Thursday, 19 March 2009

Binging on History

Monday saw another interesting article by Tristram Hunt on an issue of contemporary concern here. This time the topic is that of binge drinking Brits. It’s a fine example of the way in which history can inform contemporary debate for the benefit of all. The key point is that Britons have always liked to consume a lot of drink; no lingering over a thimbleful of pastis here.

But to counter that British propensity to neck things back, two developments occurred, largely as a reaction to the debauchery and squalor of 18th century urban life depicted in Hogarth’s Gin Lane. The first is suggested by that cartoon’s much less well-known companion piece, Beer Alley, in which the virtues of good old British Ale – weak in alcohol, rich in taste – is espoused. A contemporary analogy would be to campaign for the replacement of full-strength ‘continental’ lagers with bitters and milds (by taxing them less?).

The other requirement, one of the great civilising missions of the Victorians, is the licensed public house, ‘the pub’, four of which now close every day. The foolish attempt to make Mediterraneans of Britons – with the onset of all day drinking, the widespread availability of very strong New World wines, and the virtual elimination of the professional publican – has not brought the civilities of Siena to our high streets, but it has all but destroyed one of Britain’s great and democratic institutions. More pubs = less drink.

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