Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: history viewed through a glass

I've been reading a most entertaining and enlightening little volume called An Inebriated History of Britain by Peter Haydon.

Sadly it is not an actually history of Britain written solely whilst sloshed, but it's hard not to warm to a volume which opens with an attack on the Daily Mail and those sections of the Conservative party which opposed the plans to liberalise the licensing laws as an attack on civilisation as we know it.

As Haydon argues, the truth is that for the past 2,000 years, drinking has been one of the great British traditions. However, there is more to this tradition than simple excess, because every age has had it's own form of sterile and joyless puritanism which has sought to use the force of the law to force people to conform to their own standards.

What this book ably demonstrates is that such behaviour is almost always counterproductive. One early example will suffice. King Edgar decided to regulate people's consumption be decreeing that all drinking vessels should be a standard size - about four pints - and that these should be further subdivided by eight pegs, the idea being that the drinker could not consume more than one peg's worth at a time.

One problem was that it's pretty hard to judge exactly how much you were drinking so that if you overshot the peg, simple manners dictated that you drink down the next peg so that you did not shortchange your fellow drinkers. More than that, though, all self-respecting Englishmen regarded this heavy-handed attempt to regulate their behaviour as a challenge and, as later Medieval accounts make clear, used the measurements as a way of keeping score in drinking contests. The idea being to take your opponent down a peg or two, see.

There's plenty more in that vein throughout the book including the apogee of puritanism during the reign of Oliver Cromwell. As the subsequent excesses of the Restoration era demonstrated, the various attempts to curb people's enjoyments did not go down so well.

And here's the point that a real inebriated historian of Britain should make. Puritanism has poisoned many a worthy cause by hijacking it for its self-righteous moralising and controlling behaviour. It wasn't just the movement to curb the sovereign's powers in favour of a representative parliament that suffered, contemporary issues such the fight for equal rights for women, to give one examples, are in danger of being hijacked by joyless, sterile moralisers.

But let's not digress too far down this path for now. Instead let's remind ourselves than while the bores are always with us, in Britain the rolling, rowdy drunkard has traditionally stood in opposition to the puritan - and has generally won out in the end.

Consider for moment just how sinister the desire to control people's actions in order that they act according to one's own standards and morals really is and then be glad of these drunkards. They are one of the first and best defences of humanity, liberty and freedom of conscience. Raise a glass to them. Waes hael.

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Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Well, if we all conformed to the standarsd of the Daily Mail and certain parts of the Tory party, we would indeed be doomed.


1:07 pm  

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