Sunday, 6 February 2011

Nothing new under the sun

With the moral panic about so-called binge drinking - what we used to call boozing - it's often forgotten (in my opinion deliberately so by the anti-alcohol brigade) that drinking is steadily falling in this country, that drinking establishments have never been so strictly regulated, and that pubs are closing at a rate of around 40 per week. Just to shock you, here is an account of uncontrolled binge drinking that I read recently:

Gin Lane by Hogarth
"At closing time back and front streets crowded, some people dancing, men and women doing foxtrots and a group of women trying to do a fling. Three observers independently estimate that at least 25 percent of the crowd are drunk. Along the promenade the air is full of beer smell that overcomes sea smell. It arises from people breathing. A swirling, moving mass of mostly drunk people, singing, playing mouth organs, groups dancing about. Chaps fall over and their friends pick them up cheerfully and unconcernedly … A fight starts among four young men: the crowd simply opens up to give them elbow room as it flows by … One of the fighters is knocked out cold and the others carry him to the back of a stall and dump him there … In a litter of broken glass and bottles a women sits by herself being noisily sick."
Beer Street by Hogarth

People who don't venture out at weekends would probably conclude it was any town centre last weekend. In fact it was Blackpool in the 1930s but it could have come from yesterday's Daily Mail, apart from the mention of foxtrots. I'm not suggesting that there aren't problems associated with drinking. My point is that the media likes to create the impression that uncontrolled binge drinking is a recent phenomenon arising from the ashes of cosy, safe drinking habits that used to prevail until whichever decade the writer believes the moral decline of our country began.

Foreigners used to be shocked by English drinking habits during Elizabethan times, and Hogarth's famous pictures, Gin Lane and Beer Street, make it clear that excessive gin drinking was a major worry in the eighteenth century. It's ironic that Beer Street was intended to show the merits of drinking beer, as opposed to the ruinous effects of gin; such a comparison nowadays would elicit strong disapproval from the anti-booze brigade with their spurious unit-counting diktats. So not only is there nothing new:  official attitudes are actually more illiberal than they were 250 years ago, and certainly no more rational.

Few people would object to a mature, sober discussion about alcohol. With screaming headlines and politicians who fear the tag "soft on antisocial behaviour", we're not going to get it.


  1. I never really got a good look at "Beer Street", though I've seen it referred to often. Thanks for posting the image. I like the guy up there painting the pub sign!

    Since moving from London, I don't see any binge drinking going on at all. I think all this press has made beery people defensive so that some will claim to go to beer festivals or on mega pub crawls and *not be drunk at all* which is another distortion!


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