Helen Rumbelow props up the bar for a night with a group of under-age d rinkers in a north London pub
D R I N K On behalf of parents everywhere I am sent to spend an evening with a group of underage drinkers to a pub in north London. As soon as I enter the door I start to feel haggard and conspicuous: at 22 my face seems lined and pallid compared to the throngs ofyoung things, buzzing with the strain of affected nonchalance. We - Nesrin, 17, Lottie, 17, Jake, 16, Sara, 15, Tom, 17, and Lucy, 17, and I - find a table in front of a pair of blondes in gold mini-kilts, holding some vodka and limes. "What a couple ofbints," Nesrin tells me. "What's a bint?" "That's a bint," says Lottie, pointing aggressively. I think we need some drinks.

Jake works the bar like an old pro, coming back with some pints and a gin and tonic. Our group agrees that the "Thunderbird phase" - when novice teenage drinkers choose a disgusting drink they will never touch in adult life - seems to have entered into our social development like a modern rite of passage. Your peers inexplicably start drinking something sickly sweet and noxious, to excess. I remember doing it with lager and blackcurrant.

"Yeah, when we were about 13 or 14 we'd all drink bottles of Thunderbird. I don't know why, probably because we knew its name and knew it would get us pissed," says Lucy. "Sometimes we'd go out in a gang to sit on Richmond Green in the summer, and we'd buy a bottle of wine, but nobody would have a bottle opener..." Lottie reminisces. "Oh yeah," finishes Nesrin, "so one girl would have to push the cork in with her stiletto." Parents were told the time-honoured "staying with a friend" excuse, and they'd allpile round to "someone with a trendy mum's house" after getting really drunk. "But I remember getting stranded at Cambridge Circus at 2am, and my dad had to drive out in his pyjamas," says Sara.

Now they go to the pub as it's a good place to meet and get out of the house - sometimes every night in the holidays - but they'll only have a few drinks. "We don't have a problem getting served as we all look quite old anyway," says Lottie. "And being tall helps." "Girls nearly always get served," says Tom, resentfully, although Lucy has been thrown out once, and when she came back in dark glasses, the landlord didn't see the funny side.

When I ask them if they think of it as breaking the law, they seem shocked. "Of course not. Everybody knows that teenagers drink in pubs. In fact, I think it's important that children should start drinking at home and with their families in pubs, and then they don't get stupid about it. I know in America the limit is 21 and they're much stricter, and I think it really backfires."

The use of alcohol can be seen as a measure of the change between this generation and the previous one. Firstly, many of the girls complain of "drink sexism". "My dad thinks that a woman drinking pints is `unfeminine', or somehow a tart," says Nesrin, "but boys our age don't give a damn - and they'll have a gin and tonic or whatever they feel like as well."

"Something else that annoys me about my parents is the drugs thing," says Sara, getting into her stride. "They think it's just great to drink themselves into oblivion, but then they"ll turn around and say that people who use dope should be locked up. They don't view alcohol as a drug - but I think it's much more harmful than a lot of things." The group agrees that exposure to other kinds of drugs makes the charms of alcohol more resistible. "It's actually quite anti-social - it makes you tired and depressed," says Lucy. "If you want to go out late, to a club, you might drink coffee or take an E, but you'd never drink. Drinking and drugs, or drinking and serious dancing just don't mix."

At this point the discussion veers off into a long, sensational story entitled "Nesrin and the waiter", then on to whether the leopard-print coat Sara bought at Camden has got mange, and the state of Jake's music mixer.

It's getting unbearably hot. Lottie pushes off through a wall of steaming bodies to get another gin and tonic, but nobody else wants anything. Nesrin isn't drinking at all because she's driving everyone to a party later. "Nobody I know ever drinks and drives. And people would stop somebody if they tried to," says Jake. "I think it is really irresponsible." Tom continues: "I think it's part of a bigger misunderstanding between us and them. My dad is always attacking the `youth of today', saying they don't care and they're not political. But what he's really saying is `you're not like me'. Everyone at the table agrees vigorously, citing causes like the Criminal Justice Bill and anti-Nazism as ones that young people care passionately about. "And when I see my dad getting in the car when he's pissed, I just think, `you don't care'."

And in that mature statement of responsibility, there's also a whiff of what teenagers have always wanted: to be different. It's a heady brew, and at 11.30pm when we spill out on to the streets, on our way to a party, we all exclaim what a relief it is to be in the cool night air.