Drunk nation: why do British people drink so much?
We drank our way through lockdown and now we’re back on the razz – doing what we’ve done to let our hair down since ancient times. Why is booze such an intrinsic part of British life? Josh Glancy reports
July 25, 2021
Friday afternoon in Sheffield and heavy drizzle is moving in off its famous seven hills as I walk to West Street, the city’s booze alley and quite possibly the world capital of the strawpedo (an ingenious straw-based technique for “downing” drinks). It’s proper Yorkshire weather out, but the after-work crowd doesn’t care. It’s been a long week, a long 18 months if we’re honest, and people are thirsty.
To the Forum Kitchen & Bar first then, for a pint and some pizza to soak up what’s coming next. It’s all colleagues and co-workers at this stage of the evening, gossiping and bitching about their bosses. Huddled under an inadequate umbrella I meet Leah Carr and Dave Woodcock, two mates who work at a sixth-form college in Rotherham.
Leah is two mojitos down but frustrated with the ice-to-booze ratio, so she’s switched to vodka, lime and soda. Cheaper and stronger. She’s full of pent-up energy. “I’m sick of drinking at home with my mates,” she says. “I’m ready to dance. I want to be at the bar and meet people spontaneously.”
Dave is holding forth about the home pub he built during lockdown. “I’ve replaced my nights out with a beer machine at home,” he says. “Now I’m addicted to it.” Do I know Rotherham, he asks. I don’t. “It’s paedophiles and David Seaman,” he says. “We often tend to come out in Sheffield.”
The rain is really lashing down now and a sensible person living in a more sensible country would probably call it a night. I order another round. Britain and booze. It is perhaps our oldest and most difficult friendship: euphoric, inevitable and so often damaging. One in ten people in a hospital bed are alcohol-dependent, according to the NHS, with heavy drinkers costing the health service £3.5 billion a year in England alone. In some 39 per cent of violent incidents recorded in 2018, the victim believed the offender to be under the influence of alcohol.
This summer, more than most, we’re staring the depth and depravity of this relationship right in the face. More than Netflix, gardening or baking, for many alcohol has been the best (or worst) lockdown crutch available. In 2020 deaths related to alcohol misuse hit 7,423, the highest in 20 years.
Usually we outsource our worst summer excesses, the real shitkickers, to Zante, Magaluf or Split, but this year we’re all crowded together on our sozzled little island, forced to confront the drunkenness that haunts and illuminates the British psyche. It was there on the streets of London during the Euros final, flares streaming out of naked bums, lads jacked up on cocaine and lager smashing their way into Wembley Stadium, bottles soaring across Leicester Square. But it’s not just hooligans getting nutted – councils across the land have been struggling with a “huge demand” for glass recycling as home drinkers pile through the supermarket sauvignon.
Industry insiders confirm I’m not imagining this national glut. When the pubs first reopened in April, Phil Urban, the chief executive of Mitchells & Butlers, the UK’s largest listed pub group, revealed his pubs were running low on beer because demand was so high. Peter Harrison, the commercial controller of Budweiser in the UK, tells me demand for its drinks has been at “unprecedented levels” since summer began. It’s also cheaper than ever: the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, which campaigns for England to follow Wales and Scotland in introducing a minimum unit price, found cider being sold for as little as 19p per unit. This means a weekly “ration” of booze – 14 units – can cost less than one Starbucks coffee.
And so I went to Sheffield to see what things look like on the front lines. After three years of living in Washington DC, a city where people look anxiously for the exit if you order a glass of wine at lunch, I’d forgotten how much I used to drink in Britain, where it seems every single social interaction is greased by the “chemical handshake” of a pint or three. I wanted to know my own country again. That meant going on the piss.
It’s about 8.30pm in the beer garden at Walkabout Sheffield. Stu, Sam, Adam and Mitch, a group of lads in their twenties, are huddling out of the rain sinking pints in a Guinness-themed hut. They are all in T-shirts. “It’s July in Sheffield, after all,” Mitch cackles. They reckon they’ve all been drinking more since the pandemic began. “You make the most of it, don’t you?” Mitch says. “It doesn’t stop certain people coming out. We’ve definitely pushed it.” The familiar Jägerbomb lady begins to circulate the garden. It’s a no thanks from me (bad memories), but the table of six next to us takes the full tray of 12 shots for £34. They are gone in seconds.
Just like Dave Woodcock, Adam has built a home pub during the pandemic, working alongside his dad. “It was summat to do, really,” he says. The end of lockdown, he reckons, is “massive” for the younger crowd. But he also wonders if some might have become accustomed to domestic hedonism. “People have all got bars set up in the garden now,” he says. “You can have a piss-up and then go in the hot tub.”
At the Sheffield Water Works Company, a Wetherspoon pub, we pass the test and trace on the way in. One girl indulges in the illicit national pastime of taking a picture of the QR code on her phone instead of actually registering it. “More like test and WTF,” she chuckles.
At ‘Spoons I meet Carly Cryan, 18, out on the lash with Danny, Tom and Eve. They’re a group of school friends who have just finished their first year at uni (apart from Tom, who got “screwed” by the pandemic A-level debacle and is now doing an apprenticeship). Having spent so long cooped up they are making up for lost time, washing down sambuca shots with Kopparberg fruit ciders. “I’m out every night at the moment,” Carly says. “Our lives have been so much better since the pubs opened. It’s just nicer with booze, isn’t it? It makes the night so much better.”
Eve is already a little the worse for wear. “Ignore her,” says Carly. “She’s overdone it.”
The recent restrictions have stopped this amiable squad from ever legally entering a nightclub. But that’s all about to change. “We’ve missed out on so much, everyone’s just ready to go,” Carly says. “Now the clubs are opening, that’s when it will get messy.”
Getting truly messy is what separates the north European drinker from their Mediterranean peers, particularly but not exclusively men. We share this culture across the British Isles and Ireland but also with our Viking cousins in Scandinavia, the often eerily similar Dutch and our beer-swilling ancestors of southern and eastern Germany. And we always have.
“Roman historians observed with astonishment the difference between the modest drinking habits of the Mediterranean peoples and the apparent intention of the northern barbarians to go out and get blindingly drunk,” says Robin Dunbar, emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University. “Similarly the Normans were absolutely appalled by the behaviour of the Saxons when they acquired England. They thought they were an uncouth drunken lot who set about getting completely off their heads.”
Different cultures give precedence to different bonding rituals, Dunbar points out. Greek men like dancing. Some cultures prefer communal singing. The bush people of southern Africa have trance dancing. For introverted, drizzle-haunted north Europeans, well settled with sufficient land, crops and building materials to brew huge vats of ale, our bonding ritual has long been binge drinking.
Yet while heavy-drinking students are a hardy British perennial, the data shows that younger people are actually drinking less these days. Or at least that was the trend before the pandemic. Abstinence rates in England among 16 to 24-year-olds rose from 18 to 29 per cent between 2005 and 2016. Binge-drinking rates also dropped from 27 per cent in 2005 to 18 per cent over the same period.
Tom’s not sold. “If I’m going out then I’m drinking,” he says. “It’s booze and football. If football is early, then booze straight after. Straight to the pub, we’ll be there at half eleven on Sunday for an 8pm kick-off.”
Even as overall consumption rates drop, what’s happening now is “alcohol polarisation” – less drinking in general but some people boozing more than ever. The heaviest modern drinkers are actually the middle-aged, from bibulous boomers necking premium supermarket vino to the rowdy Gen Xers who came of age in the debauched 1990s. Increasingly they drink at home, as cheaper alcohol and technology-enabled lifestyles make going out a pricier and more unappealing option, driving the decline of the community pub.
“We moved out of London a decade ago and that’s when the home drinking started,” says Alex, a fiftysomething accountant living in Bedfordshire. “Our nearest pub is not within walking distance and of course it was closed in lockdown. I set up a Majestic account last April and that’s been the end of any kind of balance for my wife and I. It’s embarrassing how often the neighbours see the Majestic van arrive, but they’ve all spent 17 months on the lash as well.”
Alison, a PR director from West Sus—, says she now uses one of her household dustbins exclusively for bottles. “My husband waits for everyone to leave before he empties it at the bottle bank. We promised ourselves we’d stop – at least stop in the week – once the pandemic was over, but wine has been an absolute crutch in the past year.” It can’t just be them, she says, because her husband has returned several times from an unsuccessful trip to the glass recycling. “Full again,” he would say.
James, 42, a business consultant from north London, is a regular boozer but says he’s been drinking more frequently than ever over the past 18 months. “During the darkest times of the pandemic, when you had three children to home school and nothing to do, I was opening a bottle of wine every night,” he says. “My normal is to drink about four nights a week. I’m on six at the moment, minimum.”
Such is the growing generational contrast, age is now a far better indicator of how much alcohol people consume than their social class or region (which might be more likely to determine what they drink). Remarkably, more 16 to 24-year-olds abstain from drinking than the over-75s. John Holmes, who runs the Alcohol Research Group at Sheffield University, describes this as a “cohort” effect. “Young adults have always been the highest drinkers in the population, for as long as we’ve had good survey data,” he says. “That’s no longer true.”
Holmes attributes the drop in youth drinking to a “new sensibility” among young people. This is the generation of dry January and dry July, of wellness and lifestyle curation, “no and low” alcohol drinks, fancy mocktails and to hell with rock’n’roll.
“They’re much more conscious, much more focused on and anxious about their economic future,” Holmes says. “It must also be about technology, the internet, social media, though we’ve yet to unpick the precise nature of that relationship.”
He puts heavier middle-aged drinking down to the “permissive” environment at the end of the 20th century. “Alcohol became very cheap over this period, so this is a generation that has drunk more than their predecessors throughout their lifetimes.”
At the turn of the millennium, drinking in Britain reached a peak not seen since the beginning of the 20th century. Consumption had slumped in the interim, beginning with an acute drop at the beginning of the First World War when changes in licensing policy were introduced. Drinking was then reinvented in the postwar era, with a sharp rise driven by changing gender roles, a long economic boom, the absence of war and, towards the latter end of the century, cheap booze too – alcohol today is 74 per cent more affordable than it was in 1987. In his classic survey Everyday Drinking, committed souse Kingsley Amis suggests that the growth of urban life also fuelled the alcohol boom, because of the need for social lubrication to ease regular interactions with semi-strangers.
The rise of wider university education probably played a role too. It was certainly where I learnt to drink. Jewish households like mine are rarely alcohol fuelled; we rely on traditions and gossip to plug familial conversation gaps. Until university I understood drinking as an occasional indulgence, not a way of life. I’ll never forget the disappointment on a friend’s face when, early on in our time together, I turned down an unscheduled pint on the way to the library. “You don’t like pubs enough,” he said. I took this to mean “you aren’t yet English enough” and never said no again. I missed countless essay deadlines and put on several stone as a result, but I was never short of mates.
I have to draw on this same assimilationist instinct as my night in Sheffield begins to turn. It seems 10pm is something of an inflection point in the evening’s arc, when the last remaining social barriers have been washed away and Lionel Richie has started to play a central role. It’s unlikely anyone will remember much from here on in. I stand on the corner of West Street and Carver Street, letting the night swirl around me. Three truly muntered lads barrel out of Bunk, a rowdy cocktail bar. One stops to hurl up his dinner behind a dustbin. “Twenty Jägers, down the drain,” his friend sings merrily, before punching his other mate in the balls. “Did you see what that prick did to me,” the victim gasps. I did. He gets up and limps after his attacker, yelling, “I’m going to f*** your sister, George.”
At this point I need refuge, somewhere civilised, so I make my way back up West Street to Hemingways. Good old Hem. I might be pretty far gone at this point but I’m startled to find a gorgeous lady with a guitar performing a soul-shattering rendition of Mr Brightside by the Killers. Amid the kooky portraits of the Mona Lisa in a Covid mask, amid the tired drunks and lairy street hollering, she shines like a pearl in a trough.
We can’t finish here, though. Everyone we’ve spoken to says it’s not a proper night in Sheffield unless we end at Broncos Rodeo. So it’s one more for the road. People are dancing, heaving, snogging, sights unseen for many months. Hi Ho Silver Lining blares out and the place erupts. A fat bearded man yanks me into a circle so that I can sing along . “Hi ho SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY, and away you go now, baby .” Light fittings smash, patrons are ejected, then Sweet Caroline comes on, song of the summer.
Suddenly the old impulses are back. To line up the shots and get stupid drunk. To belt out the words to cheesy tunes into the faces of perfect strangers. To feel the floor sticking to my feet. To grab a sweaty fella in a beer-soaked T-shirt and go absolutely ham.
This is the particularly British part of drinking. The dark heart of it all. Because it’s not that we drink more than our peers; in fact we’re surprisingly mid-table when it comes to overall consumption. A report released in May put us 16th out of 44 wealthy nations, below France, Germany and Spain, and hardly laying a finger on the truly sottish Baltic states. It’s not about how much we drink in Britain, but how we drink. We drink to forget and find oblivion. We drink to roar and scream and release our barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. To stay warm and cheerful on this damp Atlantic outcrop. We drink so that we can flirt and fight and peel off all the layers of repression and embarrassment that envelop our quotidian souls. To giggle and guffaw and unearth the courage to talk to strangers. We drink to get trollied, twatted, battered, blitzed. To unleash the indigenous British berserk.
Is it a problem, this profound inebriation? A cute national quirk or a tragic debility? Winston Churchill insisted with typical pith that he had taken more out of alcohol than alcohol had taken out of him. Few of us will match Churchill’s consumption, thankfully, but I probably feel the same way. It’s hard to be an advocate for drinking when it so regularly leads to yobbishness, violence and liver damage. Or when you think of all those days lost to hangovers and contemplate your stubbornly swollen gut. It’s difficult to justify why we so desperately need and revere this dangerous social crutch. But we’re human, we’re British, life can be a slog and most of us, I hope, are getting something worthwhile out of it.
Now that it’s approaching 2am, I think I’m allowed to go to bed. I’ve fallen a few short of William Hague’s old target of 14 pints in a day, but it has been a respectable effort. The final stop is an obligatory trip to Adnan’s Fried Chicken for a hit of half-melted cheesy chips smothered in mayochup. Two women approach me in the queue to compliment the rose that is lodged eccentrically above my ear, gifted by a passing Broncos patron. “We haven’t been out for two years,” they tell me. So what have they been doing? Both have had babies during lockdown, they say proudly. “There was nowt on telly,” one chuckles.
On the way home I encounter the muntered lads from earlier. They’re still careening around the streets in grand style and break out into an old footie tune that’s been everywhere this summer:
“Don’t take me home
Please don’t take me home
I just don’t wanna go to work
I wanna stay here and drink all your beer
Please don’t please don’t take me home”
I’m not sure I ever realised how perfectly that song sums it all up. For better and worse, it’s all come right back to me.