Focus: Time, Britain Please...

It's last orders for drinking as we know it. The Government hopes that relaxing the licensing laws will replace closing time mayhem with a sensible café culture. That's just naive nonsense, says the sociable Jonathan Rendall - the binges will merely last longer. But 24-hour drinking is already here, if you know who to ask and where to go. We sent our man with a big thirst out on the town in London for a taste of things to come
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The Independent Online

At the end of my street in a provincial town is a busy corner shop and off-licence. Each day at about 10am, when I get my paper, it is most unusual if there is not someone in the queue holding a bottle of cheap, high-strength cider. It is as likely to be a woman as a man. Carbon White, it's called. You get two litres for under £2. I have not tried it, but have little doubt that one bottle could put me out. This morning, as I left the shop, a man in his thirties held the door open for me. Not only did he have a bottle of Carbon White but two black eyes as well. Admittedly, that doesn't happen every day.

At the end of my street in a provincial town is a busy corner shop and off-licence. Each day at about 10am, when I get my paper, it is most unusual if there is not someone in the queue holding a bottle of cheap, high-strength cider. It is as likely to be a woman as a man. Carbon White, it's called. You get two litres for under £2. I have not tried it, but have little doubt that one bottle could put me out. This morning, as I left the shop, a man in his thirties held the door open for me. Not only did he have a bottle of Carbon White but two black eyes as well. Admittedly, that doesn't happen every day.

I know it is not only this town because, for a few weeks earlier this year, I stayed in another town and it was the same story: men with cans and bottles walking the streets in the mornings, some of them young, all of them haggard. These were not ghettoes or sink estates, but residential streets. Ten years ago I don't think these men would have been there. I don't know what events have brought them to these states. Divorce and lost children in many cases, I would imagine.

Next door to my corner shop is a Ladbrokes. I go in there sometimes, though I don't linger. All the regulars are drinkers. They spend their days flitting between the betting shop, the pub and the corner shop. Having observed them, I would say that at least half, and probably all, are on benefits. I have no doubt that if they knew I was one of those who was paying tax to fund their daily splurges they would regard me as a mug.

So that is the cynical reality of modern England, and one side of the drinking coin. But there is another, and it is alarming. All my adult life I have indulged in two sporting pleasures: horse-racing and cricket Test matches. Both have become threatened by the new drink culture, generally in the form of groups of young men (and sometimes women). Racing attendances are soaring, but it is not the racing itself that has attracted these new people, but the drinking. Flat racing during the football close-season has become synonymous with all-day drinking. Drink-fuelled brawls and near-brawls have become common, women are leered at, and there have even been murders.

With cricket, getting an expensive seat has become imperative. In the cheap seats you have to get up every 10 seconds to let another one past with a tray of lagers. You sit there thinking: "I'd better enjoy the morning session, because after lunch this lot are going to be blathered." A few years ago I went to the England v West Indies Test at the Oval, and on the TV highlights later the commentator remarked on the acclaim Mike Atherton had received for reaching his century. That was not true. It was a drunken Mexican wave that had been going on for many minutes beforehand, that so drowned out the cricket that one England player, Dominic Cork, felt compelled to remonstrate with the spectators. They were oblivious to him.

When Ian Dury wrote his song "Blockheads" - with the lines "You must have seen parties of blockheads/With blotched and lagered skin" - it was a picaresque take on the East End/Essex hinterlands. Twenty-five years on, their condition is normal and widespread. We are paying the price for making blockhead culture aspirational. I am not some pious bishop, but someone who likes an occasional drink. But evidence suggests that the English don't know how to imbibe. I say "English" because I have worked in a Scottish bar where the customers, even if you were scooping them off the floor and sending them home, remained impeccably polite. And at the Cheltenham horse-racing festival I once drank at a hotel bar populated by Irish vets, who were so drunk it was unbelievable. They remained, without exception, solicitous. One of them, falling into unconsciousness, handed me his room key, saying: "You might as well have it. I don't think I'll be needing it."

In my experience, customers do not stack up drinks before closing time, though I can remember a time when they used to. They've usually got more at home. From what I've seen, 24-hour public drinking will just mean more public disturbances later in the night. Meanwhile Tony Blair, a man who looks like he could use a drink, will pursue his policy, and Charles Kennedy will get pilloried for allegedly abusing alcohol when he looks so white and fraught that it's clear he hasn't had one for at least a month. Maybe he should. And the irony is that the White House is steeped in alcohol, if only in the religious denial of it. Does anyone remember that President Bush was an alcoholic until the age of 40? That is not so long ago. I have known several alcoholics, and though the removal of alcohol preserved their health, it did not remove the compulsions. I know one, a former beer drinker, who drinks 40 bottles of apple crush a week from his old tankard.

There is no stopping the Utopians, who do not admit to their tangled motivations. Theirs is a form of wishful brain-washing: "Since we have gone Evian, you must have too. There is no difference between what we think and what you do." The problem is there is a big difference between Evian and Carbon White.

The John Baird, Muswell Hill, London

Tom waits for a pint of John Smith's

Tom, a small man in faded denim jacket who looks a fair bit older than the 43 years he claims to be, stands patiently outside the pub waiting for the doors to open. "It's not a place I've been to before," he says. "But I could just do with a drink right now, you know what I mean?" Inside, the barman, 18-year-old Terri Sadler, above, is making some last-minute adjustments to the bar: "The trays are polished. Well, they're wiped. The ashtrays are out." As he opens the doors a handful of regulars, plus Tom, shuffle in. It's a traditional pub, from the red-patterned carpet and the dartboard on the wall to the selection of bitters and the collecting box for a local cerebral palsy charity. "I come in about 10.30," says Terri. "I put the taps on, check the lemons are cut, and the ice buckets full. I make sure the bar is packed with crisps and booze. It's quiet at this time. About lunchtime it starts getting busy. We serve food then, so there's quite a few people in. It's mainly regulars in the morning. Sometimes there's one or two people you don't recognise. There's not usually that many people queuing up at 11 o'clock. Maybe a couple."

Davy's Wine Bar, Canary Wharf

Ian, 39, and Heena, 44, both in financial services, lose count of the wine bottles

As lunchtime extends, the wine bars in Canary Wharf start to empty, leaving a hard core of drinkers preparing for the long stretch into the afternoon. "I have absolutely no idea how much we've drunk," says Ian. When they sat down for lunch at 12.30 there were 15 of them. Now, as 3 o'clock becomes 3.30 there are just four. "We maybe do this once every two weeks," he says. "But it's purely celebratory today - we're at the end of a big project. It's an occasional thing, not a habit." His colleague, Heena, chips in: "We're mature, responsible people and the wine assists in the celebration. Anyway," she adds, "work is about quality not quantity. You can be sitting at your desk from nine till five and not deliver. Lunches like this help." Ian surveys the debris across the table. "We've had maybe six bottles between us. Three red, three white." I count seven. "About 10, maybe," concedes Ian.

Lloyds Bar, Charing Cross Road

Ali Taylor and Luke Heeley, above, both 26, and Steve Pinches, 25. Suited, booted and drinking pints of lager

Neither the plasma screens blaring out the latest Britney video or the pink walls with purple up-lighting are putting them off their post-work pints. The bell for last orders dampens spirits slightly though. Says Ali: "I watched The Heaven and Earth Show on television the other day and they were talking about licensing laws and whether it would lead to the breakdown of society because everyone would be pissed. But being drunk is fun." Luke agrees: "Everyone steams the drink down for 11 o'clock. People would be much less intent on drinking itself and more on socialising if the licensing laws were relaxed." Finishing off the rest of his pint as the bouncers start to move people out, Ali, a playwright, adds: "When the law changes people will go mad and drink themselves stupid. But after that they'll adapt to the new laws and adjust to a more continental style of drinking. We'll still drink heavily though. How many people rely on booze to get girlfriends and boyfriends? We're so repressed."

The Lab, and 3 Degrees, Old Compton Street

Hamish Niven, property developer, and Roz Angell, secretary, drink cocktails. Michael drinks pints

For some, midnight is just about as late as it gets. "I've got to get the last train home at midnight," says Roz, 20. "If they're going to change the licensing laws both the Tube and bus system need to change, too. It's about 40 quid for me to get home by cab, which is just not acceptable. They can't do one without doing the other." Hamish agrees with her: "The night buses are really crap." Over in 3 Degrees, a bar nearby, a friendly and very chatty Irishman called Michael is set on making his flight home at 6.30am. "I was only supposed to come over for the weekend, and now it's Thursday. But I've got to get home today. I can't miss another flight. I don't really know why I'm still here, to be honest. I guess it's just good British hospitality. Oh yeah, and the drink." Pint of lager in hand, he careers back to the dance floor.

Bar Thirteen, Gerrard Street, Soho

Bedraggled suits drink wine and shorts

In the heart of Soho the night is young. Plenty of establishments are open until three, and we know a place to drink at six in the morning, but the three-hour period in between looks like being dry - until we come by Bar Thirteen. A bouncer with slicked-back hair (not pictured) says the place is open until five, and we can photograph the licence if we want. We try, until he says he won't let us in if we do. That will turn out to be the first clue that he is, shall we say, unpredictable. The licensee, Sheree Jones, leads us up some dingy stairs into a small bar inhabited by wasters and City boys who've got a bit lost. Our burly new friend pulls me back: "I said I wanted to search your bag." Except he didn't. That is the second clue. After the search, Ms Jones sits me down for a chat while the photographer takes pictures. "Between three and five we take more money than any other time," she boasts . "No one's got anywhere to go so they've got to come here. We charge them a tenner and we clean up. You have solicitors and barristers - it's not rough people, it's those who've got money. At this moment in time we've got an edge. If everyone can open 'til five we've got no edge." And it's at this moment in time that the photographer goes missing, surrounded by the bouncer and his chums. It appears he has decided we are not allowed to take photos after all. He insists he never let us in in the first place. The snapper has disappeared. Five minutes later she is "freed" from a back room under strict instructions never to darken their door again. We don't argue.

Thirst, Greek Street; and AKA, West Central Street, Soho

Miodrag Dragic, Croatian doorman, right, drinks nothing. Amy Dorn, soft porn director, on the bubbly

Outside Thirst, Miodrag the bouncer (far friendlier than his counterpart down the road) is explaining his philosophy in heavily accented, broken English: "Trying deal with people is sometimes hard, but I'm very friendly with customers. I try and avoid trouble - always do it with a smile on my face. I'm quite happy - I speak with people and make jokes. It's very nice place here, easy place to do bouncing job, you know? They want professional door staff - I used to do bouncing in Croatia - long time, I started when I was young for teenagers' clubs." While his wife works during the day, Miodrag takes care of his 20-month-old son, Ronin. "His name like the movie. Robert De Niro, yes?" The character De Niro plays in that film is a killer. I decide not to mention the fact. Over in AKA, soft-porn director Amy is swigging a glass of champagne bought for her by the chap sat on her left. "I'm only sitting with these guys because they've been trying it on, buying us champagne," she whispers. "I can't remember the last time I actually bought a drink." What has she drunk tonight? "Vodka. Whisky. I don't normally drink beer, but I had a couple of bottles. Champagne, obviously, couple of sambucas. Jameson's and ginger ale - that's the drink de joo- uer." The list goes on. "I go out every night. I'm nocturnal. I like dancing - I'm always dancing." At which point she gets up and does just that.

Pizzeria, near Bond Street

Couples linger by candlelight. Reporter and photographer drink wine, and try to stay awake

"There's a place, Bond Street, around there," says the barman at AKA. "I think you just knock." As vague as the directions are it turns out he's right. The neon signs at a small pizzeria are still switched on. We knock on the door, smile, and a tall guy in his mid-twenties opens up and gestures us inside. At the back of the restaurant most of the tables are taken with couples or groups of friends enjoying a glass of wine or bottle of beer over a pizza. The back is lit only by candlelight and from the road outside no one can be seen. No customer need ask whether the pizzeria is supposed to be serving now or not. The lack of lights, the empty front half of the restaurant and the locked door prove it's not. Fed, and not too badly out of pocket, we leave for our final destination.

The Cock Tavern, Smithfield meat market

Dean Kaye drinks cider. Michael the Irishman (see midnight) still on the lager

Dawn. As if the light isn't enough of a shock for the body clock, Smithfield market is disturbingly busy. Everywhere you turn, men in white coats splattered in the blood of dead animals stride purposefully from van to market stall, and back again. Deep inside the market, the Cock Tavern is opening up. As I chat to a trader called Ronnie, who's supping his first pint of the day, we are interrupted by an Irish bloke who is supposed to be on a flight home in 15 minutes. "Yeah, I don't think I'm gonna make that flight," says Michael. "We didn't want the night to end. I need to go back to Ireland but I'm having such a laugh." His energy has been sustained by something stronger than lager. Cocaine. His companion, Samantha, from south London, has been with him all night. "I'm still out now because I love life," she slurs. The end of the night is nigh for Michael and Samantha, but others are just getting started. Dean Kaye, a 43-year-old painter and decorator, sits in the corner reading the paper and sipping a pint of cider. "I've just finished work," he says, "so this is like the evening for me. I'll have a couple of pints then it's back home to sleep and back out in the afternoon. It's nice here. You need to unwind after work." Outside, in another world, it is rush hour. Breakfast time. Somewhere in north London, Tom is having his first fag and thinking of opening time.