Focus: Swozzled!* (<i>*addled, bowzed, bemused, leathered smashed, drunk</i>)

The English have a drink problem, judges said last week. It was true in Hogarth's day, and it still is. So what will opening the pubs at all hours do for us? Cole Moreton sank a few to find out
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Red. I'm sure the walls of the nightclub were red. I'm trying to write that down as I stagger out into the street and the cold night air hits me and the shots I threw down half an hour ago are fizzing through my blood. I think: "I'm going to be sick." And I think: "So this is what it is like to be a binge drinker."

Anyone can do it. You don't have to try hard. The Government says a binge drinker is a man who downs eight units of alcohol in a session, or a woman who sups six units. That is roughly three pints of Stella for him and two large glasses of wine for her. See? You probably do it all the time. We all do.

But you probably don't drink a couple of large vodkas from a supermarket bottle at home, then go to happy hour and sink another half a dozen, then chuck down another couple with Red Bull, then find yourself dizzy, confused and hysterical out on the street at midnight, barely able to remember your own name, let alone the name of the nightclub to which you are supposed to be going. You probably don't get into a fight with a bloke you have never met before, throw up in the gutter and get your picture taken by a tabloid reporter doing a piece on the menace of binge drinking. And you probably don't think: "Top night, that. Must do it all again next week."

It's them and us, I'm thinking, as I step over the slumped body of a boy from the suburbs who has definitely missed his last train, and sidestep the girl who is rubbing the back of another so she vomits more quickly. " They" are the kids who spill out all over the streets at closing time, the "pugnacious, drunken, vomiting louts" who take over our towns after dark, as Judge Charles Harris put it last week. And "we" are the grown-ups who complain about this, while necking a bottle of Rioja at a dinner party. The difference is that we don't fall face forwards into the soup. Not every Saturday night, anyway.

"The English have a drink problem" is the kind of thing we say, but we're snobs; we don't think it means us. It means "them" - the men and women yet to reach 30 who have to save all week for one glorious night out on the lash in the West End, Rugby or Hull, Bristol or Barnsley. Before someone calls time.

Tony Blair thinks binge drinking is a national disease. He thinks the way to solve it is to relax the licensing laws so that pubs and bars can stay open as long as they like and there are no rowdy scrums on the streets. Earlier tonight (oh, hang on, it's yesterday now) when the pubs chucked out, there was mayhem. People from all over the world who had come to the West End for a good time found themselves thrown out at 11pm - even from big barn pubs such as Walkabout and All Bar One. The police were outside, watching them. An ambulance was on the street corner. A gang of lads was shouting. Somebody screamed. But then it was all over. The crowds dispersed. A friend and I had come looking for scenes of bacchanalian excess, the modern equivalent of those depicted here by William Hogarth, but we found street sweepers and rough sleepers. And a woman with a German accent who asked: "Are you looking for somewhere to go?" We were. "It is six pounds for men, free for women. Shall I take you there?"

So we went. The DJ was playing bad 1980s music and the men outnumbered the women three to one. And it felt illicit. This is what you have to do to get a drink in London at midnight: go to a cattle market. We only wanted to chat, but instead we had to watch a sweaty, bald man in a suit grope a woman half his age, dressed in hotpants and leg warmers her mother would have rejected as naff in 1983. And we had to dance to Vanilla Ice.

The police think we just need educating to behave better and, until we do, more officers on the streets to deal with the mess. The Council of Circuit Judges thinks Blair's plans are lunacy, for reasons it outlined last week: "Those who routinely see the consequences of drink-fuelled violence in offences of rape, grievous bodily harm and worse on a daily basis are in no doubt that an escalation of offences of this nature will inevitably be caused by the relaxation of liquor licensing."

The Government wants us to adopt "Continental-style café culture". Judge Harris, who practises in Oxford, Northampton and Warwickshire (where police project CCTV images of drunken people in Rugby town centre to shame the hordes), says there is a problem with that: "Continental-style drinking requires Continental-style people." Which sounds like the sort of thing you say when you can well afford to take your holidays in Florence, sipping Chianti in the piazza. That is obviously not the case for many of "them" - the men and women he is complaining about.

But Judge Harris does have a point. We are not Continentals, and never have been. We do have a drink problem, but it's not new. "The English are noted among foreigners for their persistent drinking," wrote John of Salisbury in the 12th century. "They were accustomed to drink till they were sick," it was said of the English before William the Conqueror.

Some academics say the national habit of binge drinking goes back to even before the Romans. The grain supply was vulnerable to flood and drought; the harvest was unpredictable, and the drink that could be made would not keep for ever, so people living in northern Europe learned to drink and be merry while they could. That was also a way of relieving the stress of being indoors while the weather raged outside. Studies suggest that depression and alcohol consumption increase when it is dark.Only now our climate has changed. We still have the same historical drinking habits, but the weather is milder and pavement cafés are fashionable: so we get to do our fighting and throwing up out on the streets.

It's a good theory. However, people can be seen doing exactly those things in the engravings Hogarth made in 1751 to campaign against the evils of gin, which had become hugely popular after the arrival of William of Orange. In parts of London one in four houses was a gin house. Half the population was inebriated.

This was not our fancy gin flavoured with the juice of juniper berries, but a basic and lethal version of the same spirit. Its main advantage was that it took you to oblivion quicker than anything else. "Gin Lane" shows the slums around St Giles Church full of desperate, debauched, diseased and dying people. These days, St Giles High Street is a gloomy rat run where not much happens. The Angel is a quiet pub, and the Conservatory Bar is the sort of place summer-school students go before they get to know the city. Still, shots are cheap - £5.50 for three, including one with grenadine called a Squashed Frog - and so is gin. Not that you would have got a slice of lime with it in Hogarth's day.

He also made another engraving, called "Beer Street", which shows lots of happy, fat people in the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields drinking beer. That is still true on the same spot now, where a huge All Bar One stands. Beer was natural, patriotic and good for you, thought Hogarth. It was certainly safer than drinking water. Benjamin Franklin, visiting from America in the 18th century, said the employees in a London print house that he visited routinely consumed a pint of beer before breakfast, a pint at mid-morning, a pint after noon, another at six o'clock and another when they finished work. They were killing themselves slowly, of course, but not getting rowdy. Victorian temperance movements helped our overall consumption to go down, until alcohol became cheaper in the 1970s.

Mike Hopley, consultant psychologist at Leicester University, says that while the English have always been big drinkers, the trend over the past 10 or 15 years has been towards weekday abstinence and weekend fiestas. " Younger people are drinking very little alcohol, if any, during the week," he says, "Then whack, they go straight into levels of drinking for which they have no tolerance."

There is more money around. Women are staying single longer, earning more and asserting their right to go out like the lads, which is a big social change. But putting the prices up, as the judges suggest, might only make things worse. Increasing numbers of people are getting into pre-drinking, the custom of downing several shots of supermarket spirits as you prepare to go out. "That makes it harder to manage your alcohol levels, and younger drinkers sometimes screw it up anyway because they don't realise what it is doing to them," says Mr Hopley. "They haven't got the experience and they just can't handle it."

Stumbling home with heaven knows how much alcohol surging through my veins - just as drunken Saxon, Elizabethan and Victorian Englishmen have done before me - I know exactly how they feel.

The Scots made round-the-clock drinking legal in 1976. So has it done them any good?

The bars on Ashton Lane in Glasgow take Scotland as close as it gets to café society. This is the university quarter. BBC Scotland is close by. The stylish shops of Byres Road are just a few cobbled steps away. Here, the Ubiquitous Chip provides Scotland's liberal establishment with a drinking den as beloved as Les Deux Magots was to Parisian existentialists.

At seven in the evening, the Chip's main bar is already lively. Most clients are drinking wine. Later, they will move on to the Chip's extensive range of spirits. At the bar, Anne is gently mocking. "You can tell it's upmarket. The only whisky on the optic is a single malt."

Across the cobbles at Brel, a Belgian bar, the clientele is younger but the mood is as relaxed. Claire, a student, asks a barman: "What time do you shut?" The answer is one that can be heard throughout Scotland. " We've got an extension until one o'clock."

England might be about to extend its drinking hours, but in Scotland 24-hour drinking has been legal since 1976. Then, in an effort to end the machismo of the 10 o'clock swill, licensing boards were given the freedom to grant regular extensions. Ministers believed liberalisation would eradicate drunken violence and women would be safe to enter pubs unchaperoned.

On Ashton Lane - and similarly refined districts of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Stirling - the consequences have been benign. But Scotland does not call liberalisation a success. In terms of drinking culture, this cold little country imported its values from Scandinavia, not France. On Fridays and Saturdays, Scottish cities tremble in anticipation as tens of thousands of drinkers set out to get smashed.

Scotland has the world's highest incidence of the alcohol-related brain disease called Korsakov's syndrome. It has Europe's most appalling incidence of knife crime. Most weekends, at least one young man dies because he has been stabbed by a drunken assailant. Several more are permanently scarred.

Since liberalisation, Scotland has experienced growth in alcohol-related injuries, cirrhosis, cancer and brain disease. Scotland's national broadsheet, The Herald, summed it up last week. It warned: "Nobody is expecting them to spend their Saturday nights playing tiddlywinks, but the current level of alcohol abuse among young Scots is a future time bomb."

Tim Luckhurst

WHAT THEY DRINK, AND WHAT THEY THINK

Ricky Carliss, 40, builder from Rainham, Essex

I drink five or six pints of lager a night but don't consider myself a heavy drinker. I can't understand the Government - it's already easy to find somewhere for a late drink. Later hours might change things. Give it a few years and people will pace themselves and cause less aggro.

Favourite tipple: Jack Daniels, Red Bull

Peter Smith, 41, commercial designer from Fulham

I drink several pints on weekdays and 11 or 12 shots on a weekend night. I'm a total binge drinker, so the extension of opening hours is fantastic. Drinking is such a great way of socialising and having fun. In fact my only worry is that I may never go home.

Favourite tipple: vodka

Kate Ryder, 23, office worker from Clapham

I drink two or three beers and a couple of gin and tonics at the weekends. I don't drink on weekdays. As a young person it will be nice to drink into the early hours, especially in the summer, when you can sit outside. Hopefully drinking will be more relaxed now.

Favourite tipple: glass of champagne

Amy Taylor, 30, human resources manager from Tooting, London

I drink a bottle of wine on Friday and Saturday. The British public are not sophisticated or responsible enough to cope with late-night drinking. We have a yob culture here and late opening will be a disaster. It will make it a lot less safe for women, as well.

Favourite tipple: glass of white wine

Michael Holtham, 31, project manager from Bournemouth

I grew up in Australia and every barman had to have a "responsible service of alcohol" certificate. The barmen in the UK are untrained and irresponsible about who they serve. Late hours will just mean more violence, destruction and vomit.

Favourite tipple: bottled beer

Dennis Thomas, 56, businessman from Epsom, Surrey

I'm a "continental drinker" - at most half a bottle of wine with meals. Changing the law is a bad idea. Where I live the town centre is already a war zone on weekends. The real problem is "happy hour" promotions - they encourage people to make pigs of themselves.

Favourite tipple: glass of red wine

What sort of boozer are you?

You've had a good night out when...

a) You're home in time for Newsnight

b) The waiter brings you a 1986 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac and only charges you for a 1996

c) You wake up with no memory of where all those strange bruises and vomit stains came from

You stop drinking after...

a) You've had a small sherry at the neighbours' Christmas party

b) The digestifs

c) You pass out

Your ideal holiday destination is...

a) Butlins, Bognor

b) International Wine Academy, Roma

c) Club 18-30, Magaluf

A Happy Hour is...

a) A Coronation Street double bill

b) Those postprandial moments spent gazing over an Umbrian hillside with a fine cognac and a full stomach

c) Not long enough

Two units are...

a) The cornerstones of any MFI kitchen

b) A large glass of wine or a pint of Westvleteren Trappist beer

c) A good start

Where do you usually drink?

a) In a family-friendly local pub

b) In a Michelin-starred restaurant

c) On your back

Answers

Mostly As: Your body is not exactly a temple; more a shrine to Horlicks. Haven't you heard that the odd glass of wine is actually good for you?

Mostly Bs: You really know your Assmannshausen from your elbow and are just the sort of Continental-style drinker the Government loves.

Mostly Cs: When were you last sober? Or even vertical? Get to Faliraki and don't come back.

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