Far from promising a wild weekend, the UK seaside town of Brighton is fast degenerating into a centre of booze-confiscating puritanism.
In the build-up to my recent move from London to Brighton I became sadly familiar with a common response to my relocation: ‘It’s much more chilled, you’ll get away from the commuter grind.’ I tried to come back with a pointed defence of our wonderful capital and specified my particularly ‘un-chilled’ reason for moving to the south coast: the thought of Brighton’s residual decadence and free-spirited atmosphere, a glorious hangover from Regency-era excesses.
No matter. Let’s imagine for a moment that Brighton is indeed a retreat from the rat race. How might one spend one’s leisure time here? Unwind with a crisp pint or a warming glass of red, perhaps? Well, as long as you stick to bars, cafés or pubs. The moment you step out of these places, you’re in grave danger of being approached by Brighton’s confiscation-happy Community Support Officers (CSOs) or by police officers who can fine you, pour away your drink or simply nick it (see the recent Manifesto Club report on this trend, here.).
Sauntering into a Brighton club, away from prying eyes, rest assured the lyrics you hear booming from the speakers have been checked by our censorious council for potentially ‘inciteful’ homophobic content. If a band takes to the stage, you can be safe in the knowledge that the club’s patrons will have gently coerced the audience into hushed silence with the popular ‘please don’t talk too loudly’ gig signs. If any of your friends are pregnant and wish to join you in the pub, beware the bar-room spies who recently saw fit to evict a pregnant lady from their Hove pub for the heinous anti-social act of trying to order a second pint.
If you feel disheartened by such obsessive codes of conduct you could try asking students for pointers on hip new joints. But they better not belong to the sobrietous Sussex or Brighton Student Unions. Along with anti-drink charities, the unions this year attempted to stop Brighton’s annual, 1,800-strong, freshers’ pub crawl – the largest in the country. In nearby Eastbourne, local police told university students not to attend this apparently lethal and vile event.
Perhaps the idea of a seaside resort as a pleasure centre is an anachronism in our health-obsessed times. Parts of Brighton, which has been labelled the ‘muesli belt’, have evolved into an ungainly mix of clubbing hedonists and New Age health freaks. These two types are often rolled into a single, paradoxical individual who, I’ve observed at post-clubbing ‘chill out’ parties, insist on healthy snacks and bottled water after necking all manner of toxic substances hours earlier.
How has this infamous recreational playground become so ban-happy, so distanced from its unashamed pleasure-seeking history? Where has that heady mix of elegance, taste and debauchery that was the Regency period gone? A glance at social etiquette guides then and now provide a clue.
Antony Pasquin’s The New Brighton guide in 1796 boldly advises men to ‘reel into the theatre during the performance in a state of assumed intoxication, and be sure to disturb the audience’. (2) The code of conduct flyers sprinkled around the city today avoid such a mischievous, playful tone altogether. Today we’re sternly advised to drink in moderation or, ideally, to abstain from alcohol. Some of these contemporary etiquette guides may not last if, in an ironic twist, the Brighton flyering ban comes into force and destroys the hectoring leaflet disguised as ‘cool’ flyer. Here is a taster of one I recently picked up in a bar:
The most disturbing and revealing of the five commandments is: ‘Stay with your friends.’ The public space, in officialdom’s imagination, has become one filled with unspeakable menace, so fraught with danger, in fact, that they may as well have added ‘Stay at home’ for commandment six.
Beyond the mindset of Brighton law enforcement, in the common cultural sphere we have created a version of the human subject as incapable of personal restraint. This has provided much of the rationale for the recent smoking bans and informs most of the anti-alcohol imagery and initiatives today. I reported in spiked in 2007 on a Virgin Mobile, anti-‘drunk dialling’ venture that was a startling illustration of this increasing rejection of the notion of personal responsibility or human agency (see Don’t drink if you want to be merry). Since then Google has been pioneering a buffer between our drunken impulses and our potential e-mail recipients, with a Google employee inventing a system that will block or make you reconsider sending messages you might regret the next day (3).
Many pay lip service to the concept of an out-of-control booze Britain. Yet few perceive themselves to be part of the ugly drunken masses described with such obsessive frequency. We are also retreating more and more from social spaces, as evidenced by the sharp decline in pubs and pub customers. However, whether we stay in because of money worries or concerns about out-of-control behaviour is irrelevant to the bureaucrats and officials currently splicing up our public space into sanitised ‘safe zones’. The outside territory we are retreating from is being defined in our absence, shaped by a caricature of drunkenness. If a Brighton CSO officer fancies pouring your beer down the drain tonight, he will not be seeing you but a cartoon ASBO being taken straight out of a tabloid nightmare.
Anna Travis is a lecturer in English Literature and Cultural Studies, based in Brighton.
Previously on spiked
Josie Appleton showed how drinking control laws allow the police to behave like gangsters. Suzy Dean raised a glass to freedom of choice. Brendan O’Neill questioned the politics of misbehaviour. Elsewhere, he thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Tim Black argued that Scottish plans to tax drinkers amounted to a sin tax.Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.
(1) Stamp Out Binge Drinking, Juice News, 18 March 2008
(2) Cited in The Neat and Nippy Guide to Brighton’s History, Christopher Horlock, S.B. Publications, 2003, p22
(3) Google Mail Goggles aims to end drunken email embarrassment, Guardian, Oct 07 2008