Class conscious

At £25, I'm waiting for the paperback of London: the biography by Peter Ackroyd, but when I was sampling it in my local Waterstone's it fell open at a page on which Dostoevsky was recalling having observed the jarring sight of a drunken tramp amid a crowd of plutocrats on some London street.

This, indeed, is London: different classes rubbing shoulders but eternally blanking one another. Reading Ackroyd, I was reminded of the time my wife and I viewed a house in what the estate agents called West Hampstead, but what I personally believed to be in Kilburn. It was quite nice, but as the owner showed us the pretty side gate to her garden, proudly explaining that this is where the servants would have entered, I noticed a burnt-out car just over the garden wall. Later, we stood in the middle of her large, well-stocked garden, as she said, with the burnt-out - or possibly, it suddenly occurred to me, bombed out - car six feet away from her: "This is a good area. We don't really get any trouble around here."

I also thought, scanning Ackroyd, of the few weeks in my early twenties that I spent living in Borough. About a third of the people in Borough are deeply into its medieval origins and Dickensian associations; another third concentrate exclusively on local supplies of Tennants Super Strength lager, while the final third are somewhere in between.

I thought also, as I returned the Ackroyd to the shelf, of the bare-bellied, string- belted tramp who once lumbered into the periodical reading-room of the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, as I sat reading a copy of Country Life. There's a coffee machine in that room, with a dainty china jug containing milk. The tramp upended this jug and drank most of the milk, a white rivulet running down his brown belly as I hid behind my magazine and made a mental note to take my Institution coffee black next time.

This, I suppose, is the richness of the London so celebrated by Ackroyd and many others, but if so, it seems to me to be a richness that every middle-class Londoner devotes his or her entire life to blotting out.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Brown should hold his nerve

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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.