Dom Joly: My scariest place? Any provincial British town after 9pm

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The Independent Online

A couple of years ago I made a television series called Happy Hour in which I travelled the globe, supposedly to "investigate cultural attitudes to alcohol". The show was for Sky One so basically it was an excuse for a lot of drinking and drink-related exploits. Despite visiting countries like Russia where they seem genetically disposed to drink, I didn't find anywhere that remotely compared to the very British disposition of mixing drinking and fighting. The Russians love to drink so much that beer is considered a soft drink. There aren't many bars either – they do not have time for sitting down and socialising while drinking. They simply get the bottle, neck it and pass out in the nearest corridor. Almost everywhere I visited had happy rather than violent drunks. So I often wonder what it is about our island that makes us so eager to get in a ruck with strangers? Sometimes I think it might be part of our social insecurity. As a reserved nation, the only way we can "touch skin", whether that be sex or fighting, is with the help of a little alcohol.

Having spent the past year or so travelling to some of the globe's less salubrious places for my book, I am now touring the country showing my holiday snaps and talking about my experiences. After every event, I have a question and answer session. Every time, I am asked: "Where have you been most frightened?" My answer is always taken as a joke and never fails to raise a laugh. I tell them that, despite having been to Iran, North Korea, Lebanon, Chernobyl, Syria, the place where I feel most threatened is any provincial British town after 9pm.

Even the most innocuous will produce gangs of drunken men staggering around looking for a fight in between urinating on every available piece of street furniture. When asked this question – whether in Leeds, Nottingham, Manchester, Brighton or Bristol – I have gone further and suggested the walk back to my hotel after the talk will be more nerve-racking than wandering around Tehran or sight-seeing in Pyongyang.

Having finished my last talk in Bristol, I started the 10-minute walk back to my hotel. Within a hundred yards I passed two men grappling on the pavement. As I tried to slip past, one of them paused and looked up at me: "What are you fucking looking at?" I refrained from answering too honestly and moved on keeping my head down as catching someone's eye in the street is often deemed a personal attack on their lineage. I turned a corner – about seven "youths" were blocking the pavement, smoking and swigging from cans of industrial strength cider. I kept moving, head down but they refused to clear a path and I was forced to look up and ask whether I might be allowed through.

It doesn't help if you have a recognisable face. Within seconds all seven were screaming and shouting bastardised quotes from Trigger Happy. I pretended to be charmed as I edged round them and headed towards the protection of my hotel reminding myself to wear a hat and glasses next time I ventured out in Blighty after dark. Just as I thought I was clear, a can flew past my head. I turned, they were now in hot pursuit. I gave up all sense of decorum and legged it. I just beat them to the hotel and collapsed into the safety of a leather armchair and a stiff gin and tonic. Give me a quiet night out in Kabul any time.

Dom Joly will be talking about his book The Dark Tourist at The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival at Blenheim Palace today at 12.30pm

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