Saturday, November 26, 2005


24 Hour Drinking and the search for the 'cafe society'

24 Hour drinking came into existence on Thursday 24th November. Only a few licensed premises took the 24 hour option but it seems most pubs will stay open a bit longer. The cunning plan behind the liberalisation of drinking hours is based on the assmumption that the chief problems are caused by pubs all closing at the same time. Drinkers' dash for oblivion before a closing time early by European standards, runs the argument, makes them more likely to get drunk and then to fight others similarily stumbling at this same hour onto the pavements of our towns and cities. This assumption has not been widely accepted-especially by the police- and perhaps a more logical reading of the new laws is that, with more time to drink, drinkers will set about the job of getting drunk with even more unwholesome enthusiasm with chaos even more unconfined. The minister concerned, James Purnell, someone whose own binge drinking days cannot be far behind him, seems singularly unconvincing.

Where I live, in a mercifully quiet suburb of Stockport-itself a suburb of Manchester to a degree- we have an excellent pub nearby, The Nursery as it happens, which performs a superb role of providing a meeting place for convivial conversation, a social centre, as well as a cheap but quality eating place. No publically provided centre could quite equal the contribution it makes to the community in my view. And it almost never causes noise or violence, unlike the centre of Manchester which has become a virtual no-go area for middle-aged old farts like myself and those of like vintage. My recent visits have reminded me of western films with brawling, vomitting, young guys urinating in shop doorways combined with an all enveloping sense of menace.

Will the new laws affect us in our peaceful enclave? I doubt it. Our pub is frequented mostly by middle-aged men and their wives plus the occasional gaggle of youngsters. But mostly the latter see our pub as 'boring'- not a place with buzz or pick-up potential. I suspect, and hope, this state of affairs will continue.

But how about the country as a whole? When I raised this with students yesterday they seemed unconcerned about the new laws; they did not feel threatened in the city centre; they enjoyed a drink but were not worried by those who could not take it. They thought things would continue pretty much as before. One even felt the chances were high that that the government's ambition of weaning us off binge drinking would be achieved in time and that we will move towards that mystical objective of a continental cafe society where people sit and chat and make a drink last a while instead of engaging in the national ritual of a lemming like rush to the cliff edge of leglessness.

But some Swedish students I met the week before argued that we northern Europeans do not drink like the french or Italians; we are hooked on achieving that fuddling of the senses -preparatory to no senses at all- as soon as we can. We drink quickly because we want rapid results. Why? who knows but the Nordics, the Finns and the Russians all seem to be drawn to this gloomy style of drinking. These students even thought British young people were nowhere near as into binge drinking as their own peer group back home. Their view was that British people drank 'sensibly' and not 'crazily' like Swedish and other Nordic youngsters.

Well, that put things into perspective to some extent I suppose. But my feeling is that even if we do not rush into the numb lethe of alcohol with quite such headlong abandon, we do get here in the end. Oh yes we do. And I'm sorry to sound like an unreconstructed Victor Meldrew note but I'm not optimistic that this relaxation of the laws will achieve anything except create more work for the police and more mayhem for the peace-seeking rest of us.

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