Friday, 8 August 2014

Budget day and the de-normalisation of drinking

I started writing this post thinking it would be the opposite to most of what I write on here, which tends to be material that – with a little more evidence, research and finessing – I think could be turned into academic work.  However, by the time I was a decent way in, I realised that while this was journalistic speculation, it was inevitably tainted with the overthinking and reliance on abstract concepts that characterises my academic work.  So apologies for that.  I’m hoping that it might still have something of interest in it.

For some reason, on Thursday morning I was reminded of a particular clip in a news item about Ken Clarke’s sacking in the Cabinet reshuffle.  He was drinking whisky while giving the Budget speech.  Drinking alcohol on this occasion isn’t actually unusual; in fact, it’s traditional.  Disraeli drank brandy and water, while Gladstone preferred sherry and a beaten egg (not to my taste, I have to say).  This changed when Gordon Brown was Chancellor, and neither of his successors has dared break with his example of drinking water.

This single example could be seen as very particular, and driven by one specific individual with his own history, preferences and fears.  However, it fits with broader trends.  Phil Mellows has written about the demise of the lunchtime pint, and I’ve experienced this even in the time since my first office job in 2005, when alcohol was happily drunk at lunchtime meals.

On Wednesday, I realised how much I’ve internalised this new norm.  I went for lunch at the (CAMRA-award-winning) local social club (the Colliton Club, which is in the building used as the model for Lucetta’s house in The Mayor of Casterbridge).  Although I’m often tempted by the thought of lunchtime drinking when I see the range of beers on offer there, I was genuinely shocked to see orders for beers and wines being made by a group of people dressed smartly enough to be staff on their lunch break.  They probably weren’t at work, as lunchtime drinking is so frowned upon, but the point is that my automatic reaction was, bizarrely, one of shock.

This is a reaction that sits oddly with the common conception that alcohol has become more normalised in British society – that it’s available at school discos and fêtes, or while you’re having your hair cut.

Although it’s hard to argue that the postwar period was one where Britain had a wonderful relationship with alcohol (despite lower rates of liver disease, drink driving deaths were much higher) there are aspects of this culture, which included the lunchtime pint, that aren’t too bad.

To understand this, I’d like to invoke my pet concept, the carnivalesque* – though actually this doesn’t tell the whole story.  Although it’s often said that Britain is a nation of incorrigible boozers, in fact not only do national drinking patterns change significantly over time, but alcohol can be understood in a range of ways depending on the context.  So, the Christmas at Blackpool drinking described in The Pub and the People is very different to the everyday drinking that those same people did on a regular Wednesday evening.  The lunchtime pint – or Budget whisky – is quite different from the Friday night Jägerbomb.

Or is it?  I’d suggest that one of the reasons we see lunchtime drinking as odd now is that current public debate can’t handle the distinction.  The lunchtime pint is seen as a step towards oblivion.

This is partly the unavoidable result of drink driving campaigns – it is true and quite right that we should be wary of driving after even just one drink.  But this isn’t just about the dangers of intoxication; people think of the glass of wine after work in much the same way – only positively.

As I argue elsewhere (or at least try to, in articles under review), the idea of the carnivalesque is crucial for government, drinkers and the industry in distinguishing between different types of drinking.  However, underlying all these forms of drinking is the idea that alcohol is an intoxicant.

This might seem uncontroversial, and the sign of good alcohol education.  Organisations like Transform are always trying to highlight this, and I’ve done the same when T in the Park  supposedly banned ‘legal highs’ – except for the fact that it’s sponsored by the biggest of them all.

But such a view has a tendency to take the ‘drug’ out of context, and imagine intoxication as a pure process, when in fact drunkenness, at least, understood as a form of behaviour, isn’t this.  In contrast, it’s this distinction that is at the heart of the carnivalesque – it’s about something more than pharmacology; it’s about norms and culture.

And it’s here that the carnivalesque comes into its own.  My working theory is that, even if not everyone’s drinking in a carnivalesque way, now more than ever alcohol is associated with the carnivalesque, since our idea of intoxication is so imbued with this.  The lunchtime pint is, at some level, not seen as qualitatively different from the Friday night blow out.  The glass of wine after work doesn’t simply signify a ‘keying’ of a change in time; it’s also seen as a ‘release’ from the everyday – which is at the same time something more than pharmacological.

There are advantages to this, to be sure, but it’s also worth pondering the point that while the lunchtime pint and the Chancellor’s whisky became unacceptable, we all started drinking a bit more.

Alcohol might be more available and more visible than it used to be, and people might drink it every day, but it’s still far from ‘everyday’.  It doesn’t seem to be just another ‘ordinary commodity’ to the British public.

*For more detail about the carnivalesque, you could read one of my articles, but basically I mean drinking that’s public, exuberant, with different norms to everyday life.

1 comment:

  1. We have of course been drinking a bit less for over a decade now...

    But you have a good point, that drinking is increasingly seen as something to be ring-fenced from everyday life rather than integrated in it, which I would say ultimately isn't a healthy trend.

    In the past, a lot of people's drinking had a somewhat ritualistic aspect to it which put it into a social context and kept it within bounds - see this blogpost.