One day in Brighton, I noticed a sign on the door of a respectable looking pub: An intimate gathering of like-minded folk was about to take place, called “Everyone Drunker Than Everyone Else III.” There must have been enough survivors of Drunks I and II eager to return for shooters that cost only £1 ($1.60), less than half the price of a cappuccino.
I imagine it was the same young crowd that responds to flyers (“Get trolleyed for a fiver!”) distributed to colleges around the country. The English have more words for drunk than the Inuit have for snow, perhaps because it’s as much a part of the landscape. On a given evening, you might be bladdered, legless, paralytic or rotten with drink. The next morning, you can expect to leap like Margot Fonteyn over the piles of after-drunk that dot the streets.
I thought I’d heard them all, until British Home Secretary Theresa May used the phrase “pre-loaded” on Friday to announce her government’s war on binge drinking. Pre-loading refers to the act of getting hammered before you go out to get hammered – that is, stocking up on cheap booze from the grocery store in order to be good and wobbly by the time you hit the bars.
After years of concern about binge drinking, the British government is finally introducing a minimum price on alcohol sold in shops in England and Wales, over the very loud complaints of the people who make booze and the retailers who sell it. Right now, you can buy a two-litre bottle of strong cider for about $3.50, a price that could quadruple when the government settles on a minimum price. Chase that bottle of strong cider with several luridly coloured alcopops at a nightclub, and you’ve got an evening that begins with high spirits and ends in a fight down the kebab shop.
“We have to tackle the scourge of violence caused by binge drinking,” Prime Minister David Cameron said, a statement that may puzzle people whose image of bibulousness stops at the Rovers Return Inn. But it’s more Mad Max than Coronation Street in Britain’s city centres, which are routinely referred to as “no go” areas on the weekend. There are a million alcohol-related crimes in Britain every year, and 1.2 million admissions to hospital due to drinking. Deaths from liver disease have risen by a quarter in eight years.
Which is why reality shows such as Booze Britain and Party Paramedics make such fascinating viewing. The paramedics of the latter documentary are heroic volunteers who drive around in their “booze bus” on weekends, tying sick bags onto passed-out bankers, rescuing young women who have fallen off their four-inch heels, and trying to coax addresses out of stag-party inebriates dressed like priests or Oompa Loompas.
At one stop in the party town of Colchester, they come across a sodden twentysomething with a gash in his head. “You need to go to a hospital to have this glued together,” the paramedic tells him. The man gazes at him blearily: “Can’t I do it myself?” In an episode of Booze Britain, a Dundee night bus driver named Willy ponders the nature of his passengers: “They vomit on the seats. They urinate on the seats. It’s not normal.”
At least it didn’t use to be. It may seem counterintuitive, but the death of the pub is one of the reasons for the birth of binge drinking. In the 1990s, derelict British city centres looking for prosperity became filled with “entertainment zones,” where bar owners removed chairs and cranked up the music. Getting trolleyed was the sole goal, as opposed to a typical evening in a pub spent sitting, chatting and eating the occasional terrifying pie. When I was researching a story on the decline of the British pub (they’re closing at a rate of 16 a week), every publican I talked to blamed the same thing for their woes: cheap supermarket booze. Well, that and the smoking ban.
That said, for the middle-aged tippler, there’s something wonderful about a country where a hangover is considered a legitimate excuse to avoid any unpleasant task. Clearly, these new measures are not aimed at what Alastair Campbell calls the “alcocracy,” the vast swath of the middle class that drowns its anxieties in a nightly bottle of Chablis. (Mr. Campbell was once Tony Blair’s spin doctor, and also an alcoholic, though those two facts are apparently unrelated.) Just a month ago, a drunken Labour MP headbutted Tory colleagues in one of the nine (nine!) drinking establishments that serve the House of Commons. He got bladdered on taxpayer-subsidized hooch. Will the subsidy be cut, to match the minimum price on alcohol? On that matter, the government was mysteriously silent.