Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Public displays of drunkenness : Heresy?

Yesterday (Jan 1st) Radio 4 thought it would be fun to have a go at the political correctness of those who disapprove of public drunkenness. Comedian Mark Steel described the experience of being totally drunk in public as "marvellous, enjoyable and fun", and other panellists described the fun time they'd had throwing up advocaat over the doorman when arriving at The Dorchester on Park Lane, or being too drunk to work at their journalism job in Fleet Street.

I went up to university a year early -- to the Royal School of Mines. Pretty much an all-male institution then, at which the ability to sink 12 pints of Tartan bitter before a meal (as a beer enthusiast I still remember, with shame, how appalling that stuff was) was more or less a requirement if you wanted to get the degree. I don't ever remember being incapably drunk as being 'marvellous, enjoyable and fun' : I do remember being hospitalised three times through being assaulted by fellow drunks, and I remember how deeply unpleasant it was being awake all night throwing up. Call me a spoil-sport, but it's not how I remember it. I do remember with fondness the camaraderie of going pub-crawling, but I reckon I'd have enjoyed it a lot more if I'd known when to stop.

If people want to get horribly drunk at a private party I guess that's up to them, but the point of this discussion was about what happens in public. And the one thing that no speaker dared to mention was what the impact on 'the public' of public drunkenness is, especially since the change in the licensing laws. I guess there always was violence associated with heavy drinking - it goes with the territory, as does vandalism, rape, serious accidents and all the other things that clog up A&E departments and courts, and tie up enormous police resources. (To say nothing of the price paid by people who succumb to alcoholism and their families -- it's a more pernicious drug than heroin.) The difference now is that, whereas in my youth the storm had mostly blown over by midnight, now it's all happening between 2:00 and 6:00 in the morning when most people are wanting to sleep.

I'm currently a city councillor in East Oxford : a vibrant place full of young people of course, but also many families and elderly residents. It has a thriving night life, too. But 'public displays of drunkenness' through the night create utter misery for many residents who feel powerless to do anything to stop their broken nights, three or four times a week, and the piles of vomit and discarded fast food rubbish the following morning are a depressing sight. The residents I speak to would mostly not have a big problem with it all if it weren't for the fact it's all happening at 3:00 in the morning.

The presumption of the programme was that the prevailing culture of our time disapproves of this kind of excess, but that's not what it feels like. The pressure on young people to drink to excess is immense and remorseless. Bringing closing time earlier would be fiercely resisted as an assault on people's human rights. Just as it would have been virtually impossible for me to stay within my alcohol limits when I was at college, so it would be a brave 'heretic' that managed to hold out today.

This part of the 'Heretics' programme, I'm afraid, got it badly wrong. There was absolutely nothing funny about it. A real heretic would have ridiculed the 'lets-all-get-bladdered' culture -- but would they have managed to get any laughs out of that, or would it have been too difficult to do it without appearing moralistic? That difficulty, I'd have thought, would have been a better indication that they were being genuinely 'heretical'.