The University College London’s recent study into alcohol consumption revealed that between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of England’s alcohol sales are unaccounted for, suggesting that we drink around 50 per cent more than we realise. The figures have caused Labour MP Diane Abbott to declare the country needs “a huge change in our hospitals and high streets – nothing short of a political and cultural earthquake,” the executive editor of The Independent and I, Lisa Markwell, to call for the government to hurry up and finish its unit measure review and impose a sensible scale so we can keep tabs on how much we’re drinking, and Sir Richard Thompson, President of the Royal College of Physicians, to claim the study is “yet more evidence of the need for strong government action, including a minimum unit price for alcohol.”
It’s a broadly unified response, with an overriding message that out of control alcohol consumption is detrimental to society, and that we all need to change our steaming ways. It is also hardly a surprising one; to condemn excessive drinking is evidently a sensible position. This is a country where the mere mention of ‘binge drinking’ (generally defined as 8 units or 3 lagers for men, and 6 units, around 250ml of wine, for women) is enough to conjure up images of angry men with bloody noses and police riot vans, and an abundance of national statistics which further vilify anything but the most moderate of drinking habits: Abbott quotes the financial cost of “problem drinking” as £21bn a year, and the latest government report on drink driving fatalities puts the figure at 280 per annum.
But although the consequences of a boozed-up Britain are undoubtedly bleak, they are – dare I say it? – only one side of the coin. Because in the face of this onslaught of public figure opinion and black-and-white statistical evidence, there are still those who believe that what’s classified as binge drinking, is not, altogether, a completely terrible thing.
Attempting to defend such a point might at first seem impossible. But there is one man fit for the task; a man who, while drinking the recommended daily allowance on an almost hourly basis, remains one of the most revered debaters and linguistically gifted Englishmen ever to have (almost) lived: Shakespeare’s fat knight, Sir John Falstaff.
Falstaff’s views on the drinking of sack (wine) proliferate in Henry IV parts I and II, and, to a lesser extent, in The Merry Wives of Windsor. His most poignant speech on the matter comes at the latter end of Act II scene IV of 1 Henry IV; a direct riposte to Prince Harry’s critique of his alcoholism and subsequent corpulence.
“If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked,” says Falstaff. “If to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned."
But the real substance of his argument, addressed again to Harry, lies in the following lines:
“Banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff...banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”
And now we come to the crux of the matter. If Prince Harry were to rid himself (as he eventually does) of Falstaff’s ribald influence, he will be cutting something far more important than his alcohol intake: he will be setting himself apart from the laughter, wit and drama of one of the greatest characters the world has ever seen. In short, he will lose a treasure.
It would be wrong to argue that every glass of wine we drink contains the magic of Sir John Falstaff; any dull night in the pub will prove that. But it is still this magic – these Falstaffian qualities – that would suffer if we were to assimilate the barrage of negative press alcohol receives today. Just because they cannot be quantified and published in a counter study on the positive effects of alcohol consumption, does not mean that laughter, fun and a lowering of inhibitions should be left out of this debate.