Whatever my friends may think, I consider myself to be quite continental in my drinking habits; I mean, my favourite tipple is Belgium’s Stella Artois for a start. I do drink too much, but I prefer the “little but often” route to sclerosis rather than a binge drinker’s all out assault on my liver. I am far happier having a quiet pint or two with a meal or a book than I am downing pitchers of booze in a town centre Wetherspoons.
Much has been made of the changes to the licensing laws which are soon due to come into force, and for some reason many have waited until the last minute before making their objections known. Now that it is too late to change the legislation all sorts of people are predicting disaster once the new laws are in place.
A few weeks ago Judge Charles Harris QC commented that “Continental-style drinking requires continental-style people – people who sit quietly chatting away at cafe tables”, and almost daily there have been further comments from other people along the same lines. In response, it has been argued that why should decent law abiding folk be prevented from having a little drink after 11 o’clock?
I am in two minds about this one; on the one hand the current licensing laws are clearly outdated and anachronistic, and for that reason liberalisation is a good idea; on the other hand I have little doubt that the only real effect of the new laws will be that the pissheads of today will just drink even more tomorrow.
The thing is, it is not just continental-style people we need in order to have continental-style drinking, but continental-style bars, and I don’t think we are going to see many more of them come November. I often work late shifts, finishing work at 2 or 4 am, and sometimes I would quite like to pop into my local for a swift pint to unwind after a tough day; but I doubt my needs will be catered for once the new legislation comes into force. After all, there are no legal restrictions on coffee shops and libraries opening after 11 pm; the reason they don’t is presumably because doing so is simply not worthwhile. Similarly, I can’t see any quaint country pubs staying open on the off chance that I may wander in with my newspaper at half past four for a quiet drink; only places that can pack people in with happy hours and 2-for-1 offers are likely to find late opening profitable.
It is interesting to actually compare Britain with the rest of Europe. It is true to say that in other countries café owners are able to stay open later and longer; it is also true to say that many of them don’t bother. Last time I was in Paris we wandered around for ages trying to get a drink after 6 pm. There were dozens of cafés around and about our hotel, but having been open all day they shut for the evening when the proprietor went home to his family; and this was on a Saturday.
I think the fears that there will be an increase in violent disorder and drink related crime once the new licensing regulations come into force will be realised, although I don’t think that is necessarily a good reason for sticking with our current silly and restrictive opening times. I just think we need to be realistic; that if binge drinking is considered a problem now, then these changes are likely to make things worse.
And it may be true that British drinking habits have been formed as a consequence of our authoritarian licensing laws, and that the European attitude toward alcohol is to be admired; but the question is, how do we get there from here?