Sunday, 20 July 2014

The ubiquity of alcohol

Drinks manufacturers, retailers, licensing authorities and those in charge of much of our public spaces have ensured that British drinkers need never be more than a few paces from a drink. Recently London Zoo, in a bid to raise badly needed revenue to fund vital conservation work, opened the zoo on Friday nights to crowds less interested in the wonders of the natural world and more interested in a new venue in which to be drunk. The Guardian newspaper reported on Friday that one visitor decided to pour beer over a tiger and another tried to climb into the penguin enclosure. These juvenile and ignorant acts speak volumes about the effect not just that drinking has on individuals, but the effect that Britain’s drinking culture has. When William Blake wrote of the majesty and ferocity of tigers he asked: ““What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame they fearful symmetry?” He wondered how the beast had come to being, what god or devil had created it, his fascination was not just for the animal itself but for the raw primal power of nature. The drunk, lost in his own narcissistic realm sees none of this, the potency and magic of nature and of the world around him is lost, he may as well be drunk at home. The problem for the precious, vulnerable animals at London Zoo is that when they are exposed to drunken people they invariably experience stress and are harmed, while people active in problematic drinking are more likely to see the things around them as objects or play things to further their own entertainment. Many London museums host similar late night events, opening up the most fascinating of exhibits to people who are, by drinking, limiting their capacity to fully engage with the exhibits. The irony is of course lost on the organisers of the event because of the revenues alcohol sales generate; the simple fact that curators and zoo keepers in the nation’s capital know that late night sober events are unlikely to be popular suggests that something is fundamentally broken in our society - it suggests that for a great many people living in Britain, a social event without alcohol is unthinkable. There is another public space in the capital, steeped in tradition and a magnet for tourists that also find it difficult not to function without alcohol; the House of Commons. In the past two years a bill for £275,000 has been accumulated, according to the Daily Telegraph, and veteran alcohol campaigner Dr Sarah Wollaston MP has stated that some MPs are often too drunk to know what they are voting for. The fact that this statement can be made without a moment’s pause for reflection or a hint of controversy speaks volumes about the nation’s denial about its collective alcoholism. There is one further example of how drinking has invaded public space, but you will need to be a motorist to access it. The next time you are on the M40, make sure you are extra vigilant when driving past Beaconsfield services, because the country’s first motorway Weatherspoons pub, the Hope and Champion opened its doors there earlier this year. In a country with strict drink drive laws, the corporate muscle of Weatherspoons has managed to gain a licence to sell alcohol on a motorway, putting the antics at London Zoo into the amateur league of irresponsibility. Parks, stations, libraries, stations, sporting events, festivals, museums and zoos now require alcohol in order to function, making them as alcoholic as the problem drinkers they inevitably attract. Not only does it become progressively more and more difficult for non-drinkers to find anywhere that is not dominated by drinking, but it also has a more insidious effect; it normalises alcoholism, making this powerful, addictive drug disappear into the fabric of everyday life.