Thursday, December 03, 2015

My defence of underage drinking in the Leicester Mercury

I have another First Person column in the Leicester Mercury today.

Pub culture destroyed in a generation

The other day a woman in front of me in the supermarket queue was asked to prove her age because she was buying a bottle of wine and looked under 25.

She did so without fuss – maybe she felt flattered? – but the incident made me think about how much our attitude to young people and alcohol has changed.

Back in the old days – in the Seventies – I was able to drink in pubs from the age of 16.

I did not do it often, but when I did it was always as part of a group of friends of the same age. We drank beer and we knew we had to behave ourselves because we weren’t really meant to be there.

But if we did behave then our presence was tolerated by the bar staff and other customers alike. I even remember playing snooker in a working men’s club on the shaky pretext that one of our number’s father was a member.

That would be unthinkable today. Any pub that let unaccompanied 16-year-olds through its doors to drink alcohol would lose its licence.

The result is that those teenagers who are determined to drink do so alone and unsupervised. They don’t drink beer but spirits and white cider.

Figures say that fewer young people drink alcohol today than did in the Seventies. I guess they are all at home in their bedrooms mixing music and being stalked on Facebook.

But those who do drink are surely getting a more harmful introduction to alcohol than my generation did.

Many things have changed since the old days – since the Seventies – and pubs are among them.

I have to admit that, much as we wanted to get into them, pubs were pretty unexciting places when you did. They turned out to be full of old men in flat caps drinking beer.

Everything changed in the Eighties. Suddenly pubs seemed positively designed to attract underage drinkers. They became fun palaces crammed with Space Invaders machines and Malibu.

Before that happened I had gone off to university to do my student drinking in York. In those days Yorkshire pubs really were ruled by fierce landladies who terrified all their customers.

Last time I was in York those landladies had gone and there was a security man on every pub door.

Traditional pub culture, including the tolerance for underage drinking I benefited from, was easy to destroy. Now it has largely gone and it would be next to impossible to re-establish it.

So the lady in her late twenties in front of me in the queue had to prove her age and teenagers are drinking vodka in bus shelters tonight.


Tristan said...

Similarly in the US where it is illegal to drink underage, you have young people drinking more harmfully.
If you visit a hospital emergency room near a university campus you are likely to see students with alcohol poisoning when they've just turned 21.

The Singing Organ-Grinder said...

What's really driving young people out of pubs is not age legislation but the huge divergence that has arisen between on- and off-licence alcohol pricing in the period you're talking about, with in real terms an increase in pubs and a decrease in shops (see e.g. Young people are often poor people, and they'd be mad to go to pubs now. The collapse of industries like mining hit communities in some places, but for some reason we keep voting in governments which conspire with supermarkets and the health loonies to endanger across the land the most pleasant kind of community known to humankind. (There's some underage drinking in my local, but the standard opening gambit directed at newcomers is, "When did you get out?")

wolfi said...

In Germany you can buy wine or beer when you're 16 - and also go into a pub drinking.
Only for spirits do you have to be 18 years of age - I found that more sensible, remember how we used to go to a pub for discussions among friends when we were at the "Gymnasium" ...

Phil Beesley said...

Isn't the question about "judgement" versus rules based processes? With "judgement", a blind eye is turned in pubs where local youths go for couple of pints, politely being advised when it is time to go home. Local police can pay their attention to crime where people get hurt. Bar staff can focus on what is going on in the pub. But that is grey thinking and society today demands clear rules for other people's behaviour. Grey thinking nowadays is to be reserved for assessing motoring offences committed by the middle classes.

In my youth, my mates and I had to claim to be 18 to enter pubs where bands were playing. The drummer or bassist was usually a 15 year old... These problems have gone away, along with the informal pub band apprenticeship.

Jonathan Calder said...

Phil: You remind me of Muff Winwood's story of recruiting his little brother to a jazz band...

"We needed a piano player so I brought Steve along. He was only 11, but he played everything perfectly. They stood with their mouths open.

"Because he was under-age, we had to get him long trousers to make him look older, and even then we'd sneak him in through the pub kitchens. He'd play hidden behind the piano so nobody would know."