Are we now more civilised, Euro-style tipplers - or not? Alex Spillius reports
THE ENGLAND cricket captain, Michael Atherton, may have felt he was simply expressing relief after the victory over Australia last week, but he also revealed much about the British manner of drinking. "I'll remember it for a long, long time," he said of the win, not the night ahead. "I'm going to get pissed tonight. Tomorrow we're visiting a vineyard, so I'll probably get pissed again." It's the thing to do when you win one Test match a year.

Should Atherton ever have cause to celebrate on a British Sunday afternoon, he will shortly be able to do so. John Major recently announced that "as soon as we can", pubs will be allowed to open all afternoon on the day of rest. No longer will late lunchers, walkers and bemused tourists have their afternoons concertina'd by the last orders bell at 2.50pm.

The quantity of legislation still in place in Britain concerning alcohol shows how hesitant we are about its role and the places in which we drink it. Underpinning recent reforms has been an assumption we no longer need to be nannied, as our social habits become more "Continental" - we drink less, eat out more and like to take our children with us. Instead of a pint of best and an ashtray full of fag-ends, we prefer a bottle of Shiraz with a dish of herb olives alongside. But how strong is the real evidence that our attitudes to liquor are changing?

In business, booze is no longer seen as fuel for a good afternoon's work. Increased competitiveness, greater prominence of women and health concerns have played a part. The young appear to be drinking slightly less and are less keen on pubs. Research by Gallup last year found 58 per cent of those aged 16 to 24 preferred soft drinks.

At The Wells pub in Ascot, the sort of establishment the drink industry is keen to promote, offering food, coffee and a large family room, four 22-year-olds sat drinking last Sunday lunch time. The women, Emma and Sarah, were both driving and so on soft drinks, underlining another trend, the stigma against drink-driving. The men, Michael and Spencer, got through three or four pints.

"There are moral arguments against drinking all day Sunday, but I am not that moralistic," pronounced Michael. "Everyone has a right to stop drinking when they want." All agreed. Emma said: "I drank an awful lot at university - but now it's just gin and tonic or a couple of glasses of wine. It's a bit sad really." That last comment speaks of alcohol as an initiation, an ice- breaker for adult life. After the glorious swill of hard-drinking early days, subsequent fun will never compare.

There was a flurry of publicity last year about the rave culture taking youngsters away from pubs. Their first great indulgence would be Ecstasy (which does not combine with alcohol), not a bottle of Liebfraumilch and two pints of cider. Richard Woods, of the social trends analysts the Henley Centre, commented at the time: "In the past, drinking was a rite of passage, but this doesn't seem to be the case any more."

However, that may well be a premature judgement. There are certainly some youngsters for whom this is true, but there is nothing to suggest the week after their first E they didn't get slaughtered down their local.

For all the "Continental" developments in our drinking culture, there is little to indicate yet a fundamental shift in our approach to booze. When we're young, many of us still drink to reach oblivion, as was clear at the bar of the University of London last week.

Robert Watts, a 22-year-old information technology student, was tucking into one of the 40 or so pints he drinks every week."I do drink more than most but I'm not that unusual. It's all there is to do here, and it is thought a bit odd if you don't drink.As a lot of students drink more, it gives them a sense of freedom," he said. When I asked for a mineral water the barmaid told me "it was immoral not to drink". Tres European.

Down the road in Soho Square is a bar called The Edge that someone like Robert probably wouldn't enjoy. There is no draught beer for a start. And the walls are orange and the chairs appear uncomfortable. There is however, plenty of room at the bar. A manwith cropped receding hair, big glasses and fur-collared puffa jacket orders a mineral water and a bottle of lager. He calls to a friend: "Martin, oh dear, there's no more Rolling Rock, what'll you have?"

The Edge is typical of the way bars are perceived to be going, having responded to criticism and market pressure against pubs being too male, boozy, smoky and drably decorated, with only sticky soft drinks on offer to non-drinkers. But interesting departure though these smart bars are, a few hip joints in Soho and Manchester do not make a national transformation. The pub industry likes to emphasise the amount of food and soft drinks it sells, and the rising number of women in pubs (about a third of all customers). But when all is said and done, they are still places to drink in, and to drink in volume. Soft drinks account for only 8 per cent of sales, and beer for 60 per cent.

And if the number of women in pubs is rising, they are not there just to watch men drinking - in the past 10 years, death from alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver has risen by 40 per cent among women and only 6 per cent for men. About 450,000 women drink three times the recommended weekly limit of 14 units of alcohol (the equivalent for men is 21.) A visit to any rugby club, Army mess or British bar on Crete is sufficient to deduce that drinking remains a cult of quaffing for many British men. And while they may ease up with age, booze is retained as a significant bond.

At a pub serving the Downshire golf course in Berkshire last week, the middle-aged, blue-collar clientele saw it as a place to hide from women and children. "I did used to drink a bit as a youngster but you've got to slow down, haven't you? Here it's a bit older and you tend to get sensible drinking," said one fortysomething man, who none-theless struggled through two or three pints of a lunchtime. "I wouldn't drink and drive, but I would have a few years ago," he added, though it wasn't clear how he orany of the other 20 or so punters surrounded by pint glasses were going home without the Fords and Vauxhalls in the car park.

Our problem as a nation is more how we drink than how much. Per capita, Britons in 1993 drank the equivalent of 7.3 litres of pure alcohol - a similar level to those of the past 10 years - 23rd in a world league of consumption topped by Luxembourg, with 12.5 litres. France, in second place with 11.5, has the worse incidence of cirrhosis, but not the British reputation for drunkenness and disorderliness. The French almost always drink with food. We often drink without it, and when we do, we often drink to excess, certainly when young.

It is a pattern academics call "periodic intoxication", resulting in a slight increase over the years in alcohol-related offences. Eric Appleby, director of Alcohol Concern, comments: "We have a drink culture which is far too much about binge drinking, and though our overall consumption is low, we have more problems in social terms. It doesn't matter to you if I drink myself to death by cirrhosis, but it does if I get drunk and put a brick through your car window.''

Peter Marsh, director of MCM Research, which specialises in the drinks industry, comments: "Latin countries have macho traditions, but drinking has never come into it; in fact, getting drunk detracts from that. It is true that complete drunkenness is institutionalised here in many places. That's the problem we have to disentangle - warning people off from expressing masculinity through that process."

Marsh hopes longer licensing hours will civilise our drinking. The next stage in the process after Sunday reform would be allowing pubs to open until midnight or 1am. Marsh argues that traditional hours have created a Saturday night scenario that begs for trouble: the pubs shut quickly and many leave them drunk, hungry or seeking transport. But the restaurants are closing and the buses and taxis few.

The Scottish experiment introduced in the mid-1980s, permitting some pubs to open until 2am, suggests change will be slow, as alcohol-related crime and alcoholism are only slightly below pre-reform days. At least Scots now have the freedom to choose whenthey get plastered.

Perhaps a big shift to a Mediterranean style of drinking is expecting too much. Perhaps the cliche of the reserved English requiring a couple of drinks to loosen up still rings true - certainly at our most festive times, Christmas and New Year's Eve, notdrinking is an oddity.

Drink is our chief means of celebration, intoxication and libido liberation. Our lexicon of drink phraseology matches its infusion in our culture - Italians don't even have an equivalent phrase for "meet for a drink". What's more, we find drinking and drunkenness funny.

Other Northern Europeans drink in a similar manner, as do other predominantly Anglo-Saxon nationalities. At least more liberal hours would give us the opportunity to civilise ourselves and perhaps over the years dilute the bigger problem, which is the common view of alcohol as a vice - something to consume away from children, an escape from reality, or part of a triumvirate (with sex and drugs) that releases us from the parental manacles.

As Eric Appleby says: "In terms of attitude there is still a long way to go."