The Null Device

Drinking in England

A (possibly somewhat biased) social history of drinking in England reveals that talk of a pathology of "binge drinking" is more the product of Victorian squeamishness and snobbery than anything else:
In fact we are rather poor drinkers compared with our ancestors. Queen Elizabeth I was renowned for drinking ale stronger than any of her courtiers could take. During her reign, British beers were so popular abroad that exports were only permitted if sufficient quantities of wood to replace the casks used was imported. Elizabethan brewers were often urged to reduce the formidable strengths of their beers, one of which, Pharaoh, was so named because it "would not let the people go". James took a similar line, only to be told that the brewers would be more minded to follow his advice were he rather more prompt in settling his bills.
Expressions like "binge drinking" tell us less about our present drinking habits than they do about the neo-Puritan climate we live in. In truth the drinking habits of many have not changed greatly, but they are seen from the standpoint of a society that does not recognise that the values and attitudes of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras were the exception rather than the rule.

Meanwhile, England's drinking problems come not from an excess love for beer, but ultimately from its displacement by things such as gin.

Gin forced people to realise for the first time that it was possible to make intoxicating beverages that were not sustaining and wholesome, and from then it was but a short step to demonising alcohol in all its guises, to separate the middle and upper classes from their previous habits and haunts, and to allow them to convince themselves that their domestic consumption of wine and gin was somehow superior. This attitude prevails today, principally perpetuated by newspapers.

The author, former secretary general of the Society of Independent Brewers, concludes to say that getting smashed on good English ale can be a fine thing indeed:

If journalists would stop writing hysterical leaders about "24-hour drinking" and turn their hands instead to thoughtful drinks page features about the merits of our national drink, that would be useful in improving debate and reconnecting us with our forgotten history. Drunkenness is an attribute of those who do not appreciate what they are consuming, not of those who do.

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