Last of the summer wine?


Britain, booze, bingeing. Such buzzwords have dominated the media for the past few years, reflecting a general fear that the U.K has become Hogarth’s infamous Beer Street and Gin Lane. The rest of the world, especially America, has turned away in disgust at our drunken antics. Yet, apparently, the amount we drink is in decline. Young men claim to drink almost half the units per week they consumed in 1999. Is this change but a passing hangover, or are we genuinely sobering up?

Reassuringly, drink levels have fluctuated in the past, and there are grounds to believe the current decline is simply a blip. Historically British habits have been related to the money in their pocket, thus if there’s a recession we cut back. In the early 80s and 90s we stifled our cravings and contented ourselves with an orange juice. And given we’re in the biggest recession in modern memory one might be forgiven for assuming only poverty could curb our self-destruction. The current decline however, started in 2002.

We might ask, what drove the gradual increase in drinking of modern Britain? The general consensus is on cheap alcohol. While we moan about the price of a pint it hasn’t stopped us going from four to an astonishing ten litres of pure alcohol per head since the war. The rise of Tesco and Carlsberg’s oh-so-special ‘special brew’ is parodied throughout the land, but the collapse in the price of wine is often ignored. Wine used to be, and in many ways still is, a luxury product for the aspiring middle classes. But given prices are as low as £3 a bottle, everyone should drink the stuff. ‘Ladette’ culture owes as much to the Liverpuddlian brewers of Labrini as to Jade Goody. Britain’s revered Saturday nights are of course threatened by the taxman. Her majesty receives £38p in the pound for a pint and swipes an astonishing £5 on a bottle of vodka. Cyprus levies only £1.20, hence its popularity with British holiday makers. Nonetheless, duties have been rising since the eighteenth century but it hasn’t stopped us drinking more. There is of course major movements aiming to raise taxes further, increase minimum prices to 50p/unit and end the deals of the supermarket loss-leaders. Don’t get too carried away however. One of the major problem groups, the demonized wine-sipping middle classes, has deep enough pockets to survive a hike in taxes. Money just won’t do. It’s essentially a problem with attitude.

According to the Telegraph, alcohol related problems cost the NHS £3 billion a year. That’s three times the amount spent on the Iraq war per annum. So it’s no wonder the medical profession is at the fore of campaigns to make us limit ourselves. The Department of Health has created TV adds range from a teenager smashing up his room to a man falling off a building after pretending he’s Spiderman. More importantly however is the ‘know your units’ campaign. If you go to your JCR now you’re likely to see a poster, and they can make for a surprising read. With bottles now detailing their units it’s impossible to avoid knowing how much you get through, and increasingly it’s how we measure our nights. For those with slightly more maturity realising their unit consumption has become a literally sobering experience. Maybe the golden moment when we decided to give our livers a break has finally arrived. Arrived that is, only for the non-student and non-‘Frank Gallagher’ bracket.

Multiculturalism-bashing is most definitely ‘in’ right now, especially among our political elite. What multiculturalism has done however, is give us a new perspective on our cultural habits, a view from outside the box. Until recently most people from the Indian subcontinent and the Islamic world didn’t consume alcohol. It’s likely, at this most ‘diverse’ institution, that you know someone who doesn’t drink. And as I’m sure you’ll know, the embarrassment of being somewhat inebriated in front of someone who’s dead sober is horrendous. I for one feel an immediate need to apologise for my stupidity. It is possible that the example of people who have a lively social life without alcohol is making us consider our habits. Not to mention they’ll be healthier, richer and up for 9 a.m lectures.

As students, we’re at the heart of Britain’s torrid relationship with drink. And yes, I too regularly exceed my four units a day. But when we have to encounter the real world will we soberly follow our dreams, or tragically drown our sorrows? Let’s hope, for once, the statistics aren’t lying.

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