Mine is shaping up to be a varied and illustrious binge-drinking career. From the first time I got drunk, at 14 – having boldly decided that a two-litre bottle of White Lightning cider was the best way to get over a breakup (and land me in hospital) – to guzzling beer through a funnel while at university, to present-day bouts of getting hammered in the kitchen, it’s been a bumpy, sick-making ride. And, despite the fact my hangovers have begun to transmogrify from tolerable annoyances into day-long periods of apocalyptic torture, I’m still doing it. Like many others, I ignore the health risks and the horror stories, because, in all honesty, I love drinking.
It hardly needs stating that the UK and Ireland have a binge-drinking problem with the potential for fatal consequences. A 19-year-old, Jonny Byrne, died on Saturday, after downing a pint and jumping into a river as part of a game called NekNomination. The game, from what I can gather, is imported from Australia, another country that struggles with moderation (this week a young woman there inexplicably swallowed a goldfish while playing the same game). And police suspect that Megan Roberts, a teenager who went missing in York in late January, may have fallen into the river Ouse after a night of drinking.
Understandably, tragic stories such as these tend to provoke moral panic. While ministers have dropped minimum alcohol pricing proposals, the Home Office is still intending to use existing licensing regulations in order to prevent supermarkets selling alcohol at below cost. Not only are these measures likely to have an impact only on a mere 1.3% of sales, they also ignore several underlying factors. Alcohol is dirt cheap elsewhere in Europe, but in countries such as France and Italy – where alcohol is consumed regularly but in a leisurely, aperitif fashion, often while smoking and looking out on to a piazza – there is no “binge-drinking epidemic”. France (a nation that, according to World Health Organisation statistics, actually drinks more than us) points and laughs at le binge drinking across the Channel. We have an issue with so-called drinking urgency that extending pub opening times hasn’t tackled.
I have a theory about Britain’s bingeing but it is, admittedly, one that I came up with in the pub. I’ve come to believe that our small island has a unique combination of factors that results in our seemingly indefatigable urge to get wasted. It has roots in our class system, which has seen the rich stockpile wealth and the poor go from the medieval alehouses that flourished in the wake of the Black Death to Wetherspoons, via Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane.
The industrial revolution gave birth to the modern pattern of alternating monotonous, silent work with noisy, drunken piss-ups. Now we work more hours than any other country in Europe. By contrast, many French people still take two hours at lunch.
It’s the crappy weather, too, the atavistic lure of a roaring fire and the warmth of the pub on dark winter afternoons. Historically pubs gave the overcrowded, urban poor a surrogate home away from the slums, which is perhaps why so many of them still feel like someone’s living room. We’re losing some of that now, but the need for a short, sharp burst of comfort remains, and can be seen echoed in modern, competitive drinking games.
It’s also, I think, a nationwide lack of confidence, an emotional reserve. This is a cliche, but one that’s undeniable in the face of all those boozed-up first kisses and late-night street rows between red-faced people rattling with repressed anger, like pressure cookers. Combine that with the lure of the taboo created by a society that tells parents not to let their children see them drink, and you end up with a country of bloated drunkards (myself included) whose habits are impossible to legislate away.
No law is a match for the centuries-old need for a few hours of joyful, rebellious oblivion. How a government could ever go about sobering us up effectively is anyone’s guess, but I do know one thing: we’ll drink whatever the cost.