A problem with drink?

Ken Worpole
29 December 2003

Over the past year the Ecology & Place theme of openDemocracy.net has given much attention to the food people eat, the rituals which attend its preparation and consumption, its cultural history, and the possible threats posed to local food and culinary traditions by issues such as fast food culture and genetic modification of crops as well as hi-tech food engineering.

But what about drink? Specifically the consumption of alcohol with food, or as part of the rituals which keep social networks, familial gatherings, and other occasions smoothly oiled and convivial, sometimes to the point of mayhem and disorder. For many people some of their most enjoyable and memorable evenings in bars and restaurants, jazz clubs or pubs, are made so because there is a good supply of alcohol to iron out all the initial hesitancies, and to bring the evening to a slightly euphoric and convivial conclusion.

Drink can be a great social lubricant, though drinking alone is said to lead to introspection, solipsism and a crisis of self-identity: I drink therefore I am. Part of the mythology associated with alcohol is that it is linked to creativity, a notion that was particularly associated with the rise of literary modernism in the 20th century, as in the careers of Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Malcolm Lowry, Patrick Hamilton, Dylan Thomas, and Jean Rhys, to name only a few.

Drink can therefore be destructive, especially to the human body. But it can be socially destructive too. Browsing in Waterstone’s bookshop very recently, as a medley of Christmas songs sung by Elvis Presley rose and fell in the background, I noticed that one song included the sentiment that he wished ‘every day could be like Christmas’. In some respects many are. For public binge drinking, once associated largely with festivals, and impromptu outbreaks of the carnivalesque, is now becoming an everyday, routinised affair. This is particularly so in British cities, where current political and economic orthodoxies concerning urban regeneration have let a genie out of a bottle – or something worse.

For large-scale public drinking has become strangely associated with ‘urban renewal’, and a number of urban economists now judge the success of a city (or its ‘competitive edge’) in terms of the number of bars and drinking clubs it offers to visitors – and the excesses which characterise their use. Dublin, Newcastle, Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Ibiza, among others, have cultivated their tourist image through promoting the many bars and extended opening hours they offer.

A number are now beginning to regret this. Conviviality has turned into a culture of abuse, leaving many of these towns and cities – and their local cultures – more shaken than stirred. Many city centres have now been colonised by a minority of young people, crowding the themed bars and pubs to bursting point, while everybody else stays at home or finds entertainment in other forms. “Happy Hour” – the period when selected drinks are available for sale at reduced prices – has become the overture leading to a new ‘symphony of the city’ involving nights of misery, violence and self-harm.

This phenomenon is not entirely new. The historian Joachim Schlör demonstrated in his book Nights in the Big City (Reaktion Books, 1998) that 19th century and early 20th century London, Paris and Berlin were noted for their extensive and excessive night-time cultures of drugs, alcohol, and sex. As Schlör asserts, many urban dwellers in these places had their daytime selves and night-time selves (as many still do today). Once night had descended on the city, people explored other aspects of their personality and needs for stimulation and otherness, which their daytime selves denied. It is quite useful to see patterns of urban rule and misrule in this way, as a structural component of urban life – and certainly better than dividing the world into saints and sinners, the lost or the saved.

Nevertheless, Britain does seem to be facing a particular problem with drink in the cities, especially amongst the young. And the problem has opened up some very real contradictions in New Labour’s attitudes and policies towards freedom, licence and urban pleasure. The economistic side of its divided self continues to argue for the further deregulation of licensing hours and venues in order to boost the urban ‘evening economy’; its moralistic side argues for more curfews for young people, a new urban regime of instant fines for bad behaviour, and zero tolerance of any sign of over-jollification or mayhem. While the office of the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, is trying to lead British towns and cities towards a more European café-culture, David Blunkett’s home office is issuing anti-social orders, curfew notes and generally wielding a big stick.

The drink problem is serious. A recent MORI survey for Alcohol Concern has shown that many British city centres have become no-go areas for most people at the weekends, except for those aged between 18 and 34. Not that this is a problem just confined to cities. In 1989 the home office published a pretty alarming report by Mary Tuck into large-scale drinking and violence in many of Britain’s smaller market towns. (Drinking and Disorder: a study of non-metropolitan violence). A new report from the Alcohol Harm Reduction Group says that Britain now has “one of the biggest binge-drinking problems in Europe, with our (sic) young people drinking faster and from a younger age than elsewhere on the continent.” One police officer told the MORI survey team: “My whole job revolves around alcohol. If you took away the alcohol from the town centre there’d be no disorder.”

I think that last statement should be taken with a pinch of salt (or a bag of crisps). Any factor which gets nominated as the sole cause of any social problem is invariably suspect. After all, other police officers will tell you that it is drugs, and only drugs, which account for the majority of urban crime.

What seems particularly venal, however, is the way in which the drinks industry has targeted the young with alcopops (high alcohol, spirit-based drinks sold in dazzlingly-coloured bottles), pretty lethal in content, and stylised to tune in with the surrounding teen-culture. I doubt if anyone reading this has actually tried a strawberry vodka jelly recently, but there is plenty of this kind of thing around, and a lot more besides. This aggressive promotion of spirit-drinking has been compounded by heavy discounting in the early part of the evening, cynically raising prices as the evening wears on and people get too drunk to bother any more about the cost.

The once-delightful city of Dublin has paid a heavy price in recent years in terms of becoming an international magnet for binge-drinking weekends. Many residents of the city came to feel that their city had been taken over by visitors only interested in getting drunk. Early this year (2003) laws were passed restricting ‘Happy Hours’ and other discounting schemes, and a much tougher approach was taken to premises with recurring problems of violence and anti-social behaviour. The latter seems to have worked.

Drink is a good friend, but a bad enemy. When it accompanies food and conversation, it compounds the pleasure, as it does when listening to an impromptu pub session of folk music, or jazz. It can make an evening of talk and laughter even more relaxed and enjoyable. But at times, outside the bounds of accepted social relations, it can be an astonishingly destructive force, both for individuals and for society. Here for once is a problem that can’t be blamed on globalisation. Britain (alongside Ireland, in Simon Roughneen’s estimation) seems to have a particular problem with alcohol at the moment: here we can learn from what other countries and cultures do with handling their drink.

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