Brits On The Piss

Stephen Pollard has a fine piece on the differences between British and European drinking cultures.

The roots behind that difference go far deeper than drink, and range across…well – how long have you got? They lie in the degradation of British culture itself: the hero worship status accorded to louts, the infantilisation of public debate, the decline of any generally accepted notion of acceptable public behaviour (spitting in the street, now barely even noticed, is merely a step away from vomiting), the failure of schools to instil a worthwhile sense of self-worth and responsibility in those they churn out, and pretty much everything else you can think of which is wrong with Britain today. They all have an effect on the way we live our lives, and one of those effects is a drinking culture which reduces pleasure to drunkenness.

He’s right about the drinking to get drunk culture in the UK. But boozy groups of lads on a Saturday night were with us long before the decay of moral values that he refers to. I suppose what is noticably new over the past decade or so is the amount of alcopopped-up gangs of badly under-dressed lasses rolling around town and city centres. Its certainly what my foreign friends notice early on in their trips to the UK.

And as Stephen says it really is different in many parts of Europe. In Italy, for example, to be drunk is actually a social embarassment. A friend of mine who was an English teacher in Milan discovered this when asked by his Italian collegue if he had enjoyed his weekend. He told them that yes he had “got drunk” on the Saturday. “Oh dear, I’m sorry” replied the Italian.

Some Italians do drink a lot but they do so over a long night eating good food with friends rather than whamming back the beers in a three hour rush with only a packet of cheese and onion crisps to accompany the alcohol.

But, come on, there are places in Europe that are as bad as Britain for the volume of drinking.

I once travelled on the ferry from Malmo to Copenhagen with a regular Friday night group of Swedes who were on a drinking trip to take advantage of the cheaper Danish prices – it was messy. And the Germans, the Austrians, the Finns? The Finns?

And what about our new EU member states? Hungary where middle-aged secretaries knock back a palinka schnapps before getting the bus to work and where even graveyards have bars? (Yes, I have)

Ever had a night out in Bratislava or Prague? And what about the Poles? Well if you have ever seen Poles on holiday knocking back vodka at breakfast, you’ll know what I mean.

At the risk of merely confirming Stephen’s description of the Brit boozer, I’ve been drunk or been with drunken people in most parts of Europe and on the whole it has been fun. I do actually enjoy the light-headed feeling that alcohol delivers.

But Stephen is right that there is something deeply unpleasant about British drinking culture. Just I don’t think its the boozing itself that’s the main problem.

With the exception of one unfortunate incident involving a night club bouncer, the floor and my head, my nights out in scores of European towns and cities over the past decade have been violence free.

More than that, apart from the occassions when I have inadvertently wandered into bars frequented by members of organised crime networks, they have been free of even the hint or the threat of violence.

This is all the more remarkable given that I tend not to drink in up-market bars and that more often than not I walk into ‘dives’ as a total stranger and end up inviting myself into other people’s conversations.

It is the violence and more often than not the threat of violence that is the difference between Britain and Europe’s nightime cultures.

How to explain the thug who a few years ago back in Lancashire walked around the entire club I was in asking everyone of fighting age, whether he knew them or not, if they thought his girlfriend was fat?

How to explain that after everyone had nervously told him that no, no, no, his girlfriend was not fat (but no-one was stupid enough to say that she was also attractive) my drinking pal decided to say “She’s as fat as f**” with the predictable result?

It starts at school. Friends whose children are growing up in Europe tell me that their kids rarely have to worry about violent bullying or the big debate over who is the ‘hard’ of the class. Yet my memories of schooldays are littered with scraps, challenges and gang battles. The schoolyard attitudes continue in the pubs.

Maybe it is due to the kind of establishments I first encountered as a teenager but whenever I walk into a pub in the centre of Manchester or London I find myself automatically scouting the place for potential signs of trouble.

I just never even give such things a thought when I’m in Europe – unless there are some English voices in the place.