Tuesday, November 13, 2007

You'll have to prise the cheap lager out of my cold, dead hands

I like work. It fascinates me. I could sit and look at it for hours - Jerome K Jerome.

How did that happen? I've been busy, constantly, these past few weeks. And it was most unpleasant: mainly a grind consisting of doing things for other people and all that sort of nonsense. So serious was it that I have neglected this blog.

Obviously, to return one needs an issue of real substance to write about. I had thought, briefly, about writing about some classic "oh really" headlines of recent days, such as Search for British Motto Turns Cynical (I vote for Mottos: Not Really Our Thing) or, even Smoke Caused by Large Fire.

But these didn't quite do it. Even the fact that the Daily Mail ran a story arguing (and I may be over-Malilifying the argument here) that Scare Stories Give You Cancer did little to inspire me. Only a topic close to my heart would do.

That topic is cheap booze. More specifically, the news that a coalition of tedious puritans thinks that cheap booze is a bad thing. The reason being, of course, that too many people drink too much so therefore we should make it harder for people to get hold of drink at all.

Leaving aside the tedious and hysterical nature of some of the scare stories (I suspect that some of the more tedious and hysterical parts of the press are as much to blame as anyone for this – especially if they get hysterical about supermarkets over-reacting to the great booze panic).

But the suggestion, by the Alcohol Health Alliance, that the tax on alcohol be raised to discourage people from drinking too much is the key thing here. There is a glib and easy point to be made about how effective this approach has been in Scandinavia and Finland (indeed, the Telegraph, the news desk of which seems to have a particular weakness for glib booze scare stories, recently depicted the latter as a land where "for men, drinking is now the number one cause of death, and as many women are killed by alcohol as by breast cancer"), so of course I'll make that glib and easy point.

What irritates me more is the mindset behind this engineering. It's fine to argue that something must be done to stop people drinking - education; a broader approach which actually looks at what causes people to drink too much and acting on that, even, I suppose, scare stories in the press; all that's fine. The mantra "please drink responsibly and in moderation" may be annoying, but it isn't the problem here. If health groups, or whoever, want to change the national culture, they're free to go ahead and try. If they succeed in curtailing drunken violence in the streets, I'll give them a round of applause.

The problem is the belief that if we, as a nation, are too stupid and blind to our own interests to mend our ways then we must be made to. Especially when, though I concede we have to pay taxes to the NHS and so on, it's essentially of question of individuals choosing to harm themselves.

This desire to enforce correct behaviour – the reflex instinct of the meddling puritan – is what I find so disagreeable here. To look at one aspect of the story, the attitude that something must be done about cheap supermarket booze.

The 22p can of lager is also singled out here. There are, goodness knows, enough things you can bash the supermarkets for. But it seems that selling alcohol cheaply isn't one of them. Corner shops, too, are pretty competitive in this regard; six cans of Grolsch or Becks, or eight of Fosters and Carlsberg, for a fiver is pretty standard round here. I bet it's easier for school kids to get served in these places and - moral panic alert, there is plenty of pornography on sale, and cigarettes too – yet these fellows don't get it in the neck.

My defense of discounted drinks is partly motivated by the fact that I like cheap booze, of course, but I would draw the line at the 22p drink in question. It's less than 3% alcohol and must – surely – taste pretty foul. If somebody is drinking copious amounts of that stuff , then I'm afraid that their life must have reached an unimaginable low and the availability of cheap booze is the last thing we should be worrying about. (Not least because Special Brew and the like are always going to be with us).

There is of course, another aspect to this: it might be bad for children. Even they, I imagine, would struggle to get drunk on own brand cheap lager, but it seems that the risk they might do so, or take advantage of another promotion, is enough to spur the legions of healthy decency into calls for action. It is not enough, clearly, that there are laws to stop children buying alcohol. Nor is the obvious point that making alcohol too expensive for school children would be every drug dealer's dream going to stick.

The danger is that if everything that might pose a threat to children were to be proscribed, or at least made more disagreeable, then life itself would soon become intolerable.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is at the heart my objection to this form of puritanism: the belief that some businesses should be forced to change their commercial strategies, that some adult drinkers should pay more tax because the authorities cannot enforce their own laws on under-age drinking, that we should, all of us, pay for the fact that some people make life style choices which health groups disapprove is not one we should encourage. Any attempt to coerce us because we can't be convinced is something to be resisted. I think that even a mind addled on Tesco Value lager should be able to work out why that is.

Still, the campaign isn't all bad. The constant reminders that supermarkets sell cheap drink prompted me to investigate what was on offer in my local Sainsbury's. I was delighted to see that the Taste the Difference Range includes a range of lagers by Greenwich's excellent Meantime brewery. I am delighted to see that a small business like this, which is dedicated to producing a quality product which will bring pleasure to discerning customers, has the chance to reach a wider audience. At less than £1 a bottle it was a real bargain and every sip was enhanced by the fancy that, somewhere, a joyless purtian's bloodless lips were being pursed ever more thinly in impotent disapproval and rage.

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Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Yes, but on the plus side, the Metro ran a story today with the headline 'Binge Drinking While Pregnant OK', so as long as you buy expensive booze, you should be able to avoid the moralists.


4:01 pm  
Blogger bill said...

How could I have overlooked Metro in my compendium of top class journalism?

It's worth pointing out that "binge drinking" is something virtually everyone does as it's more than four units in one go. I prefer to call it "lunch".

4:10 pm  
Blogger dominic said...

Ah the 22p lager, cheaper than mineral water!

but in Belgium you can get QUALITY beer - even some of those lambic ones - for cheaper than mineral water. Roll on that situation in the UK.

And yes, Meantime's range is excellent.

(I can only presume the "captcha" device below is to prevent those who have drunk too much 22p a can lager from commenting here)

11:14 am  
Blogger Quink said...

King's Arms, Dalston, last night. Bloke: "I don't see why we have to pay more for drink just cause these kids are getting hammered on 23p lager". Or words to that effect...

4:54 pm  

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