Thursday 23 January 2014

Out of control?

A phrase you often near nowadays in relation to pubs is that they represent a “controlled drinking environment”. The implication is that the restraint imposed by the presence of the licensee and other customers leads people to drink in a more responsible manner than they would if they had bought a load of booze from Tesco and were drinking it at home.

This is a concept that has only really appeared in the past fifteen or so years. Back in the 1970s, when pubs accommodated the vast majority of drinking, whether responsible or irresponsible, such an idea would have been unheard of, except perhaps to distinguish well-run pubs from poorly-run ones. It’s only in recent years when on-trade consumption has been clearly losing ground to the off-trade that it’s become popularised as an attempt to distinguish the two.

The idea has some validity in the context of socialising young people into drinking in a restrained and moderate way. They’re much more likely to do that in pubs under the watchful eye of the licensee and older customers than experimenting on their own on a park bench. But, as a concept applied to general adult drinking, it’s basically special pleading that bears little relation to reality.

People drinking in pubs are likely to consume considerably more per session than those doing it at home, and are also more likely to be involved in drink-related disorder, whether as victims or perpetrators, and also to be the innocent victims of traffic accidents. For many people, a weekly pub night is an opportunity to cut loose a bit, whereas at home even if they drank anything it would just be a glass of wine or a single bottle or can of beer.

Even in the best-run community pub (and how many of those are left?) you will find customers towards the end of Friday or Saturday night very much the worse for wear, if not actually drunk, and certainly guilty of binge-drinking as defined by the anti-drink lobby. You won’t be told that you’ve had enough until you’re staggering and slurring your words. If you’re in there every night you’ll be a loyal customer, not someone with a drink problem.

The alcohol-fuelled disorder that we see in some of our larger towns and cities is often laid at the door of “pre-loading” on cheap off-trade spirits before going out on the town. However, it seems somewhat perverse to blame the state people end up in on the first drink they had rather than the last, and people wouldn’t be pre-loading in the first place if the intention wasn’t to go out afterwards. If you’ve just been drinking at home or at a private party all evening you’re more likely to end up passed out on the sofa than throwing up in the middle of the High Street at 3 am. And someone in the on-trade has sold them that last drink that has put them in that state.

The point is also made that most of the people referred to hospitals with chronic alcoholism have been mainly drinking alcohol bought in the off-trade. No doubt that’s true, not least because it’s much cheaper, but it doesn’t mean cracking open a bottle of wine with Sunday lunch or a beer in front of the telly when watching Midsomer Murders is automatically going to set you on the road to rack and ruin. Going back a generation, many alcoholics were predominantly pub drinkers and, even now, there are a surprising number of people who are mainly drinking in pubs and clubs, but where the regularity and scale of their consumption must put them in the problem category. In fact a common pattern of alcoholism is people who give the appearance of engaging in enthusiastic but not abnormal social drinking in pubs but then secretly top it up at other times.

You sometimes hear anti-drink campaigners like Don Shenker and Sir Ian Gilmore praising the role of pubs and expressing regret that they have been allowed to decline. But this really comes across as breathtaking hypocrisy when over the years they have consistently opposed the liberalisation of licensing hours and supported every anti-pub measure and proposal such as the smoking ban, the duty escalator and cutting the drink-drive limit, not to mention encouraging a general anti-drink climate in society that has deterred responsible people from using pubs. They’re no more friends of pubs than the Faroe Islanders are friends of whales. They’re only expressing sympathy for pubs as a kind of divide-and-rule tactic because they can see they are on the slide. It wouldn’t surprise me if their equivalents of fifty years ago had been advocating a move to more at-home drinking with the family and with meals, as opposed to men boozing together in the pub, as a way of encouraging a more responsible approach.

Nobody who reads this blog could be left in any doubt that I see pubs as a valuable British tradition that has an important role to play in bringing people together and encouraging a sense of community, and at their best are havens of conviviality that bring pleasure to millions. It is very regrettable that, over the years, legislators and opinion-formers have done so much to undermine them. But to claim that, in comparison with at-home drinking, they have some kind of privileged moral status is frankly just silly and, in a wider context, distinctly unhelpful.

Over the years, for a variety of reasons, most of which fall under the category of “the tide of history”, there has been a marked shift away from on-trade drinking, and for most people their drinking is now a balance between the two depending on the context. Plenty of people probably never drink in a pub from one month to the next. The attitude of “we never have drink in the house” now comes across as distinctly old-fashioned. And it has to be pointed out that there’s a slight inconsistency in self-proclaimed beer lovers bewailing the plight of pubs while at the same time stocking up on obscure American and Belgian imported bottles from specialist off-licences.

To parrot the mantras of the anti-drink lobby about preloading on cheap vodka, the evils of white cider and drink being available at pocket-money prices does the wider cause of defending pubs, the brewing industry and responsible drinking no good. It is the mirror-image of the press hysteria about “binge-drink Britain” and weekend town-centre disorder. Each form of drinking can be done either responsibly or irresponsibly, and the vast majority of drinkers fall into the first category. Neither on- nor off-trade has a unique claim to the moral high ground.

If the anti-drink lobby is to be countered effectively it is essential to stop the pointless squabbling, accept that all forms of drinking have their positives and negatives, and present a united front. That is the lesson that needs to be learned from the successful campaign to scrap the beer duty escalator.


  1. Big post, lots of comments.

    2People drinking in pubs are likely to consume considerably more per session than those doing it at home"

    - depends on the context. I would say that is true for a quiet pint in front of the telly, but for an actual house party where people are mixing their own drinks etc, probably the opposite is true.

    "and are also more likely to be involved in drink-related disorder, whether as victims or perpetrators"

    - true, but only because disorder tends to rely on the presence of strangers to fight with, and you don't often find them eyeballing you from your own kitchen.

    "and also to be the innocent victims of traffic accidents."

    well yes, because you don't tend to walk home from your own house.

    wrt binge drinking. a) I think its vastly overblown. I've been out in city centres at 3am on hundreds if not thousands of occasions and mostly what you see is people singing and hugging. Fighting and passing out really are very rare. b) if people want to get drunk, what business is it of anyone else anyway? There seems to be a belief that people get paralytically drunk deliberately, which I find hard to believe. Its almost always an accident and should be treated with the same amount of sympathy as any other accident. People who deliberately drink themselves unconscious have a problem and clearly need treatment of some sort.

    The difference between drinking in a pub vs drinking at home is all about engaging with the local community. People don't talk to each other as they wander round the shops anymore, so drinking together in the pub is generally the only way that people ever actually speak to anyone from their local community. How can that be a bad thing? Sadly the decline in pub attendance and the rise in isolation and depression amongst all age groups are going hand in hand. We're a naturally sociable species, yet so many people can go a day without talking to a single person.

  2. Cookie, you will note that I used your point about "blaming it on the first drink, not the last" ;-)

  3. Your blog gets better the more you come round to my opinion, Mudge ;)


  4. Only one monitor, how quaint!

  5. The cartoon is from 1994 ;-)

    Today your mobile phone has more computer power.

  6. Shops like the Ronnies "four candles" sketch no longer exist, but the joke works so long as you've not seen it 300 times before.

    People who don't need people are the happiest people. Society has got better. Social interaction has declined, and with it pubs, churches, community, knowing your neighbours names because life is nicer that way. Pubs are full of odd balls. People with beards telling you the pedigree is drinking well today. Chippy tea, Xbox live, can of lout, tup the missus, stare at the ceiling pondering the existential nature of a moment post coital happiness in a day of general tedium and misery is all better than a pint of pong in a dumpy old mans pub.

    and Mudge is right, it's no more or less "responsible"

  7. Go in Spoons at 11.30 am. At each table, one middle-aged or elderly bloke with a plastic carrier bag and possibly a copy of the Sun or Mirror, drinking a pint of what looks like JS Extra Smooth. Not exactly much community engagement there.

  8. Well whether or not you think its a good thing, I think the point is that the decline of the pub and the decline of day-to-day social interaction are not just related, they're exactly the same phenomenon.

    People can't express concern about growing anomie and isolation in our communities and simultaneously offer no support for pubs and drinkers, its a self contradiction.

  9. yeah but that's spoons, isn't it? Its quite deliberately as far away from a traditional community pub as its possible to be.

  10. And how many pubs actually qualify as "traditional community pubs" nowadays?

    At one time there was a type of pub often described as "a local in the heart of town" where the kind of drinkers who now use Wetherspoons would gather, the Tiviot in Stockport being a good example. Very hard to find now.

  11. Loads! How many pubs have pool teams, darts teams or football or cricket teams? Wherever I've lived there have always been plenty of pubs around where if you go in often enough the landlord and regulars start to say hello and try to persuade you to play for the darts team.
    Used to go to one place in Notts that had a disco every Friday and Saturday night. It was always the same old faces - to start with it felt like gatecrashing a wedding, everyone seemed to know each other.

  12. These traditional community pubs weren't if you were black or a women or anything other than white middle aged male. Then there was one room for the middle class suits and another for the working class.

    If anything, the modern spoons achieves more of the admirable aims of a traditional community pub than those boozers which laid claim to it ever did.

  13. The surviving community pubs are the ones the local CAMRA members studiously avoid on their way to the multi-beer alehouse. And then slag off the beer quality when they visit on their biannual pub crawl.

  14. Yes, if there is an unfortunate correlation it is that good old fashioned community pubs tend to sell rather crappy beer.

    Its such a shame, you'd think they could at least stick a few bottles in the fridge for the occasional pretentious ponce.

  15. I don't Mudge.

    I stand back, wait for you to buy a begrudging half and sip it, then wait and see if you complain. Then I either buy a begrudging half or turn around and leave you to get your money back in the rush to end up in the multi-beer alehouse.

  16. An excellent and well thought out post, Mudgie. As someone who now regularly drinks much more at home than I do in pubs, I can vouch for the fact that far less alcohol is consumed indoors than it would be on licensed premises. Typically at home, I will just have the one bottle (500ml) of beer of an evening; whereas when out with friends, and drinking in a pub, 3-4 pints would not be unusual.

    If I had a decent pub, within walking distance, things might be a little different though. Uncouth oiks wearing football shirts, swilling Fosters whilst shouting obscenities at a TV screen, sum up most pubs within walking distance. Either that or an overpriced eatery, selling big-brand, bland southern beers pulled through a sparkler, and it's small wonder I do most of my drinking within the comfort of my own home!

    I do miss the social side of having a decent local though. Somewhere you can walk in and be recognised by the licensee or bar staff, and somewhere where you will almost invariably bump into someone you know.

  17. Martin, Cambridge24 January 2014 at 00:00

    I wish more people would tell me the Pedigree is keeping well today, Cookie.

    NB. Finally I agree with pyo; drunken debauchery only exists in a video of Middlesbrough's from c.2001, my own recent night outs in Swansea, Newcastle and Cambridge have found depressingly sober behaviour.

  18. @Martin, You wanna come out on one of Mudgies beard club pub crawls. I went out on one once, just to find out about it and good god it opened my eyes. I thought to myself, you know, I can't criticise what I don't understand. I'll take up the invite and find out for myself. Jesus wept, the debauchery.

    One word "bacchanalia"

  19. But, Cookie, if you remember you started it by changing the subject of conversation from hop varieties to how fit those lasses looked. I have to say they didn't seem particularly athletic to me.


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