the heavy freight of facts - but they don't arrive. Nor would Bryson have allowed one Jacob Schweppe, making soda water in Geneva 200 years ago, to pass by in one sentence; he would have told us at least a little bit about him.

Barr is more diligent, and has some of his better moments, when he's debunking the marketeers - from the myth of the blind monk Dom Perignon, to the spurious claims of "canned draught" - or taking a sly dig at our fads. The absurdities of the mineral water business get a firm working over; as for decaf, if you're worried it'll give you cancer, stop worrying, because to get through the quantities of carcinogen that did for the lab mice, you'd need to be on 20 million cups a day.

Diligence, however, has its downside. The story of the temperance movement last century is told mostly through an exhaustive account of the relevant legislation - and in a social history, wouldn't it have been better to go to a meeting or two, to find out a little more about the people who attended them? Barr can be vivid enough when he wants to be, whether bemoaning the timidity of our taste, or portraying London in the first half of the 18th century: the effects of crack today simply pale beside the horrors of the gin epidemic then. But too often his matter hasn't been distilled to the same potency as the gin, and we're left floundering in a morass of detail about excise duty, or per capita milk consumption.

This is a shame, because plainly Barr knows and loves his wine; he ends by mythologising it (not a product of man, but a natural phenomenon) with as much vigour as he brings to the derision of other myths. So perhaps, if he'd stuck to the wine instead of watering it down with all the other stuff, we'd have got a better book.

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