Keep mum – she’s not so dumb

My mother's birthday. We have lunch upstairs at the Duke; very nice. The Guvnor may look like someone from Euston Films' darkest dreams, but he runs a tight ship and I can warmly recommend the asparagus with poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Conversation with my mother is like everyone's conversations with their mothers, but with a twist.

“How come you never tell me what you're up to, but you reveal your innermost thoughts and most shameful anecdotes to everyone who reads the
New Statesman?" she asks.

“Well, if you match their rates we may be able to come to an arrangement," I say. Actually, I don't say it. She has a point.

My mother is a wonderful and remarkable person, but I suppose I do tend to play my cards close to my chest with her. She's usually able to guess what I'm up to, anyway.

On leaving the pub, she expresses a desire to inspect the Hovel. This is something I have been putting off for two and a half years. It is not that it is disgusting. The cleaning lady - who is called Marta, but Razors and I spell her name "Martyr" - has been in and done her best, as always. ("Is this the worst place you have to do?" the Woman I Love asked her one morning. Apparently it was, if a rueful nod of the head and a wan quarter-smile mean "yes".)

It's just that I do not want her to see the evidence of my own failure so close at hand. Let me put it like this: the big news in home comforts this week is that I have found the 18-inch-long piece of wood that I use to prop my bedroom window open. Between this and the six-inch piece of wood I use to prop my bedroom window open, I can now prop my bedroom window open either two, six or 18 inches. Doubtless, using some combination of both pieces of wood, I could prop it open in even more variations of width, but let's not get carried away - three choices are plenty for me.

When my father was my age, he had two cars, a semi-detached house in East Finchley with a big garden and a company directorship. (He had also, mystifyingly, considering he once described Margaret Thatcher to me as “a dangerous pinko", been awarded the Order of Lenin [Fifth Class], but that's another story for another day.)

Well, I have more hair than he did, but then I haven't had to deal with print unions every day or a son who, at the age of 11, made a speech at his school's mock election urging everyone to vote for the Socialist Party of Great Britain. (I got two votes, one of which was mine. I've always wondered whose the other one was.) And you can be sure he did not need pieces of wood to prop the windows open with.

Inspector calls

Anyway, it is my mother's birthday, after all, and if she wants to see the Hovel, she may as well see it now. It's not in a disgraceful state at the moment; it is, in fact, in as good a nick as it's going to get, although we will get that fused bathroom light looked at one day soon, honest. The thing is, I don't really mind living like this - that is, in a place where people are always surprised to find that the kitchen sink actually has a mixer tap.

In fact, in many ways I have fallen right on my feet; or, like Brer Rabbit, into an especially nice briar patch. I wouldn't want the two cars or the big garden (although there is something cool about the Order of Lenin [Fifth Class]). I have never been acquisitive, and my circumstances now give me
a chance to show just how non-acquisitive I am. But other people, particularly in the middle classes, do not think the way I do, and would see my circumstances as catastrophically ignominious.

There then follows a slow inspection. I forget to show her the terrace, which would have pleased her because the view from it is very New Yorky.
“Well, it's pretty much what I thought it was going to be like," she says, finally. Is that good?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

Show Hide image

The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.