Visitors to London often remark on our peculiar relationship with alcohol. “In no city in the world is drunkenness among the lower classes so obtrusive as in the British metropolis,” remarked German writer R. Kron in 1901. For her London Journal of 1839, French journalist Flora Tristan documented the “illustrious scions of the English nobility” at a gin palace, downing spirits, removing their suspenders, and playing sadistic tricks. “It makes the moral condition of England better understood than anything one might say.”
Returning to the London summer after a year living abroad, I begin to catch their drift. There can be few global capitals where the refusal of a warm glass of pinot grigio at a two-year-old’s birthday party is seen as a faux pas, and where bellowing in the street is seen as normal. I organised drinks at Swift in Soho to mark my return from overseas. Refamiliarising myself with the marauding, cackling, ranting, snogging, steaming carousers of Old Compton Street on a weeknight startled even this seasoned cocktail columnist.
It didn’t help that I’d returned from clean-living Los Angeles, where socialising tends to revolve around wholesome activities such as hiking up canyons and joining sex cults. It’s not that people don’t drink over there, it’s just that it’s more of an empowered lifestyle choice rather than a quasi-medicinal social crutch. Californians tend to come straight out with their neuroses rather than insisting they’re fine only to confess after eight Aperol spritzes that their life is a mess. And you never hear the phrase: “GOD I NEED A DRINK,” as you do here.
“Drinking is self-impeding, and things in southern California tend to be more about how to increase your capacity to be more of who you are,” says my friend David Stewart, founder of LA-based media company Ageist. “People here say ‘God, I need my spin class’. That sort of desperate drinking you do is thought of in the same way as smoking.” Public drinking is prohibited in most of California — even on the beach.
I’m not in favour of such draconian measures but I try (and usually fail) to observe a 2:5 diet — two days on and five days off. It’s striking how upset Londoners get about this. “I just don’t think that’s acceptable,” as a friend said when I declined a midnight Negroni recently.
It’s not just the drinking I find myself recoiling from, it’s the talking about drinking. Look at any rack of birthday cards — an astonishingly high proportion of them reference alcohol. It’s as if we need not just alcohol but a certain idea of alcohol to function.
Social anthropologists observe that while almost every society has rituals associated with alcohol these usually have more to do with the society than any inherent properties of alcohol. Around the Mediterranean, for example, you tend to find “integrated” drinking cultures. The French drink more than twice as much wine per head as the British but there it’s seen as a normal, morally neutral part of one’s diet. No one assumes it will make you want to punch people or tongue your colleagues.
In more northerly drinking cultures (Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, Russia) alcohol plays a more charged “forbidden fruit” role, more closely associated with loosening inhibitions — as well as social problems, moral panics and temperance movements.
In her study, Watching the English, the anthropologist Kate Fox notes that the idea of alcohol making you rowdy is far from commonplace. “By blaming booze we sidestep the uncomfortable question of why the English, so widely admired for our courtesy, reserve and restraint, should also be renowned for our oafishness, crudeness and violence.”
Fox’s hypothesis is that the English suffer from a “chronic sociability disorder…that makes it difficult for us to express emotion and engage in the kind of casual friendly interaction that seems to come naturally to most other nations.”
This leads to one of two apparently contradictory responses: excessive courtesy and awkwardness, or the scenes you might see at Infernos. They’re two sides of the same coin.
There are well-observed placebo effects with alcohol, suggesting that we drink alcohol to let us behave in certain ways. A friend recently attended a conference in Amsterdam where she spent an evening drinking a delicious local beer, becoming steadily more gossipy about her colleagues. It was only when she went home after six pints that she noticed an advert for the beer she’d been drinking: it was non-alcoholic.
While the idea that it’s OK to act differently while drinking is common across the UK, there are a few London particulars when it comes to drinking. Here, people don’t nip home after work, get changed and have dinner before going out for a pint — the distances are usually too great. Which means much of our drinking is done straight after work without any of the sustenance that most other drinking culture relies upon . Drink promotes gossiping, and provides material to gossip about.
It’s not only native Londoners who behave this way but tourists, who would never dream of behaving that way in Marseille or Minneapolis but seem to adopt a “when in London” rule over here. Londoners are adept at assimilating drinking rituals from around the world and passing them off as our own. We’ll note that Italians do a nice line in aperitivos and say: “I’ll have a bit of that. Actually, we’ll put Negronis on tap.”
When you look closer, the distinctive parts of London’s drinking culture start to look less secure. According to recently published figures from the Mayor’s office, the 21st century has deprived London of a quarter of its pubs. And American-style anxiety about what we put in our bodies is becoming widespread. ONS figures show 56.9 per cent of British people aged 16 and over had had a drink in the last week, compared to 64.2 per cent in 2005.
Perhaps one reason London’s drinking now looks unhealthy is because it’s associated with an older generation — a bit like smoking. There are chi-chi dry bars such as Redemption while teetotallers Ruby Warrington and Biet Simkin are bringing their cult Club SODA (“Sober Or Debating Abstinence) from New York to London next month. “What if it was cooler not to drink?” they ask. “What if consciously choosing a more sober life meant feeling ‘high’ more of the time?” (Stop it, you.)
Still, perhaps we’re replacing alcohol with other vices. One theory is that the decline in alcohol (and drug) consumption is linked to the rise of social media. A programmer friend recently likened the abandon with which we use social media now to the gin craze the artist Hogarth depicted. Back in the 18th century, the availability of cheap spirits inspired one of London’s great moral panics. It took decades before we began to consume the stuff responsibly — in many ways, we’re still learning.