James Brown: I used to dream of this 24-hour drinking

Binge drinkers are just the most obvious and repugnant scapegoats we have to hand
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When people ask me whether I ever miss drinking, I usually think of the Friday adrenaline surge when work is coming to a climax and people are getting ready to play. Then there's the odd moment of extreme tension or exhilaration when it feels like you need more than sobriety has to offer. But on the whole it's pretty easy to explain that, despite these pangs, my life is far better for me no longer staggering round the streets retching, fighting, sleeping in doorways, shouting and not having the ability to even open an envelope and pay a bill.

When people ask me whether I ever miss drinking, I usually think of the Friday adrenaline surge when work is coming to a climax and people are getting ready to play. Then there's the odd moment of extreme tension or exhilaration when it feels like you need more than sobriety has to offer. But on the whole it's pretty easy to explain that, despite these pangs, my life is far better for me no longer staggering round the streets retching, fighting, sleeping in doorways, shouting and not having the ability to even open an envelope and pay a bill.

It's seven years to the month since I last had a drink or alcohol; before that, I'd done my best and worst to make a living out of it. I had always believed it gave me confidence, purpose and identity but usually it just gave me fear, pain and hangovers. However, I couldn't help feeling a touch of jealousy when I read last week's headlines announcing 24-hour drinking in England.

The stories were full of warnings of the impending alcoholic apocalypse that would be upon us, but the boy in me who wouldn't go anywhere without a drink in my hand would have seen it as cause for celebration. Back in the days when a night out usually involved at some point being told "We're closed" and the anger and frustration that followed, my mates and I used to dream of bars that would stay open all night.

I was, it's fair to say, a keen 24-hour drinker but the rigmarole you had to go through was ridiculous. On the up side there was the sense of excitement when you'd discovered a new drinking den, a publican that would hand you the keys, or someone who kept a wine cellar. On the down side there were the late night dashes across town to the kebab shop that sold it under the counter. The trooping to Chinese restaurants that would serve it in teapot.

One of the most irritating aspects of being the frustrated drinker was that across Europe people were sitting in cafés, pubs and bars drinking for as long as they wanted. Even up in Scotland and across the water in Ireland they seemed to have a far more relaxed attitude. But it seemed for so long that the surest sign of England's uptightness was its views on licensing.

The panic we see now on the front pages of the right-wing press is identical to that which greeted the announcement of all-day drinking 15-odd years ago. Back then, they claimed, people would head for the pub at lunchtime and not return to work. But how many teachers, lollipop ladies or shop assistants do you see staggering round their place of work stinking of whisky and shouting the same thing over and over again.

The most noticeable reaction to the news of relaxation of the laws is the Fear. As if, like a scene from Shaun of The Dead, a cast of alcoholic zombies led by Ollie Reed and John Belushi will be staggering down suburban cul-de-sacs, rummaging through green recycling bins for the last drop of sherry.

The greater fear is that the alcoholic mob, the binge-drinkers as they have come to be known, the gangs of often young foul-mouthed, violent, irresponsible morons who have sex in doorways, urinate in their own beds and consume ridiculously named super shots, will become the norm. Worse than that, they'll take over.

But this aspect of our society has existed throughout history, from the baby batterers of Gin Lane to the so-called sophisticated Romans who would get themselves so drunk they thought it was a good idea to eat gold. Binge-drinkers are, I believe, just the most obvious and repugnant scapegoats we have to hand. They are a problem, but nine times out of ten they are primarily a problem to themselves.

Alcohol certainly affected my view of myself and the life I was leading. I gave up meat because I thought it was making me violent. It took me another four years to realise it was the booze. The truth is we make excuses for alcohol as opposed to say heroin or cocaine. It's acceptable for us as a society to turn a blind (drunk) eye, so often because it's such a prevalent part of so many aspects of our lives.

We drink on trains, planes and, unfortunately, in automobiles. We drink to celebrate, to mourn, to forget, to entertain and to kill time. We drink at the start of life and the end, and every other chance in between.

I hope this doesn't come across as sanctimonious. I envy those of you who can drink and then be merry, who can pick it up and put it down at will. It's just that, for me, so many of the things I looked for in drink actually came once I'd put it down. At 4am today I was at a birthday party dancing to David Essex on a bar, surely proof that you don't need to be drunk to make an arse of yourself or have a good time.

In my mind it's not binge-drinkers that are the big problem. The consequences of binge drinking are revoltingly antisocial, but you can sidestep these alcoholic mobs by not venturing into their drinking zones. The wider issue is society's collective denial that our cultural dependence on drink is so advanced. For so many, drink is the lifeblood, the shield, the excuse. It doesn't have to be that way, there are other ways of life, and when we come to accept that, we will be moving forward. Now, whose round is it?

The author is a former editor of 'GQ' and 'Loaded' magazines

james.brown@independent.co.uk

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