In a glass of our own: Britain's troubled relationship with alcohol

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Sober January might be a recent invention, but binge drinking isn't.

Everyone is in a hurry to drink themselves into insensibility," observed a foreign visitor to this country. Yes, more binge drinking – except the remark was made by Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1862. "Londoners are noisy as ducks, eternally drunk," complained the poet Paul Verlaine a decade later, which was a bit rich coming from a man who was no slouch when faced with a brimming glass. We've always been prone to a tipple and at times we've been far worse that we are now. It is an affair that has provoked extremes of tragedy and hilarity. Our fondness for alcohol is linked to something that we generally praise ourselves for, the British sense of humour. We like a giggle and a gargle.

A Roman brooch decorated with the head of Silenus, woozy tutor to Bacchus, was recently found near the Old Kent Road, where local topers still take a glass at the appropriately-named World Turned Upside Down. The Celts were brewing a rough version of ale even before the Romans arrived. From the 9th century onwards, its flavour was enhanced with the bitter, floral notes of hops: the first beer. By Chaucer's time there were almost 1,400 boozing establishments serving the capital's population of around 80,000, which would explain both the appearance ("far-dronken was all pale") and unfortunate flatulence of the miller in The Canterbury Tales.

Public drunkenness became so bad that 200 London alehouses were banned in 1574. Ale came in a wide variety of flavours and strengths. Light beer, which was the main source of refreshment in an era of unsafe water, has been described as "no more intoxicating than water". Other brews were more devastating in effect. According to Peter Ackroyd's London: A Biography, beers sold in the 16th century bore such graphic names as Mad Dog, Lift Leg and Stride Wide.

The wealthy imported wine by the vat, pipe or tun. Hamlet refers to Rhenish from Germany. In Richard III, Clarence was drowned in a vat of Malmsey from Madeira. Falstaff drank "Canaries" from Lanzarote and insisted that sherry produced "excellent wit". Shakespeare utilised alcohol for comic relief in Macbeth. "Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance." The playwright seems to have patronised the Boar's Head in Eastcheap, where he set the revels of Falstaff and Prince Hal in Henry IV.

The arrival of Puritanism did little to curb the English thirst. Ackroyd quotes Henry Peacham from 1641: "Drinking begets challenges and quarrels, and occasioneth the death of many." Aside from the possibility of ending up in a 17th-century equivalent of A&E, there were other familiar consequences. "Drunken men are apt to lose their hats, cloaks, or rapiers, nor to know what they spent." In the following year, the first duty was imposed to pay for Parliamentary forces in the civil war.

It was taxation that caused Britain's worst alcoholic debauch. In order to encourage imports of gin or geneva from his native Holland, William III slapped a tax on beer and cider. He succeeded beyond his regal dreams. In 1700, we imported 500,000 gallons of Dutch courage. Having developed a taste for this sweet, juniper-laden hooch, we started distilling our own. In 1714, English distillers made two million gallons. Consumption soared from 1720 when shopkeepers were allowed to run stills without the previous burden of having soldiers billeted on them. Parliament applied licensing laws but these had scant effect when "informers risked being torn limb from limb".

In 1730, over 6.6 million gallons of gin were guzzled in London. This averaged out at around a gallon per head. Six years later, a Gin Act aimed at reducing the capital's estimated 7,000 dramshops proved singularly ineffective. By the 1740s, the number of drinking dives had risen to 17,000. Every fourth house in the notorious parish of St Giles on the edge of Covent Garden was selling gin. This area was the setting for Hogarth's shocking print Gin Lane. The central figure of a drunken woman letting her baby plummet to its death seems to be no exaggeration. One history suggests that 9,000 children a year died from gin.

Henry Fielding, author and magistrate, sounded a warning: "A new kind of drunkenness is lately sprung up among us, and which if not put a stop to, will infallibly destroy a large part of the inferior people...by this poison called gin." At last the authorities acted. In 1743, legislation was passed restricting sales to larger houses and the onus for policing customers was placed on licensed publicans. In her book Craze, Jessica Warner notes "much to almost everyone's surprise consumption actually began to fall".

Still a trickle escaped the law. Since the name of a miscreant was required before prosecution could take place, one entrepreneur got round the law by inventing a hole-in-the-wall booze supply. Two pennies through a slot got you a trickle of gin from a pipe.

The gin mania may have subsided but it didn't cease. By 1767, Londoners were sinking 3.5 million gallons a year, still around four pints per head of population. The taste for booze permeated every strata of 18th-century society. As historian Roy Porter noted, "public drunkenness was no disgrace". Samuel Johnson insisted that "a man is never happy in the present unless he is drunk". The great man maintained that "a tavern chair is the throne of human felicity," though he consumed nothing stronger than tea for his last 19 years. When a female friend egged him to "take a little wine," Johnson explained, "I can't take a little, child, and therefore I never touch it."

The hefty intake continued during the Regency period. The diarist William Hickey was found in a Westminster gutter "having no more recollection of a single circumstance that had happened in the previous 12 hours, than if I had been dead". In his satirical novel Headlong Hall (1815), Thomas Love Peacock characterised rural drinking through his amiable portrait of Squire Headlong, whose sole contributions to the philosophical conversations are, "no heel-taps!" (the residue of wine left in a glass or bottle) and "As for the skylight, Liberty Hall!" (the skylight was the gap between the wine and the cork).

As we have seen, ferocious boozing continued in the the ostensibly proper Victorian era. By 1870, there were 20,000 pubs in the metropolis including, as Ackroyd enumerates, 90 King's Arms, 70 King's Heads, 70 Crowns, 50 Queen's Heads, 25 Royal Oaks... A proposed tax on beer and liquor in 1885 was so badly received that it sank the Gladstone government.

Despite the introduction of licensing hours in the First World War and the imposition of ferocious levels of taxation on alcohol by successive chancellors, the British retained their taste for drink in the 20th century. For much of this period, alcoholic intoxication was found hilarious in Britain. Our greatest modern humourist PG Wodehouse repeatedly used drink for comic effect: "He tottered blindly towards the bar like a camel making for an oasis after a hard day at the office." In the 1953 Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt, Stanley Holloway played a millionaire whose sole aim was to be constantly drunk. The acts of comedians Freddie Frinton and Al Read relied heavily on the "hilarity" of drunks.

If we now know the very real dangers of alcohol, it doesn't mean that we have lost our taste for the stuff. History teaches us that Britain has a blotting-paper tongue where drink is concerned. Taxation does little to curb our thirst, especially when targeted at groups with disposable income. Jessica Warner points out that penalties on drink or drugs regarded as "harsh or unfair" can rebound: "The substance can become something more than itself, emerging as a symbol of a counterculture or political protest... It is virtually impossible to attack [alcohol and other drugs] without attacking the larger culture in which they are consumed."

If we can't stop people drinking, what can we do? Though it runs counter to another health policy, we might encourage eating. No one seems to mention it, but the ingestion of food reduces the potency of alcohol. This is one reason why Tony Blair's café culture failed to take root in British high streets. When the French drink, they always have something to mop it up. A meal or even a sandwich helps to mitigate the Jekyll and Hyde transformation wrought by alcohol. However, if you take enough drink, no amount of food will save you from becoming a stranger to sense and restraint. In the end, there is no beating the motto that for many decades hung in Yates's Wine Lodge: "Moderation is true temperance."

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