Thursday, 27 March 2014

Flirting with diversity and being open-minded

As an (occasional) academic, it’s good to be reminded that, amongst the pressures to have a clear argument that distinguishes my work from other people’s, I am able to change my mind and think again about certain issues.  On Wednesday, talking to the fascinating Rob Hazell from Flirt café bar in Bournemouth, I started to think afresh about alcohol and the night-time economy in Bournemouth.

When asked about my PhD, I’ve sometimes described it as an attempt to rehabilitate ‘binge’ drinking.

That’s not quite true, but one of the key arguments is that the ‘night-time high street’ is hugely varied, particularly when you focus on different people out drinking think about their own and others’ behaviour.

The idea of a monolithic ‘binge’ drinking culture is attractive to certain parts of the media, because it allows them to run stories that paint people’s behaviour as some sort of crisis.

However, it’s not just the media that paint this picture; academics do it too.  The work of lots of them identifies a ‘culture of intoxication’ and places this in the context of a liberalisation of alcohol regulation in the UK, and the dominance of a few big companies who, in some of the more extreme versions of this interpretation, are seen as having ‘seduced’ young people into drinking excessively.

My argument has always been that people are much more intelligent than this, and are able to create their own meanings for different practices and people within this apparently ‘homogenised’ landscape of night-time drinking.

The ‘industry’ certainly knows there’s a desire for (perceived) variety and diversity – but some academics have been quick to describe this as only the illusion of heterogeneity.

In my PhD, I argued that actually the apparently superficial distinctions within this homogeneity are crucial for understanding alcohol use in Britain – whatever your perspective or aim.  If you want to change their behaviour, it’s no good dismissing (young) drinkers as a homogeneous group, because they won’t all respond to the same messages.  (Of course, the interpretation that sees young drinkers largely as pawns in a corporately-controlled world doesn’t think there’s any point in talking to those possessed by false consciousness.)

Because of the way ideas like ‘diversity’ and ‘balance’ and a ‘mixed’ night-time economy have been used, I’ve been very sceptical of them.  Bev Skeggs has a great concept of the ‘cosmopolitan limit’ – a lot of categories, or types of ‘diversity’ are considered desirable, but some categories (or types of people) are excluded from this.  I found this very clearly in my research, where ‘chavs’ were excluded from a specific venue that was lauded for having a ‘mix’ of ‘different’ customers.

Similarly, when local officials talk about encouraging a better ‘mix’ or ‘balance’ of venue types, they’re often really looking for a different drinking style to dominate – ‘balance’ doesn’t mean a range of venues, it means moderation and balance in one’s approach to drinking.  Something completely at odds with what might be called ‘binge’ drinking (but I would call the ‘carnivalesque’.)

That is, the idea of ‘diversity’ can be exclusionary.

So when venues trumpet the ‘diversity’ of their clientele, I’m naturally suspicious of who might be excluded from that group.

So I was pleasantly surprised on Wednesday afternoon, when Rob Hazell won me over.  He talked about the diversity of Flirt’s clientele, and how the bar is considered a safe space for a whole range of people within the town.  Now, it might not have absolutely every type of person in the town, but it does have a variety, and actually I believed it was more than a business to Rob and co-founder Peter.  The place had evolved from genuine values and vision.

Now contrast this with 60 Million Postcards.  I had chosen these two venues to talk to, because they were picked out as examples of good practice in a 2012 report called ‘Bournemouth by Night’ produced by Feria Urbanism for Bournemouth Council.

The manager from 60 Million told me that he wasn’t allowed to participate in an interview that might lead to a publication, and that I should get in touch with head office.  To be fair, I only sent them an email a few days ago, but I haven’t had a reply – whereas Rob was keen, prompt and communicative when he realised he might be late for our time slot.

As you can tell from my description of some of the academic work on the night-time economy, I’m not terribly fond of the interpretation that emphasises the corporate ownership behind the options available to young people – because these analyses tend to suggest people are cultural dupes.

However, I started to think again about this in another moment of open-mindedness in December, when I saw Rob Hollands (the external examiner for my PhD, incidentally, though he wasn’t effusive about it!) at the Drinking Dilemmas conference run by the BSA Alcohol Study Group.  I’m not hugely keen on Rob’s vision of the ideal night-time economy, and it is just that: a personal preference.  He was talking favourably about squats and free raves, or alternatively a (formerly) working-class pub in Newcastle near his house, which has philosophy nights and such, and counts amongst its clientele social workers, teachers, academics and so on.

Personally, I find these venues and nights out cringeworthy; I’m perfectly happy in my Palmer’s or even Marston’s pub that hasn’t been gentrified (sadly, most of the Hall and Wodehouse ones around me seem to be being gentrified), and for someone reason I find ‘philosophy in the pub’ or ‘café scientifique’ nights somehow a bit awkward and embarrassing.  I don’t generally like the idea of cultural expertise, or connoisseurship, or intellectualism in that sense – and I enjoy getting drunk*, and have a suspicion that a lot of this is artifice hiding the fact that other people like that too.

However, on this occasion, I genuinely thought again about Rob’s vision of the ideal night-time economy.  The key point that made me think again was the issue with corporate ownership: although the night-time economy is seen as being good for local prosperity, most of the money spent in these venues will leave the area, and not be spent in other local businesses.  Head office won’t be in the local area, and the managers will often be brought in from a central pool, rather than being local residents, and so on.

When I looked at the Mitchells and Butlers website, to get the details for how to contact head office to see if I could talk to the manager at 60 Million, I saw the huge range (and variety) of venue brands they own.  As well as Toby and Crown Carveries, O’Neill’s and All Bar One (to name just a few) they also run the Castle brand of pubs, described as ‘pubs with true individuality’, and the ‘Village Pub and Kitchen’ chain – ‘a small group of pubs with an independent […er…] spirit’.  That is, they’re aiming to attract precisely those people who try to distinguish themselves from the ‘mainstream’ of the night-time economy (arguably symbolised by venues such as O’Neill’s and All Bar One).

Somehow, this form of ownership feeds perfectly into my discomfort with the idea of ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’: it’s really just another way to distinguish people from one another.  And that’s not what Flirt and Rob mean by diversity.  Maybe ownership does have something to do with it after all.

*I wrote a specific section in my PhD on how my background might affect my views on the subject.  P.153 here.

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