Inebriation news, mostly from Britain

British pubs are closing at the speed of a slow-moving cultural apocalypse.

If you’re rereading that sentence and looking for actual information, stop now. There’s less in it than meets the eye. We’ll get to actual information in a couple of paragraphs, but we’re still at the part of the post where I’m splattering verbiage in the hope that you’ll read on. In other words, it’s all fireworks, fancy footing, and mixed metaphors.

Not necessarily a great strategy, but a common one. Now for the information:

Since 2001, more than one in four British pubs has closed. According to the Office of National Statistics (yes, the number of pubs in the country is worthy of official notice), there were 52,500 in 2001 and 38,815 at some unspecified point in 2018.

I’m taking it on faith that that really is more than one in four.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. This is the season for them. I know I’m engaging in un-British activities when I say this, but I’m grateful to live in a climate where flowers bloom in the winter.

But that 2001 high point isn’t particularly high. In 1577, there was roughly one pub (or more accurately, one boozer) for every 200 people in England and Wales. That includes alehouses, inns, and taverns. Ah, now that was the golden age of getting shit-faced. It helped that sipping water was worse for your health than getting plastered all day every day, although a lot of what people drank would have been small beer–beer with a (relatively) low alcohol content.

Which you can still get drunk on, or mildly pie-eyed. You just have to work harder.

Today there are–well, I can’t find the number of pubs per person for the country as a whole, but Edinburgh has 274.7 per 100,000 residents. London has 40. The difference between the two numbers is enough to make me think they set up their studies differently –that maybe one city’s skewed the figures by counting shrubs as part of the population or the other got mixed up and counted bottled instead of bars.

Let’s just agree that Britain today has fewer bars per person than it did in the golden age. Fair enough?

Small, independent pubs are the most likely to close. Chains are still opening new, identikit branches. 

Why does anyone care? In the U.S., if someone told you the bar on the corner was closing, you’d be likely to say, “Great. No more drunks revving their cars at 1 a.m.” But unlike American bars, British pubs are social centers–a kind of public living room. They’re places a soap opera will latch onto as a way for all its characters to stumble over each other and create mayhem in each other’s lives.

Not that people don’t roll out bellowing at 1 a.m. Or singing. They do. And it annoys the neighbors. But pubs have enough of a role that it balances out the annoyance, at least somewhat.

The blame for pub closures gets thrown in all direction–high taxes, high prices, changing drinking habits, higher wages. Who knew that people working in pubs are so selfish that they think getting paid enough to live on is a good idea? Don’t they know an entire culture rests on them living on the pay they’re offered?

Oddly enough, it was a pub owners association that mentioned higher wages as part of the problem.

*

The pubs available to members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords aren’t under threat. Unless being noticed by the public threatens them, which it may eventually. Professor David Nutt, a former government advisor on drug policy, has suggested breathalyzing MPs before they vote.

Why? Well, Parliament has thirty bars on site. Or more. Or possibly not that many. The journalist whose work I’m quoting couldn’t be sure and fell back on saying he’d been told there are nearly thirty.

A different article estimates about a dozen bars. That’s a noticeable difference. Maybe the second article only counted bars, not places that served both food and alcohol. Maybe no one’s ever stayed sober long enough to do an accurate count. The first article listed a lot more than a dozen by name, so I’m going with the higher estimate.  

Parliament’s drinks are cheap because they’re subsidized, and that costs the country £8 million a year. Or more, since that number comes from 2016.

The result is a lot of drinking, and stories of drunken MPs are easy–not to mention fun–to find. In 1783, William Pitt the Younger (not to be confused with William Pitt the Elder) was drunk enough to vomit behind the Speaker’s chair during a debate. Herbert Asquith (prime minister from 1908 to 1916) drank enough that he was known as Squiffy.

What’s squiffy? Slightly drunk.

According to tradition, the chancellor of the exchequer–that translates to the finance minister–is allowed to drink inside the chamber when he, she, or it delivers the budget. Probably because everyone figured they needed a stiff drink, but maybe the numbers make more sense that way. Parliamentary traditions are very strange and they’re treated as if they made absolute sense.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, “was said to have gotten so drunk before a budget debate that he had an embarrassing accident in his trousers and had to be locked in his office to prevent him from going to the chamber anyway. He drank himself to death shortly after losing his seat in 2015 general election.”

MP Eric Joyce was convicted of headbutting another MP in one of the bars and banned from drinking in parliament. (I have no idea how well that worked. I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on it being effective.) MP Mark Reckless missed an important vote because he was too drunk. As part of his apology (either that time or a different one–I haven’t been able to sort it out) he said, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember falling over.”

If that doesn’t excuse him, I don’t know what will.

All the major political parties are represented here, and some of the small ones.

All that drinking may contribute to the multiple incidents of sexual abuse that have been surfacing lately. Or may not. Close all the bars and we’ll find out.

So was Professor Nutt serious when he suggested breathalyzing MPs? Absolutely. As a culture, we don’t allow people to drive a car when they’re the worse for wear. Why should they be allowed to drive a country? 

The reason Professor Nutt is no longer an advisor on drug policy is that he said publicly that illegal drugs cause less damage than alcohol. I’m beginning to understand why nobody wanted to hear that.

*

But let’s not limit ourselves to politicians. Who are the country’s heavy drinkers? Well-to-do professionals, it turns out. People who earn more than £40,000 a year. The lower your income, the less you’re likely to drink much.

That sound you hear? That’s the sound of a stereotype smashing itself to bits on the floor of Parliament.

*

But why should we limit the discussion when the world offers us so many ways of getting shitfaced? The good folks who make Marlboro cigarettes are in negotiations to take over a Canadian company that produces marijuana. Shares in both companies soared when the news got out. Another tobacco company and the Coca Cola company are making similar moves. 

Maybe you had to be around in the sixties to find that funny.

*

A conference on the role of alcohol in human society was, as far as I can figure out, dedicated to the proposition that social drinking helped humans create social cohesion. The earliest humans got together for feasts. Then they found fermented fruit. Then they learned to help the fermentation process along. 

A recent excavation in Turkey found 10,000-year-old stone troughs that had been used to brew booze. In A Short History of Drunkenness, Mark Forsyth argues that the earliest cultivated wheat, einkorn, may have been grown not to make bread but beer. Researchers say it makes lousy bread but very good beer, although if humans had never tasted bread before, I’m not convinced they’d have thought it was bad. And they could easily have eaten the grain boiled. Boiled wheat is not only edible but good.

Which isn’t to say that they didn’t brew it. But let’s give the last word on this to an expert:

“We didn’t start farming because we wanted food–there was loads of food around,” Forsyth says.

*

Eco-minded brewers in Britain have started making beer from sandwich bread that would otherwise get thrown away. Some 24 million slices are thrown away every day.

The link above is to an article from Good Housekeeping. Do not for a minute kid yourself that I read Good Housekeeping or that I’m good at housekeeping. It was the unlikeliest of the available links, so of course I chose it.

How does anyone know how many slices get thrown away? Is there a wasted bread agency somewhere? Has the government outsourced the work or is it still being done by civil servants? Your guess is as good as mine and possibly better.

I imagine every cafe, restaurant, and cafeteria in the country having to make a note when a slice of bread’s thrown away. And every home kitchen. I once had a job where someone decided to find out what we were actually doing when we were out of their sight and asked us to fill in a form every fifteen minutes, noting down what we were doing at that exact moment.

Filling out your damn form, that’s what I’m doing. I wouldn’t want to base any serious research on the answers we gave, but it was for their own good. If they’d known, it wouldn’t have made them happy.

But back to bread and beer: Maybe their survey’s more accurate than the one I helped sabotage. Maybe smart refrigerators watch what we do outside their perfecdtly chilled interiors and send the Wasted Bread Commissin a message each time we set aside the ends of the loaf and wait till they go moldy so we can toss it away without feeling guilty.

For the record, my refrigerator is not smart. Neither is my phone. Neither are my dogs. The cat’s a fuckin’ genius but can’t be bothered to report on us. Cats are good about things like that.

I bake most of our bread and we eat it from one end of the loaf to the other. If you want to make beer, use your own bread.

114 thoughts on “Inebriation news, mostly from Britain

  1. EmRe the number of Parliamentary bars: perhaps a vote?…

    “Is there a wasted bread agency somewhere?” — No, you’re not really asking this question, right? 🤣

    Unusually colorful irrelevant photo, btw. Well, cheerio, or whatever you Brits are saying now…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Given the idiotic behaviour of our parliament, particularly in the past three years, I’d imagine they would be grateful if it was all attributable to excess alcohol rather than, as most of us believe, the fact that they really are all idiots. As for Mark Reckless, never has anyone proved more perfectly the concept of nominative determinism.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Wonderful, thank you Ellen. There is a controversy raging over here in Ireland – where pubs are closing at an equally alarming rate – over new legislation which bans drivers found to be exceeding the limit for alcohol in the blood when driving. The cops are breathalising people driving to work the morning after and the TDs (MPs) who voted for the legislation are now saying the cops are being too diligent!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know this is in the wrong language, but oy vey. They should ease up on drunk driving to protect the pubs? I know and appreciate the role they play in communities, but people not getting massacred on the roads also play a role. (Please ignore the grammatical mess in that last sentence. I’m tired. I declare this, for the moment, a grammar-free zone.)

      I’ve been impressed at how many people here take the idea of having a sober (or at least nearly sober) driver seriously. Not everybody, I admit. I seem to remember someone in the village having decided they were too drunk to walk home so they borrowed the car of someone who always hid the keys under the mat. Still, people are more aware of it than we were back in the day when I was drinking–and I’m sorry to say, driving.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yup. That’s about it! Especially rural Ireland where, it seems, farmers need to drive to and from the pub. (Back in the day the donkey knew his way home. Cars need to be driven.) But it’s the morning after thing that is causing most anger now. Do they do that over there yet? (breathalise people on the way to wok in the morning). Actually, I’ve just remembered, unless the law has changed since I moved over here, the police are not allowed to do random checks in the UK are they? There has to be some other infringement before they can stop you and breathalise you. Over here random checks are quite common.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. A nation of loners drinking more cheap booze from the supermarket and watching television. It’s the “bowling alone ” syndrome – the decline of social activity generally including going to the pub, voting, giving blood , volunteering, sending greeting cards, “violent aggressive driving”(up), spending quiet evenings at home (steadily rising; they’re watching TV). A nation of loners. And then of course so many pubs in their desire to drum up custom are noisy, rowdy and full of flashing light “attractions”. It’s expensive to run an old time pub with a slow lunch time and a quiet evening where you can meet and talk and actually hear each other.. The way some of us might prefer it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m with you except on the greeting cards.

      Actually, I might even agree about those. It’s Christmas cards that drive me nuts. Off-season cards tend to be–well, we don’t tend to say them unless we have something to say.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s a good thing you are getting to the bottom of this beer debacle and closure controversy, (pronounce the latter with the accent over the middle “O”. I’ve been listening to Trevor Noah, the South African comedian who hosts the Daily Show, and now I can’t get his pronunciation out of my head.)

    I can’t say I’ve noticed a decline in pub type establishments here in the US, but then, I don’t drink beer. (Gasp! I know!) However, I’m acutely aware of the closure of bookstores relative to the preponderance of liquor stores and I have a sick feeling the one has an awful lot to do with the other! It makes me want to run out and buy books just to stave off the inevitable collapse of reading as a social pastime! When it does eventually happen, I’ll hoist a glass of white wine to toast its demise! The book is dead, long hail the alcohol. We’ll really need it then!

    Liked by 2 people

    • From what I read, the death of the bookstore is due primarily to Amazon and secondarily to the other online booksellers. But there’s a small bright spot in the picture: the number of independent bookstores is increasing. They’d been driven out of business by the chains, then the chains were driven out of business (or almost so) by online bookselling. Which left space for small independents.

      Said Pollyanna. Still, it’s a small bit of hope. So don’t pour too big a glass of wine.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. So much for that stiff upper lip… unless that is because the bar numbers are dropping..
    I love how you go from pubs to beer to bread. Only you could make it look like a natural progression.
    I shall definitely bring out the term squiffy next time I’ve had a half glass more that I should…

    Liked by 2 people

  7. What!?!?!?!? There are bars in the actually government building? In Parliament? Ellen, my education about all things British has been sadly lacking until you came along! I’m not much of a drinker, don’t like being squiffy, just have a small glass of wine with dinner, and can’t figure out why so many people drink so much. I’d rather eat bread!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. When I was over there I frequented a pub called the Red Lion (I’m sure it’s not the only one in England with that nam). It was a nice, friendly, local pub that had decent food. Mostly I went there because it was the only place to get something to eat at the time I left work.

    As far as bread, my wife works at a local fast food place, her boss keeps track of that kind of thing for tax purposes. Here anything you toss is a write-off on taxes as a business loss.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. One factor could be the 2007 smoking ban. I don’t know what it is – but people do love to smoke in bars and without the smoking, they would rather go someplace where they can.

    In Almost Iowa, a neighbor set up a pseudo-bar in his garage and every night since the Minnesota ban, thirty to forty people drink their own beer and puff away there. It is perfectly legal, though the owner of The Pit insists it is not.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. The Office of National Statistics strikes me as a particularly British thing. Lots of proper British gentlemen sitting around counting, collecting, recording, and analyzing everything and anything. And isn’t that where Christopher Tietjens (aka Benedict Cumberbatch) worked in Parade’s End?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pubs? I don’t know much about pubs anymore. When back on college there were some favorite pubs I would go to with friends. My college was in s dry county (this was in Georgia, the Bible Belt) and the pubs were just over the county line.
    Athens , Ga, home if university of Georgia is full of pubs. Main Street downtown runs by the campus has one pub after the other. The whole street smells like ghetto French Quarter in New Orleans, somewhat like an open sewer.
    Don’t know if closing down of pubs is good or bad. Arguments for both, I suppose. Never did drink much brew from anywhere in Britain, or is it Great Britain. I read about the difference in uuur post but fon’t remember which is correct. I mean all the British Isles. Shen people ask me where my ancestors are from, I say the British Isles. I guess that includes everything.

    Have a good week. Stay sober everyone at least when driving.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I suspectd the closings have a bit of good and a bit of bad. Like many things.

      Neither my partner or I drink anymore and it took us a while to get it through our heads that it was just fine to go to a pub for a meal. Or for a cup of tea, for that matter. It wouldn’t be my first choice for tea, but if I was desperate it’d work. The only pub I go to regularly is one that has a wonderful singers night, where one of the regulars does nurse a pot of tea all night and I drink water. Admittedly, we’re the odd ones out, but if you don’t mind a bit of teasing (and on most subjects I don’t) it’s fine. If the place closed, I’d be crushed.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Frank, you’ve somehow copied the address of the WP editing page–the behind-the-scenes bit–not the blog’s outer face. I’m deleting it, just in case someone can actually get in that way (I didn’t try). Send it again, would you?

        Like

    • I know. Sobering up, however, only makes a person not drunk. It doesn’t guarantee that they’ll become a nice person or a responsible one.

      As for whether they’re abstemious, I don’t know. But you do remind me of something my partner (a Texan by birth and the daughter of table-thumping teetotalers) said about I can’t remember which dry county that she knew: They’d vote dry as long as they could stagger to the polls, because they all went across the county line to buy their liquor.

      Never underestimate the power of hypocrisy.

      Liked by 3 people

  12. Breathalyzing MPs is not such a bad idea given the absolute chaos going on at the moment. Charles Kennedy was a talented politician, who was an alcoholic, in other words he could not stop drinking, despite the negative consequences, unlike ordinary people who can. I would not wish alcoholism on my worse enemy.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Plenty of parliamentary drunks about. Singling out Kennedy was a good way to get rid of an inconveniently honest politician whether drunk or sober.
    You know the po faced temperance description of tea? The cup that cheers but which does not inebriate?
    I prefer the the cup which cheers but which, with a bit of luck, does.
    As a superbly bad maker of brown bread I use to use the bits which even the dogs refused to make russian beer…fermented bread flavoured with mint.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Pingback: Loosely Intertwingled – #JusJoJan – No Facilities

  15. I feel like I should do this excellent post justice, but its 37celcius here and I’ve got to get out to the Municipal pool. Every now and again I sign a change.org petition against councils closing one of those.

    I can see that exploring your blog is going to be one of those rabbit holes where I get nothing else done. Maybe that’s why the Brits have stopped going to pubs? They’re too busy reading your blog.

    Here in Aus closures sometimes happen because of high drink prices, which are partially driven by high electricity and high rents. When are property landlords going to realise that due to online pursuits of all kinds, they need to adjust rents downwards? Empty shop fronts should register, duh! Another reason pubs have closed is because people are allowed to build dwellings too close, then residents complain about the pub noise.

    I wrote a piece on alcoholism in UK last year. Yes, I dont live there, but I was worried about a Brit friend. Plus I write about any country. Will try to dig it up and link your post .

    Alcohol stays in the blood 24 hrs which is the argument for testing drivers the next morning. Also workers. Hubby works at a dangerous site. He hardly drinks, but I’m in favour of all the workers there having spot checks. We know some there that are alcoholics. When my daughter starts driving I’ll be in favour of more checks there too. Anything to keep her alive. She’s an expensive investment! Lol.

    Cath

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know it stayed in the blood so long. When we first moved here, I was struck by the way many people here drink, with an almost brutal intention to get themselves shit-faced. It seemed different from the ways people drink in the U.S. Admittedly, we’re not the best observers because we were already decades past our drinking careers, but I still think we caught a whiff of something real. I’d be interested in what you wrote if you can dig it out.

      Like

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