A bit of bingeing can be good for you
Binge-drinking goes against every uptight principle of our therapeutic society.
What will British society look like under New Labour’s proposed regime of licensing 24-hour drinking? Will it be the civilised café society of the political elite’s dreams, where people sit around leisurely sipping from glasses of Chablis after a night at the theatre, or the anti-social dystopia of its nightmares, where teenagers spend all night out on the lash and schooldays snoozing at their desks?
Given the annual fad for debating the new licensing laws while doing nothing to change them, we may well never know. (Though a grasp of real life should tell us that the upshot will be neither dream nor nightmare, but really quite banal.) But the ongoing debate about the pros and cons of freeing pubs from their current 11pm shutdown is a sobering refection on the kind of society we live in today – one that is too passionless, uptight and risk-averse even to appreciate the importance of getting drunk.
Since the new year began, all 13 days ago, we’ve been treated to headlined comments by medics, judges, politicians and policeman about the impact of the new licensing laws on individual health and public order (1). ‘Binge drinking’ (defined as more than two pints, and that’s for the men) and ‘anti-social behaviour’ (defined as pretty much anything the authorities don’t like) have become buzzwords in the phoney debate about whether it’s better to have 11pm curfews or bars with no happy hours that stay open all hours but encourage their clients to take a pledge of sobriety. While the upper echelons of state and society wrangle over the best way of regulating drinking, agreement is taken for granted on the key goal: Drunkenness Reduction. To which somebody, surely, has to ask – why?
What is it about getting drunk that today’s society finds so hard to handle? It isn’t as though we live in a nation of feckless alcoholics, too sodden to pour themselves out of bed and into work in the morning. For all the government’s dire warnings about rising rates of liver cirrhosis and general alcohol-related health calamities, we should remember (again) that in reality, we are living longer and healthier lives than ever before.
And Britain 2005 is hardly a hotbed of inebriated violence. On 11 January, a judge grabbed the headlines by attacking legalised 24-hour drinking on the grounds that easy access to alcohol is breeding ‘urban savages’ and turning town centres into no-go areas (2). The basis for his claim? That he was sentencing three men convicted of vicious assaults while out drinking and drug-taking after the European Championships, which left one of their victims in a coma. Maybe this judge knows more about town centres and urban savagery than the rest of us – even so, he surely must believe that behaviour like that above is the exception rather than the rule.
What we do have is a society in which sometimes, and for a variety of reasons, people like to drink to get drunk. Not because they think that wine goes better with dinner than Ribena; not because they want to relax a little after a hard day’s white-collar work; not because they believe the studies about a glass of red being good for their hearts (but two pints of lager being very bad indeed); but because they want to get off the plane of existence that is normal, humdrum, everyday life, and into that parallel universe of inebriation. What’s wrong with doing that once in a while? Nothing. Indeed, there is a good deal that is very right about it.
The key feature of alcohol, and the one that most worries today’s uptight political class, is that it makes people lose their inhibitions. They become more aggressive, or more vulnerable to date-raping predators; they stop caring about what is good for their health or personal finances; they talk to strangers and pick arguments with their friends. In one night down the pub, these people, docilely on-message by day, manage to cock a snook at every principle of our carefully managed Therapeutic Society. Emotions rage, passions roar, and if it all ends in tears they are the messy, uncontrolled ones of the drunkard rather than the controlled closures of the counselling room. And for what? So they can wake up with a pounding hangover and a shiver of embarrassment, having achieved nothing more worthy than a good night out.
It is not the consequences of drunkenness that make it a modern bogeyman, but its simple out-of-controlness. For a political class hell-bent on micro-management of all aspects of everyday life, in thrall to etiquette, suspicious of spontaneity, and living by the code of ‘everything in moderation’, the image of the carefree drunk is one that it cannot comprehend, still less empathise with. For the rest of us, for whom the odd bender is not a political statement but a welcome fact of life, we should resist the temptation to buy into the cult of ‘responsible drinking’ and remember what we are doing in the pub in the first place.
Already, there are too many twentysomething women on broken detox diets crying into their alcopops about how they know they drink too much. There are too many single men staying ‘just for the one’ before driving home to their X-box and pizza-and-Pepsi meal deal. There is too much consensus that we need to change the licensing laws because we have a cultural ‘drinking problem’ (rather than simply changing the law to allow us to have a drink when we want it). There is too much no smoking at the bar, no swearing at the bar, no standing at the bar and no going to the bar too many times.
We know that, every now and then, one very important reason to drink is to get drunk. We know that people with lost inhibitions generally don’t get raped, beaten up or bankrupt, but generally do become sexier, funnier, more honest and more sociable (even if they appeal only to other drunk people). And we know that humdrum everyday life is often better escaped from in a pub with colleagues, friends and strangers than obsessed upon over a nice bottle of wine with a therapist or mentor.
So let’s leave the official preoccupations with when we drink, how much we drink and why we drink to the medics, judges, politicians and policemen, and carry on drinking as we choose.
It is the grown-up thing to do: stand on your own two feet and get legless, Mick Hume, The Times (London), 24 December 2004
spiked-issue: Drink and drugs
(1) NHS fear over 24-hour drink plans, BBC, 3 January 2005; Super cop targets teen drinkers, The Times (London), 11 January 2005
(2) Relaxed pub laws have bred savages, judge says, The Times (London), 11 January 2005