Paul Vallely's Notebook: Drink, cigarettes, more drink

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I thought 7pm would be safe enough, but when I arrived in Manchester city centre there were six spectacularly drunken youths at the tram stop. They had reached that dangerous level of intoxication in which giggling rubber-limbed attempts to climb a lamppost alternated with aggressive expletive-driven diatribes against the world in general. "I don't like the way that pigeon's looking at me," one said, hurling his empty bottle of Bud in its vague direction.

I thought 7pm would be safe enough, but when I arrived in Manchester city centre there were six spectacularly drunken youths at the tram stop. They had reached that dangerous level of intoxication in which giggling rubber-limbed attempts to climb a lamppost alternated with aggressive expletive-driven diatribes against the world in general. "I don't like the way that pigeon's looking at me," one said, hurling his empty bottle of Bud in its vague direction.

It seemed best not to make eye contact. I gave them a wide berth and hurried into the civilised confines of the Atlas Bar at the bottom of Deansgate. They followed me in.

Not exactly a great advert for deregulation of the licensing laws, I said to the bar's owner, Nick Johnson, after a slight young barmaid had refused to serve them and courageously herded them out. ("We're only going because we like you," one of them leered at her. "S-A-L-F-O-R-D," one of his departing mates belched meaninglessly into the faces of a discomfited couple sitting at one of the chrome-topped tables.) If they were like this at 7pm what would they be like at closing time? And what would they be like if there were no closing time ­ as would be the case under the new law the Government proposed this week to bring in 24-hour drinking?

Manchester is a good place to investigate such matters. Over the past four years as part of the city's blossoming bar culture there has been a 241 per cent rise in the number of licensed premises, plus the introduction of late night drinking with some city-centre bars staying open till 2am. Over roughly the same period there has also been a 225 per cent increase in assaults. And that's just Manchester. The nationwide total is that there are some 13,000 violent late-night incidents outside pubs every week. The prosecution case rests, you might suppose.

But far from curtailing drinking time the Government plans to allow more of it. One of the first acts of a Blair second term, apparently, will be the most radical overhaul of the licensing system for more than 40 years. Remove the closing time deadline, Labour ministers argue, and you will destroy the incentive to get-it-down-your-neck in the binge drinking which is the cause of the aggro on the streets following the 11pm swill. If the old licensing laws go, so too will the Brits reputation as the lager louts of Europe. That, at any rate, is the theory.

 

Jan Oldenberg, who runs the still-fashionable Night & Day bar on the other side of the city, is a Dutchman. That is a significant fact. When he bought the place in 1991 he arrived with Continental attitudes. In bars in Holland, he recalled, the order of priorities is: food, drink, cigarettes. His adopted home, he thought, had a different progression: drink, cigarettes and food. Now he knows better: the proper English sequence is drink, cigarettes and more drink, with a curry only entering the picture when the local Indian is the only place left open with a licence.

When Jan bought the place it wasn't a bar. It was a big chip shop with tables to eat-in. He applied for a licence. "It became a chip shop with beer ­ which is about as low as you can get in the sophistication stakes," he recalled, pulling at a bottle of San Miguel. Then a local band asked if they could play at the back of the shop. "It became a chip shop with beer and bands." Eventually the chips went and Night & Day became the unlikely showcase for local bands where regulars included Badly Drawn Boy, The Doves, Style Sailor and Elbow.

But Jan would only sell beer in bottles. "The regulars said: 'Get draught in, then we can drink more'," he recalls. "But I told them: 'If it's too dear just drink less'. I didn't want the pissheads in here. I had bought the building when it was nearly derelict so I wasn't paying rent, which means I don't have to shift mega-units of alcohol to pay the rent. I want to run a place which has interesting people in it," he says. So he sells absinthe at £5 a shot and has bar-staff who write novels and design albums covers when they're not flipping the caps from the Rolling Rock.

From this singular view of the world Jan has mixed feelings about licensing liberalisation. Night & Day is already open from 11am to 2am, though 10pm-1am is the busy time, after which things are quiet apart from the odd influx of musicians at 1.30am. He is wary about extending drinking to 6am: "There's a huge difference between closing at 11pm and at 2am. After you've cleared away and closed up a 11pm finish is a late night but a 2am finish is a night shift," he says. Drinking through the night would have a graveyard feel.

"The key thing is for the bar-owner to have flexibility," he says. During the World Cup licences were granted in Manchester until 3am or 4am. "The trouble was that if you got the licence you had to stay open till the specified time. It wasn't a permission, it was an obligation ­ there was no discretion or flexibility."

So if there was a 24-hour licence would he apply for it? "I dunno. Sometimes it's quite useful when the law says you have to close at 2am ­ you can hide behind the law to get rid of people," he muses. "In Holland things went 24 hours for a while but the businesses have rowed back to around 2am. The market has found its own level. After all people have to go to work the next day."

 

Richard Leese is not sure about 24 hour licences in any case. Which is a matter of some importance. Leese is the leader of Manchester City Council and under the new plan the power to grant licences will be transferred from local magistrates to local councillors. Will he give different time zones to different places, or allow We-Never-Close bars? Will all the late-night drinking be in one area, or spread across the city? "We haven't thought it through yet," he says. "We'll have to take detailed soundings from businesses, residents, the police and anyone else who has a view. A 24-hour cafe would be a technical possibility, though whether it would be a success is another matter. The market for drinking until 6am on a Monday night has to be fairly limited."

There are, I would wager, six yobs from Salford who might beg to disagree. Or offer grunts to that effect.

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