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From the NS archive: Curse of the drinking classes

1 July 1966: Alcohol is the supreme example of an acquired taste, domesticated and made commonplace by the social custom of easy access and constant usage.

By Alan Brien

What’s the purpose of the English pub, and which class of people does it best serve? These are the questions the journalist Alan Brien considers in this 1966 piece on drinking culture. Alcohol is a more dangerous drug than tobacco, he argues, but still it is advertised on television. “A Martian visitor would think it extraordinary that such a potent mind-stealer and nerve-number as alcohol should be freely passed across the counter in special dispensaries at every street corner,” he writes. He is not advocating prohibition, he insists, though the taste of alcohol – be it pungent brandy or bitter beer – is an acquired taste, “domesticated and made commonplace by the social custom of easy access and constant usage”. Wanting to consume such drink in public is strangest of all to Brien, given the noise and “crowded mob-democracy” of a typical bar. But try telling that to the regulars.

Once upon a time, during the warm-up before a television discussion programme, I attempted to spur two politicians into a preliminary canter round the ring by urging them to talk about pubs. The Labour man turned out to be a Beer Snob. He never accidentally drank a brew of which he did not approve. Sinking a pint of bitter to him was a quasi-religious ritual, a gesture of solidarity with the masses. It was a small, but significant, symbol of nationalisation to dip a tankard into the fluid which flowed through the veins of his supporters. Beer was the principal constituent of his constituents. His only regret stemmed from their insistence on swallowing inferior brands. His ideal pub was sufficiently old-fashioned to be uncomfortable and sufficiently modern to be hygienic – frosted glass and Formica, sawdust without spit, “Time, Comrades, Please.”

The Tory said very little. During the commercial break I suggested he was not much of an extra-mural drinker. “The public house,” he announced, “is linked in my mind with the two aspects of modern life I most deplore – the Industrial Revolution and the working class.” Confessions off-camera being privileged communications, I was not able to oblige him to repeat the remark before the viewers. But it set me wondering whom these strange institutions are designed to accommodate, and why one should be preferred to another.

Ever since the cancer scare made smoking a defiant, almost suicidal, gesture of contempt for fate, drinking has dwindled to a more or less amiable weakness in the public mind. Though alcohol is a far more dangerous drug than tobacco, it is still allowed to be advertised in TV commercials, and no government department issues posters, to be displayed outside lavatories and libraries, showing the ugly morning-after clutter of bottles by the back door. The Demon Drink is now just a plastic gnome.

[see also: Did Covid kill the Westminster drinking scene?]

After a convivial evening, most of us are more haunted by the image of soot-clogged lungs than the picture of a hobnailed liver. Yet smoking is almost the textbook example of a solitary, self-concerning vice which harms no one but the addict. Society worries when we drink and drive a motor-car but not when we drink and drive our family, our colleagues or our dependants. Nobody runs amok after a packet of 20 or takes to crime, gambling and wife-beating because of his bill at the tobacconist’s. A Martian visitor would think it extraordinary that such a potent mind-stealer and nerve-number as alcohol should be freely passed across the counter in special dispensaries at every street corner. The teetotaller is now coupled with the celibate as a rather comical faddist who denies himself one of the great pleasures of life. And he too no longer has even the reward of being admired by the neighbours as a hero of self-control. Shall we soon, when men wear mini-kilts and women starched shirts, see all the vegetable solvents of the super-ego legally on sale in heroin bars, marijuana parlours, mescalin lounges and opium snugs around swinging London?

I am not advocating Prohibition, or anything remotely approaching it. I merely wish to point out that alcohol is the supreme example of an acquired taste, domesticated and made commonplace by the social custom of easy access and constant usage. No adolescent ever swallowed the first sip of Scotch with its fiery, smoky, healthful tang, gin with its thin, curdling, medicinal bite, brandy with its oily, pungent, aromatic glow, rum with its sweet, sticky, tuck-shop kick, bitter beer which floods the gullet like water from a rusty tank, or frothy stout like strong tea thickened with sour cream, and honestly felt that here was liquid refreshment for which he had waited all his life. Many adult soaks still cannot stomach the neat stuff but transform it into an intoxicating version of schoolboy nectar with ginger ales, lemon or orange squashes, and other sugared cordials. For all the savour they extract from their tipple, they might as well be mainlining the alcohol direct into the vein with a hypodermic.

[see also: After bingeing on addiction memoirs, I still crave the untold drinking stories like my own]

But having once discovered the splendours and miseries of rearranging the balance of your personality at so much a glass, why do we want to carry out the experiment in public, rather than a private house? It is often said that the pub is the working man’s club. But even apart from the fact that there are working men’s clubs for those who want them, the typical industrial-town beerhouse usually concentrates on serving the greatest quantity of liquid to the largest number of stomachs in the shortest time. It is pumped up, pumped in and pumped out as if part of a race from the barrel to the sewage pipe, with the human conduit only an incidental obstacle on the way.

Such pubs are a kind of parody of the manufacturing process, the factory system as applied to leisure, with quantity prized above quality. Their attraction lies in the ceaseless mechanical rhythm, the blurred roar of noise, the crowded mob-democracy of the bar counter. There may be something here in the market researcher’s suggestion that the beer is equated with soup. The urge to fill up without bursting could be the result of a race memory of the Hungry Forties and the Depressed Thirties.

But these town pubs are the ones customers travel to. The local in the country village or the outer suburb is very different. The landlord knows every customer as well as the milkman or the postman knows the faces on his round. It is quiet, polite, slow drinking here where the pint is made to last against the clock and the order of a large Scotch could only be the result of a family celebration or a windfall in the pools. This is not the working man’s club but his front room. Each regular has his own seat and the landlord actually is a host who sets the tone, the pace and the style of behaviour.

But neither of these is really the place for the stranger who drops in for a couple and a chat. In the first he cannot hear himself speak. In the second, every vowel seems to be scrutinised and criticised by the silent eavesdroppers. All that is left is the middle-class pub with the landlord who is touchy about being mistaken for a barman and plays the retired toff in his RAF tie on your side of the counter, the sports-car cads in blazers, the blue-haired women telling dirty jokes, the puce-faced men who re-enact their triumphs at the office. It is the middle-class man who uses the pub as his golf club. My Labour politician’s dream pub hardly exists anywhere. The Tory’s nightmare pub is only too easily found. Surely there must one in between for the rest of us?

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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