It's that time of year again – pubs and pizzerias full of gurning office workers wearing paper hats and pulling crackers, downing house plonk by the bucket load, all in the name of seasonal good cheer. Later there'll be puke in the gutters and piss on the back walls of buildings up and down the land.
Cutbacks mean that staff parties are no longer the lavish affairs of yesteryear, and cava has replaced champers, but many Brits can't get through December without consuming a massive amount of booze. I'm no different – from the minute I start my Advent calendar, I'm in the party mood.
As a nation, a worrying number of us tend to be bingers – eating, swearing and drinking to excess – and December is when we justify our behaviour in the name of Christmas. The recession has made very little difference – recent figures show that our European neighbours Germany, France and Italy have all cut their alcohol intake by between 30 to 50 per cent over the past 30 years, whereas Brits actually drank almost 10 per cent more over the same period. And what happens when we think we are perfectly "capable" of driving home or dropping the kids off at school next morning? Accidents.
Last week, the deputy chief constable of Northamptonshire, Suzette Davenport, in charge of our road safety, said she knew it would be unpopular, but a total ban on alcohol consumption should be imposed on anyone getting behind the wheel of a car. A brave statement – and about as likely to become law as I am to rule this country. Look at the map of Europe, coloured according the drink-driving limits, and you see that Britain is out on a limb, allowing 80mg per 100ml of blood. There is zero tolerance across a whole swath of Eastern Europe and Russia, from Slovakia and Slovenia through to Hungary. In Estonia, drivers are allowed only 20mg of alcohol – the same level applied to airline pilots. In virtually all the rest of Europe, from France through to Spain, Germany and Italy, the level is 50mg – the level our government said it would adopt until it chickened out last year, citing the damage such a move would do to the fragile rural economy and claiming no more lives would be saved.
They said lowering the drinking limits would penalise country dwellers who were forced to use a car to reach the pub – not exactly a massive section of the electorate. Surely the real reason they didn't change the drink-driving laws was lobbying by drinks manufacturers, who still think the rise in drink-related health issues is nothing to do with cheap booze. Why are MPs so in thrall to people who create harmful alcoholic drinks? Don't tell me they're concerned about our human right to get plastered.
The police have launched their Christmas drink-driving campaign, and plan to breath-test thousands of motorists. Last year, 170,000 drivers were stopped, resulting in 6,662 arrests. I don't think the campaign is enough of a deterrent – in rural areas the police are stretched particularly thin, and the chances of being spotted when you're driving back from a night in the pub are not high.
Banning drivers from imbibing any alcohol is a drastic move – but we aren't exactly renowned for being sensible. Do you know many people who can have just the one drink, especially when surrounded by friends in a party mood? That's why dropping our drink-driving level to 50mg wouldn't work. In spite of all those health campaigns and endless moaning about liver disease, we're choosing to binge-drink even more.
Last year, five people a week were killed by drink drivers and 1,230 people seriously injured. One in six of all deaths on the road involves booze. More worrying, the number of young people who drink and drive is rising rapidly – there is little or no stigma attached to being caught. In some areas, a third of all arrests are in the 17 to 24 age group. Now, doctors say there is a huge increase in the number of young people suffering from liver damage (up by more than 400 per cent since 2002 in some places), a disease more normally associated with middle or old age. Terminal liver disease is afflicting young adults in their late twenties and early thirties – and the biggest increases are in the North-east, where unemployment and poverty are high.
How can we ignore these warning signs? Banning drivers from drinking puts down a marker. Rural communities could be given grants to fund subsidised taxi services. In towns, more buses and trains should run into the night – money well spent if health improves. The booze industry is run by smart bullies, and politicians ought to confront them before we do ourselves any more harm.
We all like a good laugh, but where are the emotions?
Lenny Henry's career as a Shakespearean actor gathers momentum. I must admit, settling down for two and a half hours of The Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre last week, I wasn't expecting an easy evening.
It starts with a turgid historical monologue, has a ludicrous plot involving twins and parents separated for decades, and ends with a drab epilogue. But from the moment Lenny bounds on, the evening lifts off. All those years of stand-up mean that he totally owns the stage.
This production suffers from having everything but the kitchen sink thrown at it – set in a modern Greek resort, it's got Essex babes, a police car chase and even a farting contest. This comedy has become a broad farce – perhaps because One Man, Two Guvnors is such a hit for the National.
Slapstick has certainly infected musicals – the next day I saw Matilda, Tim Minchin's award-winning version of Roald Dahl's children's story, and was desperate for a moment of pathos. The action is so determinedly raucous, there's little room for the emotions to breathe, which is a shame because the young cast are fantastic.
Tucking in to the pudding club
Heston Blumenthal's £13.99 Christmas pud with a clementine in the centre has sold out at Waitrose, with more than 300 people flogging them on eBay and attracting bids of up to £200. This could be canny marketing hype by Waitrose, who claim they are rushing through new supplies, and expect to sell ten times the number they did last year.
I'm tempted to put my own Christmas puds on eBay – some of them have matured for two years and are fantastic. It's not as if they're hard to make. My main problem is leaving enough room to eat the ruddy thing after a plateful of goose, stuffing and roasties.
It's hard to be cool in mittens
The warm weather seems to be coming to an end. Eating supper in Brixton Market last week, I wished I had worn thermals. Part of the market has been renamed Brixton Village and is open until 10pm and a collection of fashionable bars, tapas joints and restaurants is doing great business.
At Cornercopia, the game pie was excellent – but the atmosphere could do with a bit of tweaking. The lighting is brutal and I was surrounded by people wearing woolly hats and scarves. As Christmas gets nearer, will they be eating in gloves?
I suppose an outdoor heater is an environmental crime these days.
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