How much do you drink? Per day? Per week? I don’t mean cappuccinos and milkshakes. I mean units of alcohol.
I’m not assuming you are middle-class, but middle-class drinking is the focus of Robert Crampton’s article about the increasing acceptance of moderate-to-heavy alcohol consumption as part of an ordinary British lifestyle. [The Times Magazine, 12 Dec 2010; subscription only]
Over the last few years, alcohol consumption has actually fallen slightly, but not for everyone:
Among the middle-aged and older, and the more affluent, it has continued to rise. And because measuring consumption in the home is harder, and middle-class people tend to drink in their own and each other’s homes, the rise is likely to be higher than recorded.
Anecdotally, certainly, the evidence is clear. Most of my friends drink pretty much every day; the norm is none or one dry day each week. They sink maybe two or three beers or a half a bottle of wine, plus maybe a Scotch or a gin each night, sometimes more, in the week; then more, sometimes a lot more, at weekends. And then you’ve got holidays, special occasions, obviously the Christmas party season, already well under way.
We’ve come a long way from when we were kids in the Seventies and the booze stayed in the sideboard, a luxury that came out with the best crockery two or three times a year. To be middle class in Britain now is to drink, often rather a lot.
What’s the effect of all this drinking?
You get fat: I put on half a stone just in August. You sleep badly, either not enough or far too much. After a big, marquee night, a 20-unit extravaganza, you can lose a whole day to a hangover. Even at 11am, your wife is shushing the children because daddy’s not feeling well.
You make bad decisions. You get grumpy. You slur. You fall off your bike late at night. You have conversations with strangers you then can’t remember – the conversation or the stranger. Some people take advantage of your drunken generosity. You send e-mails and texts you probably shouldn’t send. And it costs you, what? Depending on where and what you’re drinking, 50 quid a week? Eighty quid? One hundred quid?
Why do people drink more? Everyone will have their own personal story, but Crampton thinks the bigger cultural changes have had a significant influence.
I grew up thinking heavy drinking was like gambling, something some idle rich people did and some deluded poor people did, not something those of us in the middle did. Or if we did do it, we felt bad about it. I think that was the way of it for most middle-class people my age, irrespective of religion or politics.
My parents had grown up in a mid-20th-century Britain constrained by war, rationing, lack of money and the residual influence of church or chapel. In mid-century, the country drank less than one third of what it had drunk in 1900, and just over one third of what it would drink in 2000. But even as I imbibed the idea that regular, let alone heavy drinking was at best strange, at worst sinful, the reality on the ground was shifting. By the time I turned 16 in 1980, the country was drinking twice as much as it had when my dad had turned 18 in 1950. And for the first time, a significant measure – about 15 per cent – in the national cocktail was wine, the middle-class tipple.
In the 30 years between my 16th birthday in 1980 and my 46th this August (three champagnes, two white wines, two margaritas, one red wine, one pint of Guinness) we have got richer and booze has got cheaper. Any religious restriction on drinking has all but evaporated. Foreign travel – and thus access both to even cheaper booze and an agreeable, vinocentric culture – is routine. Working hours are more flexible. Food is about 100 times better: there is far more incentive to combine a bottle of wine with what we eat in 2010 than with what we ate in 1980. The middle class has all but abandoned one vice, smoking, and adopted another, alcohol, in partial replacement.
I think something else has changed in Britain in those years, too, something less tangible. The middle class – even the strait-laced section I hail from – has learnt to value sensual pleasure in a way that would have seemed almost immoral to many even 30 years ago. And what more easily available sensual pleasure is there than drink?
Thirty years ago, at some level, we thought drinking, not just heavy drinking, was wrong. We don’t think that way any more. But maybe we should. Not all the time, four or five days out of seven would do the trick.
Crampton is not a puritan – that’s what makes his article so interesting. He just wishes we could find some balance and moderation. He wants us to recognise that there is a downside to our increasing dependence on alcohol. And he wants us to be more honest about the desires and needs that drive us to drink in the first place, and to ask whether we could meet them in other ways that would be equally fulfilling.