We like a drink, us Brits. Weâ€™re renowned for it. Venture into any town or city centre, anywhere in the UK, on a Friday or Saturday night and what will you see? Depending on your point of view, itâ€™ll be either a scene of harmless youthful revelry or drunken, loutish, lewd behaviour on an apocalyptic scale.
The latter isÂ the view peddled by the British tabloid press. Binge Britain: a place where scantily clad women collapse or vomit in the street as their male counterparts brawl or piss in shop doorways. And the newspapers have the photos to prove it, with accompanying text asking what have we become?
But hasnâ€™t it always been this way? And is it really so bad?
Weâ€™ve been at it since the Stone Age â€“ beer jugs dating back to the Neolithic period have been found. The Romans may have invaded in AD43, but at least they brought the wine, diluted one part wine to four parts water and consumed with food. No one knows for sure when the bingeing began, though one theory has it that itâ€™s down to the weather. In the past, lean years for grain or honey meant little booze available so we developed an enjoy-it-while-you-can attitude. And then thereâ€™s the lack of sunshine. Dark winter months can make people more depressed and susceptible to heavy drinking. Our gloomy weatherâ€™s enough to turn anyone to drink. We need cheering up.
Beer is good for you, or at least it was â€“ relatively speaking â€“ back in the day before a safe water supply was introduced. Boiled and containing yeast and alcohol, it was less likely to give you cholera. A thick, soupy beverage, rich in carbohydrate, it became a staple. Everyone drank it, though children and nuns were given the weakest ale. Itâ€™s hard to imagine anyone was sober. However, in Tudor times Parliament passed â€œThe Act to Repress the Odious and Loathsome Sin of Drunkennessâ€.
The eighteenth century brought the â€˜Gin Crazeâ€™, or â€˜Crisisâ€™, partly due to government policy set to stimulate the distilling industry by reducing duties on â€˜low winesâ€™ made from British corn. At one point with an English population of less than seven million we were drinking 18 million gallons a year. Fair play.
But what did it mean? Why were we drinking so much? Hogarthâ€™s famous etching â€˜Gin Laneâ€™ depicts the gravest maternal neglect: one woman is so drunk her baby falls from her arms, headfirst towards the stony ground. Like the photos in todayâ€™s tabloid press, Hogarth packed as much decadence and moral decrepitude as possible into one picture. Urban living conditions for the majority of people were grim. There was gross overcrowding and poor sanitation, and thatâ€™s on top of the English weather. The gin epidemic lasted 30 years, finally petering out after Parliament heavily taxed it and prohibited its sale in quantities of less than two gallons. Meanwhile tea and coffee became available, and beer was cheaper.
With the industrial revolution factories required a sober and reliable workforce. Temperance groups emerged. But it wasnâ€™t until the First World War that consumption was greatly reduced. Prime Minister Lloyd George introduced laws reducing the strength of beer, banned the buying of rounds in pubs and reduced opening hours. By the end of the war British alcohol consumption had fallen by two-thirds, but of course it didnâ€™t stay that way.
In recent years, with the advent of alcopops, cheap supermarket booze, extended pub opening hours and the relaxation of the licensing laws (the idea being that weâ€™d adopt a more measured European approach to grog instead of gulping it down in a panicked frenzy before closing time), excessive alcohol consumption has re-emerged as a problem.
The official NHS definition of binge drinking is eight units for men and six for women in one day. A report compiled by the NHS, Statistics On Alcohol: England 2010, states that ten million people are drinking at hazardous levels and that one in four adults who drink is putting their health at risk. While in another recent survey, Professor Nutt, the former government chief drugs adviser, states that alcohol is more harmful than heroin or crack when the overall dangers to the individual and society are considered.
However, when a group of fifty doctors were asked that given a magic wand that could eliminate alcohol would they do so, only four said â€˜yesâ€™. Alcohol-related illness and accidents may cost the NHS, but the taxes on booze more than cover it. And although thereâ€™s no doubt alcoholism can have devastating effects, for the majority of people drink has its good side. It brings people together, helps them relax and oils our social lives. Itâ€™s classless. The well-heeled at Ascot and Henley are quaffing it back as enthusiastically as the youths in our city centres.
Brits like a drink, and we like it in a binge-like fashion. We want to feel tipsy and let ourselves go. We want to forget all our problems and talk nonsense for a few hours. Binge drinking is fun. There, Iâ€™ve said it: the point neither politicians or medical reports ever mention. However bad the weather, we can knock back a few drinks and chew the cud. It helps us endure whether our problems are few or many. Enjoy yourself; itâ€™s later than you think.
Jacqui Hazell lives in London and her favourite pub is The Fox.Â Her short stories are available to download via Ether Books, a free app for iPhones/iPads.
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