'I was ashamed, anguished, full of fear and self-loathing'

Will access to alcohol 24/7 turn us into a nation of mature and moderate Continental-style drinkers? Or are we just incorrigible bingers? When Alex Leith moved to Spain, a round-the-clock bar nearly ruined his life
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Indy Lifestyle Online

At first I thought Papillon was a marvellous place. It was a drinking den down an alleyway in the old centre of Barcelona. It opened at 3am. To get in you had to ring on a doorbell; eventually somebody would open the big silver door to let you in. Inside there were no windows, just red-brick walls arching into a domed ceiling. There was a pool table and some tables and chairs at the back, but most people stood in the area around the bar and chatted, and drank.

It was full of eccentrics: artists, musicians and media types. Not many Catalan locals went to Papillon. I met Galicians and Argentinians, French and Germans. Most of all I met English-speaking people: Brits, Irish, South Africans, Americans. It was open every night of the week, and most nights it would get quite full.

I had been living in Barcelona for two years when I discovered the place. I had moved to Catalonia in my late thirties with a girlfriend, but she had gone, and I found a wide circle of friends to fill in the emptiness she left behind. I needed to find some stability: oddly enough Papillon fitted the bill, though I did flirt with a number of the other "afters" bars that pepper the old part of Barcelona. After a while I started getting to know the regulars. It took on the role of an institution that I missed from my own culture - the local.

Bar culture in Spain is rather different from in the UK. We have the "public house": a place where you go to spend the whole evening among friends. It is like a pay-per-living-room. It suits our dissolute lifestyle whereby children often live in different cities from their parents, where 48 per cent of adults are single.

In Spain, bars are not generally like this. Spanish people tend to stay in bars for shorter periods of time, before going home to their families or, at the weekend, on to another place. They might have a small beer or two, and a quick bite to eat. They don't get settled in, the way we do. They don't have their favourite chairs. They don't put their own tankards behind the bar. They don't generally go to places knowing that their friends will - without having arranged it beforehand - be there.

I started spending more and more time in Papillon. There's plenty to do in Barcelona, and there are plenty of people who have the time to do things with you. I went out for meals, went to the cinema and theatre, went to concerts, went drinking on the beach, went to barbecues on rooftops, watched football on the television in pubs. I lived the sort of culturally fulfilling life that one can easily afford to live in Barcelona, a perfectly sized and reasonably priced city. But a problem started developing. Wherever I went, whoever I went with, at the end of the night I felt a tug towards Papillon. The habit had formed: I felt unfulfilled if I didn't go there. Sometimes I found myself killing time before it opened. I got to know places to kill it in. I started staying in the bar longer. When the big metal door was opened to let me out, I would often be dazzled by bright sunlight. Papillon stayed open until the last customer left.

There were some warning signs that my all-night drinking habit was turning serious. One night I met some people in Papillon, stayed there all night, left at 11am, went to a day-time party with them, and didn't get home until 6pm. When I was walking home I thought it was 6am, and wondered why so many people were around so early. Another time I woke at 2pm on a park bench outside the post office. I had taken a little rest as I stumbled home. I started up an unfulfilling relationship with an unsuitable Papillon regular, which left me feeling seedy and mean.

I started asking myself what I was doing. I wasn't going to Papillon just for the chance to drink. I could have done that at home at much less expense. I was going there for the company. And I realised that most everyone in Papillon was there for a reason. They were there because, fundamentally, something was wrong with their lives. There was the girl who had to look after her disappeared sister's autistic baby with her mother; the artist who had to work as a barmaid to fund her vocation and felt the world was against her; the guy who found it difficult to talk to girls, but liked standing up against the bar in the hope that he could break the trend. Then there was the guy who had lost the love of his life and didn't want to go home to the empty flat with all its ghosts. That was me.

I moved out of my flat and into a cheaper flat-share. Work was drying up; I couldn't afford the rent any more. My Papillon bills were taking up most of my money. Two things happened in quick succession which finally made me realise that I was involved in a negative out-of-control spiral. One night I came out of a blackout standing in Papillon, with blood all over my face. I had lost half of one of my front teeth, my bag and my watch. I have no idea what happened to me or where it happened. I didn't go to Papillon for a full week after that: I was ashamed to. Another post-Papillon morning, I was woken by my flatmate at 11am on the sofa in our communal living room. I had pulled my trousers and pants down in my sleep and wet the sofa. He had visitors staying who had found me there. He asked me to leave. I didn't argue.

The next day I was ashamed and anguished, full of fear and self-loathing. I walked up and down the street, chain-smoking cigarettes, wondering what to do, crying. Twenty-four-hour drinking had taken over my life, and ruined it. Papillon wouldn't be open for another 12 hours. I booked a flight home to England. It took me a week to sort out my affairs and leave. A lot of people came to my leaving do: I had made a lot of drinking friends in Barcelona. Of course, the die-hards ended up in Papillon. I managed to catch my flight, at two in the afternoon, by a whisker.

I suppose I should have sought advice and given up drinking, but I didn't. I moved back to my home town in Sussex, where the pubs shut at 11pm. I still go to the pub quite often, but I no longer get steaming drunk every night. When the last orders bell rings - at 10 to 11! - I often feel disappointed, but I feel no urge to carry on: there's nowhere to go, after all. My drinking has become more moderate, containable.

It concerns me that the Government is granting 24-hour licences to bars and pubs that request them. From this week there will be all-night bars everywhere. I'm not so worried about yobs roaming the streets drunk all night, about people not getting to work on time, about noise in the neighbourhood. I'm more worried because I think that, like myself, Britain has a drink problem. We just love a party, we vaunt our hangovers, we applaud our sporting heroes when they go on 32-hour victory binges. We just don't know when to stop. The victims of a 24-hour drinking culture won't so much be the people who are subjected to the behaviour of the 24-hour drunks. The worst victims will be the drinkers themselves, sucked into that culture, and unable to cope with it.