Harriet Walker: Our brawls are embarrassing, but French boozing is no better

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Children who watch their parents drinking are twice as likely to binge on alcohol, according to the Rowntree Foundation.

But they're also more likely to drink when left unsupervised, its new report warned gravely. So the best way to bring up your kids as happy and balanced teetotallers, we should infer, is to linger in their presence indefinitely, swigging from a carton of orange juice.

For several decades now, smug middle-class parents have been taking their lead from the French, and introducing children and teenagers to alcohol with snifters every now and then. It's the socially acceptable, sophisticated way of making sure you don't accidentally raise a lout, and the modern equivalent of Dickensian gin on teething gums.

But then the French, long held up as paragons, turn out to be a nation of alcoholics more sozzled than ourselves, according to Dr Aric Sigman's new book Alcohol Nation. Their quotidian routine of some Mâcon Villages here, a Chablis there, little and often with every meal is pickling them faster than you can say "two shots for the price of one". Their habits aren't remotely healthy, experts say, and young people shouldn't drink at all until their brain is fully developed at the age of 24.

Just look what happens when we Saxons do it our way. There were lurid photos of florid racegoers falling over doll-house-sized picket fences and punching each other at Ascot this week; what began with prigs quaffing champagne ended with a tattooed man wielding a £98 bottle of Laurent Perrier as a weapon. The French may top us in the cirrhosis stakes, but we're far more likely to end up with bloody noses. On the one hand, it's an altogether more imminently dangerous way of drinking and, on the other, one that is far less toxic.

But as the experts try to dissuade us from the habit of our nation's lifetime – that is, resenting and desperately trying to imitate those fancy Gallic ways – it throws up (sorry) interesting questions over how to introduce youngsters to booze. Certainly, you never see any other nation as drunk as the British. It's something culturally to do with having been raised on wheat rather than grapes – so while thuggish English barons were burping away into their mead and throwing down their gauntlets, the effete French were hiccuping genteelly and planning how to poison their siblings. The Americans too have tamed their inner Brits; only last week, in New York, a cocktail waiter eyed me as if I were George Best when I ordered my third drink. We seem alone in our ability to end up starry-eyed and sick-spattered on a pavement come the witching hour, but maybe booze culture is better out than in.

When alcohol is part of a routine, it becomes a daily soporific, as pernicious as that one cigarette when you're stressed or in a bad mood (and we all know the French manage to make smoking look like some holistic spa treatment). It becomes a crutch and a dependency much more so than when it remains a social lubricant.

No doubt aquiline noses will turn up at this, but bingeing Britons could do worse than to keep their consumption to their weekends, rather than soaking up the devil's urine every day. Don't let kids "get used" to alcohol – far better to get them trollied at 16, so they feel so sick for the next three years they'll never want to touch the stuff again. Until the next time they have to talk to a member of the opposite sex, that is. It's the British way. Anything else is a mark of us getting above our station. Look at those puffed-up pugilists at Ascot in their crumpled top hats and John Virgo waistcoats and tell me this: is there any greater national embarrassment than an Englishman pretending he's got class?


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