Monday, November 21, 2005

Drinking Cultures

It's quite appropriate that this piece on Harry's Place, regarding the social exclusion that Muslims claim they feel when alcohol is present at social events, is posted just a few days before 24-hour licensing laws come into effect. They both raise a wider point about the role of drinking within British culture. Why is it so central, is it alientating, and does access to alcohol hve an effect on social cohesion? I deliberately phrase these questions in the broadest possible terms, because whilst the Harry's Place item specifically asks about Muslims, the broader attitude of newspapers like the Daily Mail does implicitly suggest that alcohol, at least when consumed to excess, is bad for the community (something I would vehemently dispute). More broadly, they also suggest that the impulse to imbibe is so strong for a sufficient number of people that communities will inevitably degenerate once licensing laws are relaxed. Otherwise their opposition to a law which still requires local assent for licenses makes no sense whatsover.

Full disclosure here: I am a teetotaller myself, largely on health grounds. I do, however, spend a large amount of my time in drinking establishments of various kinds. That is because generally I enjoy the atmosphere of such establishments. However, I am also aware of how drinking changes eople, and how it can make certain atmospheres highly alienating to people. A prime example would be my university freshers' week - most of the social events in the evenings were based around drinking, and the implication was that such drinking was heavy. I was lucky; I had made friends quickly and had remembered many from open days and so on. Yet had I not, I can easily see how the experience of my first week could have been overbearing and overwhelming; that fact would have been entirely down to alcohol.

That said, I am totally in favour of allowing pubs to open around the clock. The problem with binge drinking may be in part down to pubs and their deliberate promotion of cheap beer and such like; but it is just as much down to the binge drinkers themselves. They have the power to stop drinking - moreover, publicans have the right (some would say responsibility) not to serve them. That some people are unable to control their drinking is no reason to punish society - it is highly annoying, as happened to me last Friday, to emerge from a play at about 11, but to be unable to go anywhere to have a drink afterwards.

If problems are caused by binge drinkers, crack down on them - allocate more police resources and/or punish them more heavily. It is possible to have a different drinking culture, and Blair should be applauded for trying to create one. There is no good reason why civilised establishments should close at 11, and force most social occasions either to retreat to houses or to be continued in nightclubs blaring out ghastly music at volumes totally unconducive to conversation.

That said, the previous paragraphs basically accept that a drinking culture is at the heart of Britain. More deeply, however, the question is how one drinks, not when one drinks - and I think this gets to the heart of the complaint made by Muslims. From the small comments made, it is difficult to discern exactly what their complaints are. Is it that alcohol seems to be at the centre of the social world in which most British business operates, or is it the way in which alcohol is used? For example, the complaint made about the boozy dinners on the barristers' course is totally different to a dinner where alcohol is served, but in moderate quantities.

Professionally, Muslims have found themselves excluded from alcohol-lubricated networking. "At work, when they choose to go to the pub, you're being excluded," said Khadija El Shayyal.

That is something which I would fundamentally dispute. It is not going to the pub that excludes someone; it is the quantities of alcohol consumed - unless, of course, their religious views are so strong that simply drinking alcohol in their presence is offensive. In which case, I think the cultural incompatibility is so strong that it almost isn't worth considering.

On the wider point - is drinking so socially accepted that you can become ostracised if you don't drink? - I don't think that's the case either, unless you make it an excuse for not integrating. If everyone is heading off after work for a drink, for example, you don't have to join in the drinking, but you can join in the conversation. Once the inebriation begins to make it harder for you to participate (as it undoubtedly will, at some point), no-one will mind if you slope off - in fact, a lot of people may not even notice. And if your reasons for not drinking are 'good' (health in my case, religion in the case of those commenting), I find people are generally respectful of that, and are more conscious of your feelings on the matter. In short, it's as much an issue as you choose to make of it.

Pubs are, on the whole, places for good. They're not too far off coffee houses in many ways, and are a key part of social interaction. Sure, people misuse them and the facilities they provide. But people have misused just about any positive advance in history. Would we want to do without a lightbulb because of the electric chair?