The double standards of our drinking culture

There are good drinkers, like you and me, and bad drinkers, a minority of urban savages
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There is something peculiarly sad about the way that an English person gets drunk. Most other nationalities, more at ease with themselves, drink to laugh, flirt, gain courage, or take the edge off everyday reality. The English, who can work their way to oblivion with a focus and efficiency that would be laudable in other contexts, seem to booze in order to become less English.

There is something peculiarly sad about the way that an English person gets drunk. Most other nationalities, more at ease with themselves, drink to laugh, flirt, gain courage, or take the edge off everyday reality. The English, who can work their way to oblivion with a focus and efficiency that would be laudable in other contexts, seem to booze in order to become less English.

Believing that, pissed, they are funnier, sexier, less tongue-tied, repressed and generally timid than when they are sober, they binge it up until, sure enough, their world does begin to look different.

Here, we are now being told, is one of the great evils of contemporary life. Drink turns normal young people who are out for a laugh and a joke into the "urban savages" to which a judge made reference earlier in the week.

It would be surprising that as pointless an activity as getting tanked up has become fashionable among those in their teens and twenties if it were not for the fact, obvious but largely ignored, that the cynical, adult world works hard to seduce the young into the joys of drinking.

An odd double standard is at work here. With its disconcerting knack for choosing precisely the wrong issues over which to be libertarian or authoritarian, the Government has decided that, as with gambling, we should all lighten up and get modern when it comes to the question of boozing. This week, Tony Blair referred to the "tiny minority who abuse alcohol, who go out and fight and cause disturbances", and argued that "the law-abiding majority who want the ability, after going to the cinema or the theatre, say, to have a drink should not be inconvenienced." Restrictions on opening times, unknown in other European countries, should be lifted.

There are, it seems, two types of drinkers. There are good drinkers, folks like you and me who like to be able to go to a wine bar to discuss a play or film after we have seen it, and there are bad drinkers, an unruly minority of urban savages. It is the good drinkers for whom billions are spent by the drinks industry on advertisements which feature beautiful people, clear-eyed, laughing and successful, with a drink in their hands. It is for that law-abiding majority that pubs and bars promote cheap booze during their happy hour.

Bad drinkers are so different from that model that it is almost as if they are consuming a different kind of alcohol from the rest of us. Even when a bad drinker makes a fool of himself or herself in public, we tend to take an indulgent view. Every time yet another compilation of TV gaffes is aired, we are treated to the hilarious sight of George Best unable to string two words together on Wogan, of good old Oliver Reed staggering across the stage on Parkinson. With every trash documentary on the urgent subject of the behaviour of young Britons on holiday, their zany boozed-up exhibitionism is affectionately portrayed for our entertainment. One only has to imagine how those pranks, fumblings and slurred words would be presented had they been caused, say, by a heroin habit to see that our culture is half in love with alcohol.

It is convenient to push the behaviour of binge drinkers into a ghetto of disapproval while accepting the Blairite fantasy of a civilised, European, wine-quaffing café society in which happy, middle-class folk never become more than pleasantly tiddly. That way, we can find entirely acceptable the way the drinks industry works hard to add teenagers to their customer base.

But of course bingers are not to be found in the agreeable wine bars of Covent Garden or Islington. They stagger about the streets of medium-sized towns in which the idea of visiting the theatre or cinema and then going out for a quiet drink is a joke in bad taste. They are profoundly bored, eager for any kind of excitement, the more outrageous the better. For them, a night out with friends that ends with a scrap, a bonk or a spot of recreational vandalism is the only entertainment in town.

Inevitably, the plan to allow round-the-clock boozing, so mysteriously important to the Government, has been served up with a strong dose of humbug. Just as the introduction of larger, more alluring casinos will be accompanied by a high-minded campaign to address the question of problem gamblers, so, at the same time as encouraging bad drinkers, the Government will also be lecturing them about the evils of drink.

The tired old lie about people drinking too fast and too unwisely while racing for the finishing line that is pub closing time - clearly, idiotic nonsense - has also been deployed. Anyone who has seen groups of English people drinking their way to sozzled semi-consciousness will know that time is the last thing on their pickled minds.

They are not problem drinkers. Indeed, when they set out that evening, they were part of Mr Blair's law-abiding majority. They are simply playing at one of society's favourite games with rather too much enthusiasm. Now, doubtless, they will raise an unsteady glass to the imminent prospect of being to play around the clock.

terblacker@aol.com

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