Even freshers are staying sober – is this the end of British booze culture?

Posted on: 2018-09-27 16:45:00

The kids were plastered, cheerfully and unashamedly; the kind of giggly, rolling drunk where you’re holding each other up in the street, alternating between bursting into horribly off-key song and exaggeratedly shushing each other. There was no malice to them, so watching them from across the street in Liverpool as I trudged home from Labour party conference one evening just made me feel nostalgic. Freshers’ week obviously hasn’t changed, then.

And yet in some respects it has. Booze will always be part of it – the British still can’t easily talk to strangers, especially strangers of the opposite sex, without being a few sheets to the wind – but universities are now casting around for freshers’ week events that don’t just involve bar crawls and they’re doing it by popular demand, not from a nannying desire to ruin all the fun (although doubtless it goes some way to reducing town versus gown tensions). At Durham last year, there was a day trip to a petting zoo for those who’d rather not meet fellow freshers while throwing up in the gutter. Others are laying on yoga classes. Listening this week to someone from Newcastle University explaining to a faintly incredulous radio interviewer that not all students want to drink, I remembered the girl on the edge of that cheerfully hammered group in Liverpool; the one who didn’t seem as drunk as the others, who looked as if she was resignedly going along with it.

Compulsory sobriety when you’re longing for a quick sharpener is – let’s be honest – no fun, especially if everyone else is going at it hammer and tongs. The most miserable party conference season of my life was the one spent in the secretive first few months of pregnancy; everything that happens after sundown in politics tends to involve bad white wine, and since it was too early to explain why I wasn’t drinking, that meant weeks of surreptitiously emptying glasses into plant pots or mumbling about antibiotics. But compulsory boozing when you’d frankly rather have an early night, or simply feel more in control around people you don’t know all that well, is no better.

Once upon a time, booze was the petrol on which many industries ran. When I started out on Fleet Street, the older reporters would talk wistfully about how the golden years were over; they missed the epic lost afternoons, the warm beery camaraderie of meeting contacts in the pub and the genial blurring of business with pleasure. (One paper famously had a bar in the building, reasoning that at least it would know where to find reporters in an emergency.)

"Compulsory sobriety when you're longing for a quick sharpener is no fun, especially if everyone else is going at it hammer and tongs" 

That culture lingered on in Westminster. The “two-bottle lunch” was a favoured ritual for certain Labour spin doctors when I first joined the lobby, and while at first it seemed thrillingly decadent compared with being stuck at a desk, I came to slightly dread them. Don’t get me wrong – after work, with friends, I was as happy as any other twentysomething to get paralytic. But doing it in the middle of the working day with people I barely knew felt frankly weird. It’s one thing when both lunchers are middle-aged men with livers hardened by years of doing exactly this, who can seemingly roll back to the office none the worse for wear. I couldn’t match them glass for glass without wanting to spend much of the afternoon lying down groaning, and my deadlines didn’t allow for that. But it felt prissy and uptight to refuse, because that was just how it was, and not only in newspapers. When Lloyd’s of London banned lunchtime drinking last year, in a rather killjoy memo arguing that a zero alcohol limit was more “in line with the modern, global and high performance culture that we want to embrace”, there was an outcry from middle-aged professionals at this assault on the freedom to get hammered.

If the culture of drinking at work is changing, it’s doing so because the nature of those in work is changing. What saved me from one thumping mid-afternoon headache too many was the influx of women MPs, so many of whom just wanted to drink fizzy water and give you a brisk rundown of the gossip before getting back to their desks. Now it’s the influx of Generation Sensible, millennials who tend to deal with their stress in the gym not at the bar, that’s changing corporate culture. Only one in 10 see it as cool to brag about getting drunk, according to one survey (doing so was seen as “belonging to the older generation”). That doesn’t mean they’re not sometimes getting drunk, as anyone who has been inside a bar – or indeed a party conference – lately will have noticed. Half of under-24s had drunk alcohol in the previous week, according to the Office for National Statistics.

But two decades ago the figure would have been four out of five, which suggests young people are now more relaxed about taking or leaving it. To the relief of anyone who for medical or cultural reasons isn’t getting sloshed and doesn’t feel like constantly explaining why, the stigma of not drinking may be wearing off. Personally, I’ve got no intention of going on the wagon. But a world where people are neither slut-shamed out of drinking, nor bullied into it? I’ll raise a glass to that.

Gaby Hinsliff

Source: The Guardian

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