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A public nuisance

Observations on boozing in public

Two policemen approach a group of picnickers in the shade of the National Gallery on a summer’s day in London. “Aww. This is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” says one officer. “I’m sorry, though, you can’t drink here.” A picnicker clutching a can of lager asks why. “Because it’s a controlled-drinking zone,” says the policeman, and continues, “so put it away so I can’t see it.” There is a pause. Another picnicker proffers a teacup.

“Can we put it in this?” Another pause. “Yes,” says the officer, satisfied with the rightness of it all. And so the increasingly bizarre way that public space is regulated achieves its apotheosis: drink what you wish, as long as it is from bone china.

Ostensibly, this was one of the strangest moments in a two-day experiment to test the way in which London’s public spaces are regulated, undertaken by Blueprint magazine and the Manifesto Club: here was a member of the police force telling a group of people to hide an act from no one apart from himself. But this is just a twist on a standard practice, as Robbed by the Police, a document published by the Manifesto Club, makes clear. There are now more than 700 zones in England and Wales where police can seize alcohol from anyone within it. Drinking is not banned, but it is an offence to refuse an instruction by the police to stop drinking. Or, as it would appear, to decant it into the kind of receptacle one could hand a vicar.

In some regards, this was the most coherent response the team encountered in its two days of drinking, eating and playing. We discovered that most of what we read as uniform public space is not, but this ambiguity does not make these spaces any more permissive. At More London, outside London City Hall, we discovered that the private owners – yes, the area around the capital’s assembly is privately owned – look upon the very definition of the public as a problem. The simple act of putting out a deckchair started a long conversation among four More London employees.

The security guards we encountered tended to fall back on pretty basic instincts. At More London, when the team turned up with hampers and deckchairs, they were permitted to play to their hearts’ content within an adjacent recess, designed to invoke the democratic forms of a Greek agora. Yet when they wore hooded tops, they were informed by a security guard that they could not play football and that “this whole grey area is private”. The guard confided that he thought it a ridiculous rule, but if we did not move “the corporate shots will get on the phone to Boris and he’ll pass a stupid law”. In Paternoster Square our team was moved on twice as quickly wearing hooded tops as without them.

Meanwhile, regulators are coercing us to behave in a certain way in their spaces. Estate managers of More London are trying to animate the site with the odd bit of opera. In Trafalgar Square we will soon be asked to watch people sitting on a plinth. Certainly, it is the more pleasant side of proscribing what we do in the city, but it is the other half of the same ethos of coercion. As Dolan Cummings, director of the Manifesto Club, has put it, “Something is lost when our understanding of the public is reduced to consumers on best behaviour.”

Tim Abrahams is associate editor of Blueprint. Blueprint’s Public issue is out on 3 July

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!