In The Daily Telegraph today
We British will never learn that a hangover is neither big nor clever
Not so long ago, I found myself trapped in downtown Carlisle on a Friday night just before closing time, and believe me, there are better places to be. My train had gone. There was nothing for it. I headed to the pub, and was stunned by the noise, the crowd, the smoke and the astonishing quantities of alcohol that were being necked by the denizens of Carlisle.
I found myself a pint of bitter and a quiet-ish corner, but pretty soon a woman was sitting opposite me in a state of some dishevelment. She was extremely good-looking and had a tattoo of a butterfly on her bosom, but she was pretty far gone.
“I think you are very interesting,” she said suddenly, and took my hand. I was just saying how kind this was of her, when her boyfriend loomed out of the night. “Don’t talk to him,” he advised. “He’s a snob.”
I tried to say that I wasn’t a snob, and that I couldn’t think of anything nicer than talking to him and his girlfriend, but he stuck to his guns. “You’re a snob,” he insisted, “and you want to hit me.”
On the contrary, I said, I had no desire whatever to hit him. “Yes, you do,” he said, coming closer. “I can tell by the way you flexed your shoulder muscles. You’re getting all psyched up.”
I said that any shoulder-flexing had been entirely involuntary, and that, even if I had flexed my shoulders, it did not mean that I wanted to hit him. He thought about this a bit, and then said that perhaps it would be easier all round if he hit me; at which point his girlfriend intervened (at last) and said that she would much rather that we were friends.
This was the beginning of a ferocious altercation between them, with him insisting that I was a snob, and her saying that he was being jealous, during which I snuck quietly for the door and on to the streets of Carlisle, where things, frankly, were little better.
It was a coldish night, but everywhere there was a pagan semi-nudity. There were queues to buy kebabs, and the pavements were Jackson Pollocked with the results of eating a kebab on top of eight pints of lager.
Faces leered and weaved towards me, pale and waxy with drink, and everyone seemed to be hurling strange oaths and invitations, and, since I could find nowhere to sit and read my book, I fled to the railway station and sat shivering on the platform until the night train arrived.
As I think back to that Hogarthian nightscape, I can understand why we of a tender bourgeois sensibility are panicked by the idea of further relaxing the licence laws. There is going to be 24-hour drinking, they say, and the police are warning that they – and the British public – are just not ready for it.
It’s not just the yobbos, they say; it’s the new species of pissed ladette, profane, belly-flaunting, swigging shots of cocktail from brightly coloured and cunningly marketed bottles, and sweeping the streets in terrifying gangs.
Not since Pentheus was ripped limb from limb by the Maenads have we seen such drink-fuelled aggression from the female sex, say the newspapers, and now the Labour Government is going to make it worse. They are going to make the booze even more accessible.
I am sure that Judge Charles Harris QC spoke for millions yesterday when he said: “The situation is already grave, if not grotesque, and to facilitate this by making drinking facilities more widely available is close to lunacy. It simply means that our towns and city centres are abandoned every night to tribes of pugnacious, drunk, noisy, vomiting louts. The cost to the health services must be vast. The cost to those who try to live civilised lives in urban surroundings is huge.”
The judge pointed out that a huge proportion of crime is drink-related, and then – to the BBC – made the crucial observation. He remarked that it was all very well talking about a new café -style culture, where we all sit around like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, drinking slowly and moderately as we formulate new philosophical aperçus; but Britain couldn’t have a Continental approach to licensing laws until we had a Continental approach to drink.
There the good judge is right, at least in this sense: that we, the British, are quite prodigious in our attitude to alcohol. Shakespeare makes the point that even the other beer-and-whisky drinking northern Europeans are nothing, in the size of their potations, compared with the Englishman. He drinks with facility your Dane dead drunk; he sweats not to overthrow your Almain. He gives your Hollander a vomit ere the next pottle can be filled, and today, more than 400 years later, we are still outboozing the Almains and the Hollanders by some margin.
I have just looked at the figures, and our teenagers are more drunk, more often, than any other country in Europe except the Finns. We drink the Russians off the balcony; we drink the Ukrainians under the table. Of our teenagers, 40 per cent have been dead drunk more than 10 times in the past 12 months, compared with a piffling seven per cent of French teenagers. The average Briton contrives to turn a “drinking occasion” into a “binge-drinking occasion” more regularly than anyone except possibly the Irish.
It was as I was skimming these statistics that I suddenly had an insight. I realised to my horror that I was reading the figures with pride, and there, my friends, is the trouble. Deep down, because of some peculiarity in our psyche, we think it rather admirable to get bladdered, leathered, rat-arsed and otherwise hogwhimpering drunk.
The awful truth is that I doubt the relaxation of the licensing laws will make much difference; in fact, if they slow down these binges, the new hours might even help. But as long as the British think – as I am afraid they do – that a snorting hangover is somehow a matter for boasting, then they will continue to get hammered.