“The great drinkings of foreign countries compared to ours are but sippings.”
Thomas Young, an Englishman, said that 400 years ago. And he wasn’t even proud of it.
Young’s contribution to making us more tedious, a book called ‘England’s Bane’, is just one of thousands of efforts in history. David Cameron, whose intervention on the “scandal” of British binge drinking was delivered today, is merely the latest. He squats on the shoulders of midgets. From the 16thcentury onwards, an army of puritans and killjoys have berated British drinking culture, to no discernable effect.
Today, the same puritanism is overshadowed only by the hypocrisy of its adherents. At least the moralists of old were consistent enough to lead lives devoid of colour. Nowadays, the same reporters covering our social decline nip out to the pub once they’ve filed their copy. The papers are full of images of young people lying in pools of their own sick. But for every image of girl passed out on the street, a quick zoom-out would show ten times as many chanting songs and showing passing cars their bums. Where there is happiness, there will always be casualties. The only question is which one we choose to photograph.
It’s time for someone to stand up for traditional British values; the values of vomiting in the sink because you couldn’t quite reach the toilet in time, of knowing that this will entail scooping up little bits of your stomach lining using a Tesco’s bag as a glove, the values of standing between two adult men arguing over a spilt beer and screeching ‘it’s not worth it’ and then fighting one of them yourself because they didn’t take your reconciliation services seriously, the values of having sex with people who you will never see again, unless you become so inebriated you fail to take necessary precautions.
Before we do so, we must raise a serious distinction, one which most commentators are happy to cynically smudge. This is about binge drinking, not alcoholism. Alcoholism is the precise point at which alcohol takes from you, rather than services you. It robs you of your capacity to love, or be loved. It is bad. Binge drinking might sometimes lead to alcoholism, in the same way that action movies can lead to serial killers, but primarily it does not.
It is said that binge drinking causes violence, which is true if one evaluates the data in the most superficial way possible. Violence is caused by something somewhat deeper than alcohol: broken families, poverty, being short, a lack of eloquence, sexual frustration – you name it. Alcohol is the trigger. One of the great failings of modern journalism is the failure to distinguish between cause and trigger. The financial crisis, for instance, was caused by valuation and liquidity problems in the banking sector but it was triggered by the bursting of the US housing market bubble. World War One was caused by imperialistic European foreign policy, but triggered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.
We are not in the business of removing pleasures because some people can only partake in them foolishly. The cure to violence lies not in a removing a bottle, but by addressing the jagged edges of the human condition. Good luck with that, by the way.
It is said that binge drinking costs the taxpayer millions through NHS bills, not just in street recovery teams but also through long-term conditions. This is a marvellously unproblematic conundrum. The solution is merely to tax the product to the extent required to provide the requisite services on the NHS. Marvellous, isn’t it? How easily these things are solved when one keeps one’s head.
It is said that binge drinking results in one night stands. And to this we must say: Yes.
Behind the specific anti-drinking arguments there is that general cultural perversion: the modern antipathy toward intoxification. Ever since the war on drugs, an ideology has taken hold which is critical of all inebriation, be it from legal or illegal substances. This is one of the most regrettable of all mankind’s errors – scientifically, psychologically, historically and socially. The aspiration towards excess is a grand triumph of the human spirit and one which must not be debased by the trivial insecurities of the new puritans.
In actual fact, binge drinking has a range of beneficial effects on British society. Chiefly among these is the fact that it is enjoyable. It is something that makes us happy, despite the weather and the trains and the sneaking national suspicion that we’ve cocked the whole thing up. It is a celebration of a society which, even now – in the era of smoking bans and health and safety laws – can still appreciate that the intensity of life matters as much as its longevity.
Opponents of binge drinking seek to separate it from pub culture, portraying only late bight bars with endless Smirnoffs going for 20p each. In actual fact, the cultural affection for the pub cannot be separated from the clubs and bars that feature in tabloid features.
Continental drinking culture does not actually exist, except as a footnote to eating. Only in Britain would the social centre of a community be a place primarily concerned with alcohol. In America, bars are still naughty establishments. In Britain, they are homely.
The pub is one of the most magnificent British creations and one of the most vital. In a highly unequal society, it is resolutely egalitarian. In the pub, working class is the same as middle class. It provides for social mixing, either in the process of going to the bar or when having to slide onto someone else’s table. It introduces a relaxation of the usual British rules around communication and provides an environment in which we are allowed to open exchanges at will. It is where we go to be merry. It is, without doubt, the thing we most miss when we are overseas. It is the thing foreigners most enjoy about our country.
It is, of course, technically possible for binge drinking to exist without pubs. But opponents of binge drinking culture must admit that pub culture and binge drinking stem from the same national psychology. Even if we could change it, we wouldn’t want to.
Finally, binge drinking reflects part of the complex beauty of the British personality. The need for excess, for hedonism, is a vital component of our culture. It is the counterweight to our social reserve, to our political and ideological moderation. It speaks to that anti-authoritarian streak in the British character from which so much that is valuable and considered in this country emerged.
It is baffling why a country so buttoned up would be so set on buttoning down. But it is part of the strange, impossible jigsaw that is Britain.
The next time you see a young man lying face-down in his own vomit, his pants around his ankles and stream of barely comprehensible obscenities emerging from his lips, smile and look up at the stars. Inhale the air of England. Remind yourself. Proud to be British.