Pubs! Pah! Don’t talk to me about pubs!
No sooner do I make the mistake of wondering whether I am the weird one because I am not a fan of alcohol – not teetotal, you understand. Just that I can take it or leave it, and that mostly means leaving it – and next thing I see is a great big tabloid headline despairing over whether pubs will re-open after lockdown.
Really? I mean, really? Is this the most pressing concern facing the nation right now? It certainly seems that way. Yet an unexpected bonus has been ignored: it might well be that when the lockdown lifts, there could be scope for a wider range of more inclusive, less alcohol-centric community haunts.
I should not be surprised by the panicking. Alcohol and I have a long and difficult relationship. Relationship, that is, in the sense of a distant, egotistical cousin not seen for years: and then they turn up at some intimate family moment, a wedding, a funeral, breathing noxious fumes and tossing custard pies.
Which is odd. Because if others wish to imbibe, make a fool of themselves, even, I have no issue. It is just that the last time I was serious about drinking was in my teen years. Before I turned 18, of course, when under-age drinking was de rigueur to prove oneself “cool”. Thereafter, apart from the occasional ill-conceived student binge, I have remained largely, defiantly sober.
That continued even during years spent working behind the bar of one of Bath’s less salubrious drinking establishments. Hours at a time, I poured pints, measured spirits and at evening’s end was still legal to drive friends home. That, too, was my first lesson in English pub culture: how the happy drunk regards with suspicion those of us who prefer not to join them.
In many ways, it is this obsession with being merry together, imposed on others, that I find hardest to deal with. And it is everywhere. Two of our longest-running soaps – Eastenders and Coronation Street – centre the local community in the pub. It is where only fools and horses go to do deals.
As for dealing with a zombie plague and the end of civilisation as we know it? As Simon Pegg puts it in Shaun of the Dead: “Let’s go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for this all to blow over.”
All credit to Pegg and co-star Nick Frost for their very funny “Do not go to the Winchester” in support of lockdown.
Except, of course, by parodying a film which answers all of life’s problems with a quick trip down the pub, they’ve doubled down on that same pub obsession.
To be serious for a moment, here are some actual facts and figures around British drinking habits (and yes: they do vary a little by component nation). Alcohol is directly linked to something like 7,500 deaths each year, every year (not including deaths and injuries caused by drink-related road accidents).
The horrific tally recorded in the England and Wales Crime Survey (CSEW), which accounts for 39 per cent of all violent crime (561,000 to year ending March 2018) is similarly shocking.
Truly, there is a price to pay for being a nation of carefree, happy boozers.
Although, even that is untrue: some 57 per cent of Brits drink alcohol in any given week. So almost half do not.
At the same time, the UK is not that far out of line compared to other western nations when it comes to alcohol consumption. According to WHO statistics, it is comparable to France and Germany, behind the Slavic nations and well ahead of Italy.
To put it another way, our insistence on seeing ourselves as a bunch of cool pub-goers is on a par with first-year students boasting to their mates about how smashed they got at the weekend (aka how much self-inflicted damage they did to their vital systems).
Our relationship with alcohol is not exceptional: yet we prefer to peddle quaint myths positioning the pub as one of those robust British values, like Blitz spirit and the royal family.
And this gets in the way of doing better. In Italy, when I socialised with friends and family, even late into the evening, it was as likely at a cafe or gelateria (ice cream parlour) as anywhere alcohol-focused. The difference, compared to the UK, was marked: most town centres boast spaces where families can and do go out on an evening.
Whereas the best we can offer, most of the time, is the pub or the high-priced restaurant.
So no, I do not mind other people drinking. But I mind very much when they impose their tipsy values on me: at micro level, treating us non-drinkers as odd, suspicious: at macro level, proclaiming closed pubs a national tragedy.
It is nothing of the kind. And perhaps, if they stay closed long enough, some better alternative might just emerge.
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