Beer without tears

Nick Cohen
Sunday November 12, 2006
The Observer

A few years ago, anthropologists working for the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford showed British pub-goers as an exotic tribe whose strange rituals made them as mysterious to outsiders as the mountain peoples of Papua New Guinea. After visiting 800 pubs in what must have been one of the most gruelling exercises in field research ever undertaken by the University of Oxford, Kate Fox and her fellow scholars produced Passport to the Pub (published 1996), a guide for unwary tourists.
They told them never to imitate the French couple the researchers saw storming out after 25 minutes because ‘the waiters hadn’t served them’. The American they overheard telling the landlord of the Red Lion in a charming village that it was ‘much nicer than the other pubs I have visited in the Red Lion chain’ didn’t get Britain either.

The anthropologists put tourists right on the intricacies of everything from standing a round to recognising a regular’s stool and, in the process, presented a flattering picture of the British way with alcohol that Charles Dickens or George Orwell would have recognised.

A foreigner might not realise it, but ordering a drink requires an understanding of the taboos that turn a potentially dangerous drug into a harmless pleasure. ‘You must attract the attention of the bar staff without making any noise or resorting to the vulgarity of too obvious gesticulation,’ they explain. ‘The ritual procedure is best described as like an Ingmar Bergman film in which the twitch of an eyebrow speaks volumes.’

You must never jump ‘the invisible queue’ at the bar, they continue, or everyone will notice your pushiness. You may hear cries of: ‘Get a move on!’ or: ‘A man could die of thirst in this pub!’ but have no right to shout yourself. ‘The only people permitted to make such remarks are established regulars and the remarks are made in the context of the special etiquette governing relations between bar staff and regulars.’

They were describing a culture that handled drink with care. You showed your respect for others by waiting your turn. You didn’t shout out your order because you would interrupt the conversations of other drinkers. That the regulars could break the rules suggested pubs were cliquey, but there’s nothing wrong with that, because people in a clique know each other and, therefore, don’t get fighting drunk for fear of the social stigma which would greet them the next morning.

I’m a mere journalist and don’t drink in as many pubs as Oxford dons. I visit them occasionally, however, when my editors insist I must, and see that a lot of the old culture survives. The researchers proved they weren’t hopeless nostalgics with an Ealing comedy view of Britain when they produced a report on links between drinking and crime to go alongside the guide for tourists.

But they concluded that people who went on about pub violence ran the risk of being caught up in ‘moral panics’: hysterical overreactions whipped up by the media. Of all the pubs they examined, they found very few where you could guarantee you would see a fight.

I guess that’s still true today. I’m certain the government has every right to be pleased with itself after ministers faced down a panic as great as the scares about the millennium bug crashing computers and the MMR jab causing autism to push through the relaxation of licensing laws in November 2005.

One year on and all those who predicted mayhem on the streets, myself included, should be looking a little shamefaced. There’s been no increase in crime because pubs can close later. Indeed, there’s a little evidence that the easing of the pressure to get the beers in before the 11pm deadline has reduced violence. Even if the government’s hopes of turning us into sophisticated Continentals who can nurse a glass of chianti through an evening come to nothing, we’re certainly a no more violent society that we were before the reform.

Yet I’m uneasy about sociologists who smugly say that their fellow citizens are being swept away by ‘moral panics’ which they are too sophisticated to fall for. They can’t just say that fears are irrational, they have to prove it.

In the case of drink, the rational reasons to be alarmed are growing. Last week, the Office for National Statistics said that the number of people dying from drink-related illnesses doubled from 4,144 in 1991, the year before the Oxford anthropologists began their mammoth pub crawl for their book, to 8,386 in 2005. Alcohol Concern says that if you don’t just look at the cancers, liver disease and heart attacks, but the fatal car crashes, suicides and murders, the true 2005 figure was 22,000 deaths.

Very many research papers and newspaper articles have explored the reasons why, but they tend to ignore the breakdown of constraints. The pubs people worry about are the city-centre barns where the staff don’t know the customers and the customers don’t know each other. The danger isn’t cheap shots of vodka – alcohol is cheaper on the Continent – or ‘vertical drinking’ – there have always been drinkers who prefer to stand at the bar – but the absence of the elaborate constraints in locals which stop drinkers getting too drunk for fear of the social shame which will follow.

Add to that the opportunities to buy alcohol to take home in every supermarket and future anthropologists will have a far more complicated task. They will still be able to find pubs whose unspoken rules haven’t changed much in decades. But they will also need to show tourists bars which turn into vomitoriums at midnight and lonely people drinking themselves to oblivion behind closed curtains.

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