Philip Hensher: The Swedes have the right idea on binge drinking

The authorities should deny all supermarkets an alcohol licence. Let it be sold through specialist outlets

Philip Hensher
Saturday 24 March 2012 01:00

What happened to the English-language drunk scene? Formerly one of the classics of our comedy, it seems to have disappeared somewhat. Kingsley Amis's Jim Dixon setting fire to the bedclothes; P G Wodehouse's Gussie Fink-Nottle preparing to speak to the boys at Market Snodsbury Grammar School; Randall Jarrell's Gertrude in Pictures from an Institution, drinking deep before holding forth about Liszt ("At first it was hard for her to pronounce some of the words"); Noël Coward's pair of women in Fallen Angels; Cole Porter's glorious drinking song between Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra in High Society – all these seem more or less inconceivable nowadays.

Go and see a play like Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, also greatly concerned with getting drunk, and the difference becomes clear. The appeal and amusement of a drunk scene in Wodehouse or Coward is that most of the audience would hardly ever have got drunk themselves, and very rarely have actually seen a person incapacitated through drink. There are no drunk scenes any more; English literature is one big drunk scene.

There are no drunk scenes in English life either, because English life has become a scene of drunkenness. If you live in a town, walk out of your door. Within 10 minutes, if it is after 11 in the morning, you will encounter a seriously drunk person. Above the immigration desk at Heathrow, along with the dire warnings about not filming the officers, we might as well hang Hogarth's invented sign: "Drunk for a Penny: Dead Drunk for Tuppence; Clean Straw for Nothing."

Drinking on an epic scale has become so normal in this country for two toxic reasons. First, we just don't have an adult relationship with the stuff: we rely on it to cover our native shyness, to get us through the evening, to remove ourselves from the horrors of labour, to cheer ourselves up, and hardly at all, apparently, because we actually like it. It is mother's milk to us. I don't suppose there is anything at all politicians can do about that, short of entering us all en masse into psychoanalysis.

Second, our dependence is accelerated by the availability of it, and the unnatural and irrational cheapness of the product. That, on the other hand, is something that politicians really can do something about, and they have just decided to take an important step. The Government has been persuaded by the arguments of the health lobby, after a good deal of counter-lobbying and resistance by the drinks industry. The lack of any lower limit for alcohol pricing has led to an extraordinary situation where cheap alcohol can actually be sold for below cost price as a loss leader. The Government now proposes to introduce a minimum price per alcohol unit, initially suggested at 40p.

At Aldi, you can buy a bottle of wine for £2.99. Sainsbury's is offering 20 cans of Carlsberg lager, just under half a litre each, for £12.00, or 60p a can. "White cider" – cheap industrial cider, sold in huge bottles for universally less than £2 a litre, and sometimes less than a pound – will get you drunk on the money you find down the back of the sofa. If 40p per unit is imposed on white cider, then, instead of the £2.75 which Iceland was found to be charging for a three-litre bottle of Frosty Jack's in 2010, it would be obliged to charge £9 – this unpleasant stuff contains 7.5 units of alcohol per litre.

It seems amazing that governments which have long accepted the desirability of controlling smoking through price mechanisms have for so long resisted applying the same means to alcohol.

I don't believe in banning any source of pleasure or oblivion, much, but there is an argument that people should be aware of the true cost of their purchases. There seems a fundamental disconnect between a three-litre bottle of white cider at under £3 and the costs in terms of lost lives, damaged health, the millions of unscheduled visits to hospitals and the billions spent in the NHS budget. People should be perfectly free to drink themselves stupid every night, if they choose. But their choice should not be subsidised by the sale of bread and milk, and they should have to pay real money to exercise this particular choice.

Speaking as someone who enjoys a cocktail before dinner and a bottle of wine with it, I don't see why drinking should be cheap at all. It's a pleasure which we would value more if we paid its proper price – not just in retail and manufacturing terms, but in terms of consequences, too. And the menace of loss-leading would be eradicated overnight if the authorities took the simple step of denying all supermarkets an alcohol licence. As in Sweden, let alcohol be sold through specialist outlets only.

A friend of mine is fond of saying: "You know how people who really, really love chocolate call themselves 'chocoholics'? And people who can't get away from their jobs are 'workaholics'? Well, you know what? I feel exactly the same about alcohol. You might say I'm an alco-holic. D'you see what I did there?" Well, you don't hear the word "workaholic" much, these days, and decreasingly "alcoholic", too. It is just too universal. An alcoholic drink can be a joy and a delight.

Something needs to be done to nudge us into a proper relationship with the dry martini, the glass of claret, the Schwarzbier and the after-dinner Amaro. Does that sound snobbish? Well, there are some things which should be looked down on with dismay and contempt, and the litre of industrial white cider for £1.50 may be one of those.

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