Ward on Booze

Assuming that Neil Scott hasn’t recently negotiated a lucrative foreign distribution deal for The Mind’s Construction, the chances are that if you are reading this then you live in the UK. This should give you a head start in the following quiz that the (excellent) right wing Australian blogger Tim Blair set his readers earlier this year. All you need to do is identify the nation he was referring to in the following paragraph taken from a newspaper article on binge drinking:

That the deleted are now a nation of drunken brutes, justly despised throughout the world wherever they congregate in any numbers, is so obvious a fact that it should require no repetition. A brief visit to the centre of any deleted town or city on a Saturday night – or indeed, almost any night – will confirm it for those who are still in doubt. There they will see scenes of charmless vulgarity, in which thousands of scantily clad, lumpen sluts scream drunkenly, and men vomit proudly in the gutters.

The missing word was, of course, “British”, and I’m guessing that it was no more difficult for you than it was for Tim Blair’s readers. Admittedly it was taken from a piece by Theodore Dalrymple in the Daily Telegraph, a writer and a paper who are seldom knowingly outdone in predicting the downfall of civilisation, but the immediacy with which Blair’s British readers recognised themselves suggests that this is a fairly accurate description of (Tony) Blair’s Britain. However, as tempting as it is for conservative commentators to bemoan and bewail this decline in standards, morality etc, the truth is that the British have always been a race of scantily clad, lumpen sluts and proud, vomiting men. In Peter Ackroyd’s biography of London he argues, convincingly, that the Victorian era of respectability and temperance was a brief aberration in a long history of indulgence, fornication, gluttony and vice, quoting Samuel Johnson (“A man is never happy in the present unless he is drunk”) and Dostoevsky (“Everyone is in a hurry to drink himself into insensibility”).

If anything, the drinkers among you, including the scantily clad, lumpen sluts who undoubtedly make up so much of The Mind’s Construction’s readership, can consider yourselves positively abstemious compared to previous centuries. In 1726 the average Londoner consumed a pint of gin a day. It became commonplace to give workers gin as part of their wages, and by 1736, when the Gin Act was passed, making it prohibitively expensive in a bid to curb consumption, 11 million gallons were being produced every year in London alone. The Gin Madness couldn’t last, however, and by the end of the century a combination of punitive taxation and a crackdown on unlicensed distilling had caused consumption to fall to a mere million gallons a year.

Even today, with so many of us making such Herculean efforts to keep the spirit of the 18th century alive, we are still comfortably outperformed in alcohol consumption by a number of countries. Currently at the top of the list is Luxembourg, where the average person consumes a mammoth 14.9 litres of pure alcohol per year. The British are a nation of puny lightweights by comparison, managing only 11.1 litres, although to give us credit, this figure represents a significant improvement since 1970, when we could only managed a frankly pathetic 7.1 litres. The figure for Luxembourg has remained constant, so if current trends are maintained we should be outdrinking Luxembourg by around 2040. We still have some way to go though, if we want to beat the Spanish and Italians who, despite having lost their way in recent years, were reaching 18 gallons in the 1970s and 80s.

There are of course those who would urge us, against our better instincts, to let the Luxembourgers win, who tell us that we have become a nation of binge-drinkers. However, given that the Institute of Alcohol Studies defines a “binge drinker” as a man who consumes at least eight units or a woman who consumes at least six units of alcohol in a single day, and bearing in mind that a 175ml glass of wine contains two units, there’s a good chance you’ve consumed at least six units in a single meal, and your “binge” was in fact lunch. A further argument with which drinkers have to contend concerns the quantity of hours and money supposedly lost to the economy through excessive drinking. At first glance, the figures do appear fairly damning – the estimated annual number of days of excess absenteeism is between eight and fourteen million, with a cost to industry of £700million. But what these statistics fail to take into account is the amount of money spent and jobs created by those of us that drink: the wages of the people making, distributing, selling and serving that alcohol, the tax revenue gained, the employment we provide for taxi drivers, kebab vendors, and those takeaways who sell bits of battered chicken that nobody sober ever buys. The total annual expenditure on alcohol is £12 billion, dwarfing the amount supposedly lost to the economy, and providing some glimpse into the sheer scale of employment, wealth and human happiness that drinkers so selflessly provide.

So follow the example of Dorothy Parker, Dean Martin, Truman Capote, Richard Burton and Kingsley Amis, and drink, safe in the knowledge that it’s both your birthright and patriotic duty (unless you want to be beaten by Luxembourg), that it demonstrates your cosmopolitanism, sophistication and adherence to the super-healthy Mediterranean diet, and you are helping to feed and clothe countless publicans’ children. Above all drink for pleasure, like the scantily clad, lumpen slut you are.

Andrew Ward | Autumn 2005

Link: Wardyblog