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Published on May 21st, 2013 | by Nottingham Drinker


APAS May 2013

Drunkenness – is it shaped by culture? Nick Tegerdine offers some interesting perspectives.

When I am working one of the most asked questions is ‘what is the definition of being drunk’? When I am not working and enjoying a night out I ask myself the question ‘what is the behaviour, the line that is crossed, before someone is criticised for being drunk’?

I have a South African friend who grew up in a town without pubs. Generally she is not impressed with the offer in our local pubs, and the demeanour of the people in them. I have a number of French friends who simply shrug their shoulders and say ‘it’s the English culture’. German, Japanese, Finnish, Swedish and American friends and colleagues who have visited all have different views on our pubs and the people in them. Generally the comments are not complimentary, and relate to the poor standards of service in pubs. They have an idealistic view of the British pub culture and they tell me that more often than not they are disappointed. The attitude of some of the customers to fellow human beings disappoints them the most.

Some I have met during the course of my work say that alcohol makes decent people into horrible people? Of course that is a nonsense. The fact that most people who have been fighting have been drinking does not mean that everyone who drinks will fight. Nevertheless, the old thinking that the ‘moral’ centres of the brain are ‘soluble’ in alcohol still carries influence in those who are paid to know better. That thinking develops to a belief that the ‘civilising’ aspects of human behaviour, learned later in an evolutionary sense, are anaesthetised by alcohol. Further, the belief that the developed societies will drink ‘politely’ or with fewer problems than the ‘undeveloped’ societies, still carries some weight.

In a remarkable piece of work, a Dr Hillier in 1904 wrote about the ‘Drinking Habits of Uncivilised and Semi-civilised Races’. Inevitably a product of the class ridden education system of the time, Dr Hillier stated ‘During sixteen years’ residence in South Africa I have invariably found that where alcohol was accessible to the natives it wrought havoc amongst them. The African is unconscious of any moral obligation on the subject. When earning wages and able to purchase liquor, the fairly honest and peaceful Kaffir workman makes murderous assaults on his fellow natives, and even white men, with all the readiness of a savage instinct no longer restrained by fear of consequences’.

For the record, I think he was talking out of his backside. Nevertheless, Dr Hillier’s comments on the relationship between black Africans and alcohol are not dissimilar from the American viewpoint on Native Americans and drink. The belief that whisky ‘(firewater’) would send drinkers into a violent frenzy held sway for a long time. However, just as Dr Hillier glossed over the historical excesses of the British ruling classes, both in Africa and nearer to home, the tales from the USA conveniently ignore the behaviour of the frontiersmen whose own alcohol consumption, and gun fighting, remains legendary.

Why then do different people behave differently when drunk? Do people react differently to the ingestion of alcohol; is drunkenness a purely pharmacological dis-inhibition? Is it a matter of ‘temperament’? Is it environmentally influenced? Does a study of anthropology help us to understand what happens? Is ‘the culture’ the cause of problematic behaviour as well as the principal moderator?

The answer is complex. Different people do react differently, some become loud and difficult, others promiscuous, others simply fall asleep. Does culture play a part? The French maintain that it does and that the only thing spoiling a nice village evening in the south in the summer is the quarrelsome behaviour of the rich English visitors.

What is clear, and what we pointed out to Nottingham City Council some years ago, is that if you create an environment where loud and confrontational behaviour is encouraged, problems arise. Interestingly, a local brewer and the then Assistant Chief Constable all gave presentations at the same meeting with exactly the same message. Yet today we see an upsurge in bars offering ‘cheap shots’, ‘three for two on bottles’, vodka jellies and more. It seems that despite knowing what the problems are we are failing to deal with them.

However, it is not all bad news. Before Christmas we pointed out, in this publication and elsewhere, that dealing with the individual with a problem (the ‘treatment’ model) will not solve the community problem. One thing that we proposed was that the licensing authority should seek a voluntary restriction on the sale of strong lagers and ‘white’ ciders, the products that are sold cheaply and often to already intoxicated customers. These are the products that are favoured by the minority of drinkers that create so much disquiet. We are pleased to see that the City Council, with the support of the Police, is proposing to do just that.

Once again the independent voice can say the things that others are afraid to utter, but are the things that make a difference.

Whenever I can I highlight good work. The Hole in the Wall, Regent Street, Long Eaton is a comfy local pub with a landlord who has been there for more than twenty-five years. That in itself is a rare thing these days, with twenty-five weeks being nearer to the norm in premises owned by PubCo’s.

We celebrate this pub because our researchers have observed customers being instructed to use the reserved area for smokers rather than standing outside on the street by the entrance. Another example of maintaining standards was when one guy, who chose to use ‘un-parliamentary’ language, was immediately told to ‘shut up or go away’. The Hole in the Wall serves Nottingham and Oakham beers. Well done to the landlord and to his staff.

Setting standards might seem old fashioned to some; we see it as setting the culture, setting expectations, and good business sense. It also helps to maintain a pub as a place that is at the heart of a community, otherwise the pub is too easily seen as the problem within the community.


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