Class conscious

When my novel Bilton (just published in paperback by Faber and Faber) first came out, I earned a rare respite from the permanent state of social neurosis that is my life, for the writer of fiction is allowed to transcend class.

I was booked to speak at a number of literary events, some of which were not subsequently cancelled due to lack of interest. At these I was listened to respectfully by men in bow ties and ladies in expensive frocks with spectacles dangling on delicate chains around their necks. Of course, they may well have been looking at me and reflecting: "His socks aren't cotton, they're only cotton-rich", and the thought may have filtered through their minds that I was essentially a spotty little northern oik. But there was my book, propped up on the table next to me, bathing me in the lustre of art and hypnotising these genteel people into thinking I was more than I appeared.

I recall that, at one literary event, I was being led towards the stage down a corridor by the master of ceremonies (himself a very well-established personage), when we encountered, coming towards us, an elderly woman hobbling on crutches. "Out of the way, please!", boomed the master of ceremonies, "there's an author coming through!"

The publication of my book also had a dramatic effect on my status at the pukka Literary Society located near my house. I went from being reprimanded for eating sausage rolls in the reading room to having society officials hold doors open for me, while muttering to each other: "That's Andrew Martin . . . the novelist."

Unfortunately my wife is not similarly entranced. She once viciously calculated that, while working on my novel, I earned less, pro rata, than our 19-year-old nanny.

But, on the other hand, I do possess a green card from a literary festival I attended which reads "Andrew Martin, Author". It enabled me to get free tea, and admission to any talk or reading I cared to attend. Telling myself that it was too big to fit in my pocket uncrumpled, I carried it around in my hand and everyone who saw it smiled at me. The card is rather dog-eared now, but I still take it out occasionally. Just to look at it, you know.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning

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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.