Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
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I was struck down the other day by a gastric bug. It was exactly the same one that Her Majesty had, but without the headlines and constant news updates. Forced to lie down for a couple of days, I began leafing casually through Kessel and Walton's 1965 study of alcoholism, entitled Alcoholism.
A curious choice, you might think. Yet, for a good light read, when feeling under the weather, I don't think you can beat an old medical book with details of ailments worse than your own. Kessel and Walton's study contains far scarier cautions for the keen tippler than any finger-wagging government leaflets do. Alcohol abuse, after all, comes not so much with its own baggage, as an entire caravanserai of the stuff. Evidence of the more obvious detritus strewn in its wake may be seen in Colchester's High Street each weekend during the small hours, or at dawn just before the clean-up corps arrive. The serious long-term damage may not be as visible, yet it is far graver.
Local media attention, however has lately been focused on a new bête noir temporarily usurping alcohol from its long-running top position. The threat concerns 'legal highs', those nebulous, not-yet-outlawed substances which teenagers are reportedly buying openly from a Colchester shop. I don't know the place myself, but I presume it's located somewhere in the Legal High Street. It's somehow odd that alcohol, surely the most popular legal high of all, causes many times the damage of its nearest competitors, yet generates only a fraction of the fuss.
To mixed reactions from the public, a recent proposal for minimum unit-pricing of alcohol was met with a cabinet revolt led by Theresa May. It seems that nobody wants to upset 'responsible' drinkers by taxing them any further. Let's leave this particular hot potato at the bottom of the oven however, since I also discovered amongst Kessel and Walton's research many other quotes: “Drunkeness was the acknowledged national vice of Englishmen of all classes.” observed the historian Trevelyan of the days of Queen Anne. Interestingly, another passage in Alcoholism comes from The Pub and the People (1945) and concludes: “But whether a public house is a happy or friendly place, or the reverse, depends also largely upon the publican and his assistants. It is strange that there are so many morose publicans – only a minority, of course but an appreciable minority.”
Morose publicans? In the golden age? Surely not? Nowadays, perhaps it might be understandable, with pubs having closed in their thousands and the surviving ones still under assault. The reasons for the death of the English pub?
The giant pub companies, widely hated for their perceived greed and mismanagement may well be one cause. The 2007 smoking ban, however, is almost certainly another. The ban, by default, has led to young children roaring around many pubs all weekend while mum and dad have a drink. Some regulars deeply resent their locals being turned into a crêche each weekend.
The managed gastro pub, with its jauntily-written blackboards and tables pre-adorned with cutlery and menus – all ready to be coughed-over by drinkers – is another loser. Its new manager will probably not know his remaining regulars' names, even though they may have been drinking there for decades. Order food and no sooner have you received your 'skinny fries' than a waitress will loom up to ask you: “Is everything alright for yourselves? D'you want any sauces with that, at all?”
And then, even though in theory, 24-hour licensing now exists, on a quiet midweek evening, the bar attendant will already have the mop and bucket in view at 10.30 pm so that she can kick you out at 11pm on the nail and then lock up. Two drinks each for you and your partner in an almost empty boozer nowadays will cost around of £15. You could buy a nice bottle of supermarket wine for half of that, and gargle cheaply at home.
Let's not get too nostalgic for the old days, though. They weren't that good. Forty years ago we were still overseen by the Landlord That Time Forgot, with his brown cardigan, his handlebar moustache, his warm bottles of 'Danish' lager brewed under licence in the UK, his two flavours of crisps, his peanuts and: “No, we only do food on Sundays. There isn't the demand. You've got to get here before 8.45 if you want ice in your drink. I've only got one pie left, I'm afraid. Untouched by human hand. The wife made it. Ha-ha-ha.”
Things haven't changed that much. Because this is still England, where nothing can be done and where we are told: “We have just stopped doing food / run out / called last orders. We are sorry but...” The landlord is morose? We'll you're not here to enjoy yourself, are you? And despite a certain puritanism which has always run through the English middle-class like a single grey skein in our social plait, many will still drink themselves to Valhalla if it pleases them to do so and you'd better not stand in their way. Just because the pubs are empty doesn't mean the hospital wards won't still fill. Are we missing something here? Half a century later, Doctors Kessel and Walton's book, seems as bluntly fascinating as it must have done upon its publication.
Alcoholism byNeil Kessel and Henry Walton was published by Penguin Books in 1965