Late on a humid Friday night, I'm walking quietly along the narrow, well-grooved streets of the English market town of Bishop's Stortford, past the venerable church of St Michael's where Rev F W Rhodes preached for more than 30 years in the mid-19th century and from where his son, Cecil, set off in pursuit of an imperial dream. I admire the interplay of shadows and white light in the graveyard, the way the church seems to watch over the entire sleepy town from its steep vantage point on Windhill. Except tonight the town isn't really sleeping at all; as you turn away from the church, a beer bottle explodes at your feet. You look up to see four young men swaggering your way. One of them whoops; another makes high-pitched screeching sounds, like a distressed seagull. You stand your ground as one of them looks directly at you, his eyes glazed and bloodshot. Then he belches beerily into your face. You prepare for the worst - perhaps, melodramatically, to be beaten within an inch of your life - but then the group moves on without so much as a threatening comment.
As they merge into the powdery darkness, you hear first the sound of more breaking glass, then that seagull's screech again and then drunken laughter. It's closing time in Bishop's Stortford, as it is all over the country. The pub crowds are out and roaming, driven no doubt to the edge of irrationality by the effects of alcohol and deep, deep boredom. I picture the scenes which I imagine taking place at that very moment, as if in grim ceremony, in nearly every market town from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales to Barnstaple in Devon: scenes of boorishness, broken windows, vomiting and fighting. The Prime Minister wouldn't be pleased.
At the bottom of Windhill stands the stately Corn Exchange, designed by Lewis Vulliamy in 1828, when Bishop's Stortford had the most important cattle market in East Anglia. Today the Corn Exchange is a complex of offices and small shops, and Bishop's Stortford is a market town in name only, like Market Rasen or Market Harborough, although a dozen or so stalls are set up every Thursday morning in what remains of the medieval town centre. The town has become what J G Ballard calls one of the "television suburbs": places for whom the prefix "market" suggests a long history and some old buildings, but whose culture is actually electronic, dominated by the television, the video recorder and the internet, and whose people are affluent and essentially classless.
Bishop's Stortford has become, too, if not quite a "battleground" of the kind that inspired Dan Rather, the American news correspondent, to denounce Britain as "one of the most violent urban societies in the western world", certainly the kind of place that any sensible person would wish to avoid late on any weekend night; the kind of place that prompted Tony Blair to float and then unhappily reject the idea of introducing "on-the-spot fines" for drunkenness.
Windhill winds elegantly into Market Square, where, on this Friday night, the young are gathering. Three lads are sitting in the doorway of an Oxfam shop, drinking bottled lager. They gleefully shout obscenities at every - any - passing girl. Most of the girls are dressed in the uniform of suburban cool: slashed navel- and cleavage-revealing tops, short skirts, clumpy shoes. Are such clothes, you wonder, merely an expression of female confidence and, as such, ironically "tarty"? Or do they, more dangerously, serve to provoke drunken men? Whichever (or perhaps both), the lads in the doorway seem provoked all right. "Show us your fat arse," one of them shouts out. "Get your tits out," his mate says, as two more girls pass.
I cross the road to where the two girls are now standing at a cashpoint machine. "How do you feel being shouted at like that?" I ask.
"We're used to it."
"Tell me," I say, "what are today's young men like?"
"What are they like? They're only interested in one thing," says the dark-haired girl, whose name is Susan.
"So what interests them, is it drink?"
"No, they're only interested in her big boobs," says the shorter, blonde-haired girl, pointing at Susan.
Susan is wearing a dark T-shirt, revealing a considerable (as if Wonderbra-enhanced) bosom, tight satin trousers that end at her knees, and stilettos. She is, like so many of the girls on these night-time streets, deeply tanned and wearing too much make-up. "When this was displayed in the shop" - Susan runs her hands across her top - "it didn't look that tight."
"I haven't got any boobs," the blonde says, humbly.
"No," Susan says, "but she's got . . . Go on, pull up your top, Emma." Emma obligingly pulls up her top, revealing a smooth, pale, flat stomach and a pierced belly button, which glints in the half-darkness. "Men really like her belly." They giggle.
I walk with the girls through the town centre to the town's only nightclub, which draws them in from the Essex and Hertfordshire villages. The only people on the streets are young and drunk. As we walk, the girls' heels clattering on the uneven concrete, men leer at them from passing cars. They shout out "fat arse", "big tits", although I assume "poof" and "homosexual" are aimed not so much at the girls as at me, for whatever reason.
Emma and Susan reveal that they are both secretaries at a local solicitor's office, but hope to become an actress (Susan) and a barrister (Emma); that they have "regular" boyfriends; that all the young people "get pissed" at weekends because there's "nothing else to do"; that most young men are "drunken yobs who want to get it away on the first night"; that they were ashamed of the behaviour of the football hooligans in Belgium but, then again, men "like to show they're hard". Our conversation ends when Susan announces that she's "desperate for a piss". They hurry into a near-empty pub.
Then I see a crowd gathering outside the kebab shop. A couple of weeks before, I had seen a fight outside this overlit eaterie, which ended with young men being bundled into a police van and several women hysterically screaming at each other in torrential rain. But tonight it all seems to be harmless fun: one man simply vomits over his own shoes; another admires himself clumpily shadow- boxing in a shop window; a third stumbles and falls after tossing a bag of chips in my direction.
Why does this country produce such a dull procession of yobbery? I suspect, for a start, our long, dark winters and erratic summers, which have engendered a curious indoors culture, a culture of darkened, blokey pubs and beer, not of pavement cafes, wine and long evenings of conversation; a culture that thrives on island isolation and strange inhibitions that only alcohol can release. Restrictive licensing laws, which the government is at last reforming, must have contributed, too, by encouraging people to drink swiftly, as if under the pressure of a deadline. They are then unceremoniously emptied en masse on to the streets, before they are fatigued, from where they roam and brawl.
My evening in Bishop's Stortford ended between the venerable Star Inn and Black Lion pub on Bridge Street, both once 18th- century resting points on the London-to-Cambridge road. The Star is characteristic of any popular pub in a market town, in that a historic low-ceilinged, timber-framed building has been converted into a vibrant micro-nightclub, with banks of TV screens showing unrelenting football, ear-splitting techno music and an edgy undercurrent of lasciviousness and violence. In fact, everything about the pub conspires against harmony; the music is so loud that people don't so much talk as shout at one another, in a kind of hectic, expletive-driven staccato. In such places, the most popular drinks are always the strongest ones: "gold" or "export" strength beers for the boys; "double vodkas and Red Bull" for the girls.
"How's it been tonight?" I ask the shaven-headed bouncer on the door.
"It's been pretty quiet, really."
"But everyone seems totally drunk."
"Yeah, that's normal. If you want to see some real action, you should go to somewhere like Slough, where I'm from."
"What's Slough like?"
"It's a shithole. Believe me, mate, you wouldn't last five minutes there with your accent at this time of night."
He raises his eyebrows whimsically. Then he stoops to help a girl who has tripped over a kerb while leaving the pub.
Thin, warm drizzle is falling as I walk home. People are queuing to enter JR's, an American-style bar-diner. I peer through the open door: the air is thick with cigarette smoke and, on the big screen, the recent Mike Tyson fight in Glasgow is being replayed. Men watch with blanched fascination as Tyson batters his opponent. Beside me, two men are chatting.
"You know that fat old slapper you had last week?"
"Well, she's downstairs again tonight."
"No, you're right, she ain't . . . I was having you on."
"You cunt." They both laugh.
But weekend nightlife in our market towns isn't really a laughing matter any more, is it? The government understands that, but seems at an embarrassing loss as to what to do about it. In any event, how can new Labour legislate against people having fun, even if their idea of fun seems to be no more than an expression of the spiritual emptiness and nihilism that characterises our age of plenty?