Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: carpe diem vs financial tedium

Given the current financial turmoil, many of you may be tempted to turn to drink. As an investment, I mean. I was going to invest in cardboard boxes, braziers and real estate near railway bridges and trash heaps, but apparently booze can give you a much better return than the stock market or property. Or maybe not.

My view on wine as an investment is: well, if you're asking me for investment advice you deserve all you get. But the mindset of someone who would pay thousands for the finest wines known to humanity, solely with the intention of selling them on at a profit without ever tasting them is something I do feel able to comment on.

As anyone with even the most basic grasp of economics (that'd be me now) could tell you: the value you derive from a fine wine is not to be solely measure in terms of its future resale value – the pleasure you would derive from drinking it in suitable company must be factored in to the cost when you buy it. The fact that large chunks of the financial world are, apparently, given over to people who are, apparently, only able to see wine as another way of adding to a wealth they will never truly be able to enjoy is a perfect representation of the sort of sterile, self-defeating greed that has gotten us into this fine mess.

If you find yourself in possession of a good wine which is now ready to drink, the only sane advice is to enjoy it.
"How sweet is mortal Sovranty!"--think some:
Others--"How blest the Paradise to come!"
Ah, take the Cash in hand and waive the Rest;
Oh, the brave Music of a distant Drum!

One Moment in Annihilation's Waste,
One moment, of the Well of Life to taste--
The Stars are setting, and the Caravan
Starts for the dawn of Nothing--Oh, make haste!

How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit
Of This and That endeavour and dispute?
Better be merry with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.
As for the economy now, I shouldn't worry too much - the whole thing will probably end with us drinking the finest clarets and champagnes. Admittedly we'll be drinking them while standing around a brazier, having looted the bottles from the mansion of the last banker who has just been strangled with the entrails of the last trader. Still, I'll see you there.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Where the Guardian keeps getting it wrong

Or rather that whole stratum of the British left that can't face the prospect of an Old Etonian becoming Prime Minister. Here's Jackie Ashley:

Yet even without difficult decisions to be made, Cameron has to explain what the new Tories stand for. Do they have distinctive, properly thought out policies? Or are they content to kick a deeply unpopular government in hard times? So far, they still seem more Flashman than Gladstone.

Oh come off it. If ever there were a boy who was tossed in a blanket, roasted in front of a fire and had his head shoved down the bog in the dorms it is Cameron minor. He is no more a Flashman figure than Nick Clegg is Gladstone come again.

More generally, the obsession with the Old Etonian = Tory Toff!!! OMG!!!! line of argument, which does not work in the slightest, misses the real reason why we should be worried about a cabinet of Old Etonians. It is that the school is England's academy of darkness, the greatest nursery of vice, brutality and degradation known to man.

Of course, this experience can give a valuable insight into human nature and it's no surprise that Eton has produced some fine writers: Orwell and Powell, for instance. But let's remember the words of another Old Etonian writer (and pornographer, confidence trickster and minicab driver): Robin Cook (aka Derek Raymond). He said of his schooling "An Eton background is essential if you are at all into vice".

It is a fairly good rule of thumb that one should never trust an Etonian - certainly not when matters of money or honour are at stake. Really: one would expect the Guardian, as a newspaper written by people who were bullied at public school for people who were bullied at public school, to know this.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Drunkeness is next to Godliness

Presbyterian drunks help save the planet.

Street drinkers in Glasgow are donating their empties to help build a church entirely from recycled materials.

Local alcoholics are said to have been "inspired" to do their bit after the Minister of Colston Milton, the Rev Christopher Rowe, told them of the ambitious plan.

Their empty beer cans are now being stored while the church raises money and collects more materials for the environmentally friendly building.

It has already been given £42,809 by the Scottish Climate Challenge Fund to carry out a study of how the "economically and ecologically sustainable" kirk can be built and maintained.

The ecologically sustainable kirk; ah what a glorious concept. I imagine the local alchies were delighted to find a cause that inspired them to keep handing over empty tins. To lapse into good Calvinist theology, the street drinkers are clearly God's elect; chosen out of the sinful mass of mankid. They may spend their days getting pished in the woods, but they are Righteous and Justified in their calling, and when the last trumpet sounds, lo, shall they say, "ye're a'ight, there, Big Man?"

Truly this is the first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of puritans.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Pub Signs

The painted pub sign, one of the oldest popular visual arts traditions in Britain, is locked in decline. That is the fear of conservationists who hope to alert pub chains and breweries to a 'catastrophic' loss of the traditional skills involved and a failure to preserve a heritage that dates back to Roman times. The Guardian reports:

They're a pleasant relict from the era when most businesses would have some sort of sign to indicate what they were; but since most people can read these days it's not of the utmost importance that pubs have the traditional sign outside. They are a nice part of the urban and village landscape, though, and it would be a pity to lose them entirely.

What the demise of the pub sign really symbolises, of course, is the demise of the pub. Some modern pubs do, after all, manage to keep up this visual tradition by picking signs in keeping with their own characters. You could do worse than to have a look at the Inn Sign Society, some fine examples there, and by no means all olde world stuff.

(Some of the chains also make a bit of an effort their own pasteurised version of pub signage, sometimes with more success than others; remember Wetherspoon's John Masefield in Merseyside, which bore an unfortunate resemblance to Hitler?* But far too many of the chains will allow now form of independence or personality at all).

But many more traditional inns and smaller pubs are shutting (57 a week, according to Camra) – you must know the reasons by now: high taxes, smoking ban, cheaper alternatives elsewhere, changing habits. Note too the rise of the super pub, the wine bar and other vast pile 'em high, get em' pissed emporia. As the Graun reports:

The growing corporate ownership of public houses across the British Isles has led to the standardisation of what is on offer, both inside and outside the bar. The situation has worsened in the past five years because of the increasing number of pub closures. Figures compiled by the Campaign for Real Ale show that an average of 57 pubs shut permanently every month.

While corporate dominance and the homogenisation of Britain are both to be deplored, it's not wholly a surprise: if that's virtually the only way you can make money running a pub in the city centre, then identikit chains will dominate. (It's not the only way of course: a good pub with excellent beer might just do it, but it's a damned struggle. Worse, the more of the big chain pubs there are, the more they can use their oligarchic powers to put the independents out of business).

When Gordon Brown stood up earlier today, trailing clouds of misery as he begged his party to let him carry on with the job he's doing so well, he missed one simple, effective and cheap way by which his government could make life a little more enjoyable for millions. A commitment to helping smaller pubs – lower taxes on beer sold in pubs, planning laws that don't favour the large chains, maybe even a rethink of the smoking ban (Gordon likes rethinks, after all). It won't happen of course, simple measures that don't involve ponderous bureaucracy aren't his style, and anything that encourages people to enjoy themselves in an unhealthy matter is quite out of the question. Well, more fool him; I doubt anyone'll name a pub after him anyhow.

One might at this point argue that this concern with preserving traditional aspects of British life is somewhat John Majorish. But it need not, in fact it should not, be about party politics or imposing a particular view of the world on anyone. (Especially since, Major's warm beer speech was a rip-off of Orwell, talking about, among other things, "the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs".)

It's surely not too contentious to say that it would be a pity if the traditional forms of sociability and community that the pub encapsulates had no place in the modern world, nor that there should be a place for the things that symbolise that.

* NB: The Führer's nephew William Patrick Hitler really was born in Merseyside. If only they'd thought to name the pub after him.


Brown pledges porn for all

Gordon Brown will today attempt to launch his political fightback by pledging to ensure equal access to internet pornography for all teenage boys in the country.

"For too long there has been a wanking gap in this country," the Prime Minister will tell the Labour conference in Manchester. "Whereas public school boys like George Osborne and David Cameron have been able to download hot girl-on-girl videos in the privacy of their studies in Eton, millions of teenagers on council estates have had to make do with a third hand copy of Razzle of which half the pages are stuck together or a five-second clip of their mate's girlfriend showing her breasts at a party only you can't really see them properly on a mobile phone.

"My plan for equality of opportunity in porn will lead to an equality of outcome by 2020. It will help all Britons, no matter what their background, to get on with the job."

The Prime Minister's plan to hand out various sums of cash to allow poorer families who manage to fill out six different sets of forms on condition they "spent it all on the internet" is the centrepiece of his fightback plan as polls show that 60% of Britons now believe that if you dug up Ramsay MacDonald's corpse and stuck the remains in a heap in the corner it would do a better job of leading the country than Mr Brown.

"There were some who urged me to follow a cheaper, simpler policy of encouraging more local authorities to offer free wifi access and to find ways of giving families access to cheap computer equipment - but who would want to surf the web for smut in a public place or on a cheap internet connection?" his speech will say. "There were some who pointed out that it wouldn't be much more expensive just to give everyone a computer whether or not they needed it, but most voters trust Labour will find a way of adding layers of labyrinthine and expensive bureaucracy to our internet access scheme, and that is what we intend to do."

The Government hopes that the Prime Minister's internet plan will also make it easier poorer families to spend millions of pounds they do not have buying DVDs, CDs, holidays and bits of junk off eBay in a bid to revive a faltering economy. Commentators are already comparing the plan to John Major's famous cones hotline initiative. "That was the last time a struggling prime minister really came out and announced a plan that just made your jaw drop and stunned his critics into silence," explained political commentator Francis Dashwood.

The Prime Minister is also set to announce a range of other key policy measures on the economy and foreign affairs in his speech. They include:

  • A joint strategy agreed with Foreign Secretary David Miliband that Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, Pakistan, Africa, the EU and Russia are all issues that can wait a couple of years until we've sorted out this leadership thing.

  • The claim that "since I am the man who sat back at watched it all happen", Mr Brown is uniquely well placed to tackle the worldwide financial meltdown and economic downturn.

  • A pledge that tomorrow when he flies to New York, Mr Brown will urge other world leaders to adopt his strategy of working 18 hours a day sending emails to people telling them they must do something to sort out this economic mess.

  • A £20m recycling enforcement officers for Africa scheme, under which many of the world's poorest countries will be given help in training officials to develop ways of ensuring their citizens do not put out inappropriate materials with the rubbish.
Insiders were today predicting that Mr Brown's speech could break all sorts of records. "He'll probably get a longer ovation that Iain Duncan Smith did for his Quiet Man speech," said one Labour insider.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: The Drinking Song

A distressing feature of modern life is the dearth of good contemporary drinking songs. People still sing when they get together to drink, of course, whether it be karaoke or those less structured, impromptu performances that range from the jolly to the maudlin. What I mean, though, is that there are few contemporary songs written with the sole purpose of adding zest to a good old drink-up.

A pity in many ways when you consider all that this art form has given us. For one thing, American patriotism would have a very different tone without the drinking song. The Star-Spangled Banner itself is a drinking song, after all. Although Francis Scott Key's verbose and orotund question (yes, it is still flying. The Brits haven't taken Baltimore yet) is deemed more appropriate on solemn occasions, the tune really is that of an 18th century drinking song To Anacreon In His Heaven.

To ANACREON in Heav'n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That He their Inspirer and Patron wou'd be;
When this Answer arriv'd from the JOLLY OLD GRECIAN
"Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
"No longer be mute,
"I'll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
"And, besides, I'll instruct you like me, to intwine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS's Vine.

Try singing that next time you are being given a full-on dose of US-style patriotism. The enormous vocal range needed to sing the song properly (so far as I know, no other national anthem is quite such a bastard to perform) is just the thing to weed out those who have been intwining Bacchus and Venus rather too liberally, especially given that the Greek-inspired original doesn't really scan.

however, iven the innumerable sporting occasions at which the Star-Spangled Banner is performed I wonder if anyone has ever felt tempted to treat the crowd to the original version of the song. I suspect not, for the Americans do not necessarily find that sort of thing funny. A pity, really, as a good bout of drunken revelry would make that great nation just that bit better.

Then there is Garryowen, which has become so inextricably linked with the US Seventh Cavalry that the name appears on the regimental crest. You can see why the roistering, swash-buckling tune became such a military favourite, though I'm not sure we should allow a unit best known for a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Sioux to appropriate it wholesale. Especially as they changed the lyrics to make them more martial. Custer was a teetotaler too, which rather serves him right.

If the song belongs to anyone, it's to the late 18th century Limerick rakes (now that would a military unit to strike fear into anyone's heart. For such an unprepossessing place, Limerick has a rather louche history, incidentally. Around the same time that Garryowen was first sung it boasted one of the liveliest Hell Fire Clubs in Ireland ).

From this promising start, the Irish soldiers in the British army adopted the song (the Wikipedia entry claims it was first used as an accompaniment to military action by Hugh Gough during the Peninsula War; I've no idea whether or not that's true, though Gough was crazy enough to charge at the enemy to the strains of an Irish drinking son, and was a Limerick man to boot) In its time, the song has been associated with various infantry and cavalry regiments across the English-speaking world.

Anyway, the point is that appealing as it is to picture soldiers going into battle to the sounds of a drinking song we would all do well to use similar tunes in our daily lives. As I suggested at the start of this post, we could do with some modern drinking songs of our own. We'd have to lose the references to Bacchus, and the classics, of course, if we're going to appeal to contemporary tastes. But a few verses roaring defiance at politicians, the Daily Mail, the Guardian and the other prigs who would have us all sipping mineral water would go down well.

Until such time as I feel inspired to write a Trollied Tuesday drinking song, however, let's adopt Garryowen as this blog's official anthem.

Our hearts so stout have got us fame
For soon 'tis known from whence we came

Where'er we go they fear the name

Of Garryowen in glory.

Instead of spa, we'll drink brown ale

And pay the reckoning on the nail;

No man for debt shall go to jail

From Garryowen in glory.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A quantum of bollocks

There is something apt about the fact that on the day that the Large Hadron Collider is turned on. (I have already mistyped it as Large Hardon, I'm afraid, while a rather officious female was standing over my shoulder dictating to me, just to make it worse) that Gordon Brown gives us a demonstration of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that constitutes his premiership.

He endorsed Obama, but didn't endorse him and didn't really mean to do so anyway and was supporting him for a policy the Democrat has now abandoned.

Leave aside the justifiable fear (or hope from the Republican supporters) that this may have jinxed Obama (I still think he'll win, but he does need to up his game pronto; besides I don't really believe in the Gordon as Jonah thing, although now that you mention it, it has rained pretty solidly ever since he became PM), it's hard to think of anything more cack-handed and stupid. The last PM to get too close to one side in US election was Major in 92: and look how that worked out.

But then quantum physics can help understand Brown on so many levels. His premiership is, like Schrödinger's cat: it is utterly dead and yet it is still alive and continuing as Gordon gets on with the job (please, restrain your cheering for a moment). As for his political and economic impact: well a black hole seems an apt metaphor as the Labour party is slowly sucked in a destroyed by the unique form of anti-politics at which Brown so excels.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: In Search of One's Inner Flashman

Claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.

You may well be familiar with Dr Johnson's quip already – it's certainly sound advice when it comes to sorting out the young fellows. However, you'll note his careful choice of words there: brandy may be a noble drink, imbued with heroic sentiments; it won't make you a hero, no matter how you aspire to it, though. Tempting as it is to speculate that drink could imbue you with particular qualities – heroism from brandy, boyishness from claret, manliness from port; we must accept that this is not so, and take a stiff drink to recover from the bitter knowledge that we cannot wash away our flaws so.

A good fictional example of this phenomenon is Sir Harry Flashman VC– arch bounder, bully and brandy swiller but, as he freely admits, an abject coward. Still, he is in his own way a great advertisement for the benefits of brandy. Less so is a real life example: Kim Jong-Il. The Dear Leader is a particular devotee of Hennessy (yes, I know I have elided the precise Cognac/brandy distinction; this is not a blog for drink-sodden train-spotters, I'm afraid.)

According to one recent estimate he gets through $650,000-worth of the stuff each year (then again, it's also been suggested recently that he's dead. I'd say check the drinks bill. If Hennessy is still shifting vast quantities of the stuff to Pyongyang, he's still alive. [Or there's a claque syphoning it off, I suppose]). Note this, though, that although Kim is a lover of the good things in life (fond of cinema, private railway travel, and has his own "Pleasure Brigade" of young women to attend to him – JFK would have been just the man to deal with him, wouldn't he?) he is a decidedly unheroic figure. Managing to be an utterly preposterous little man and, simultaneously, the pinnacle of the most monstrous and - potentially - dangerous tyranny on earth is not a good combination, nor much of an advertisement for the Hennessy brand.

And yet, it's possible that selecting the correct drinks will bring out the right elements in your character. Try being witty, subtle and profound while clutching a can of White Lightning if you doubt this. (You want Special Brew for that - says that puerile little corner of my mind that is possibly attributable to the claret I am drinking).

A deeper appreciation of brandy's profundity and sublime power may allow one to understand and develop the heroic elements of one's character, after all; as a moral education rather than a simple case of in vino veritas. Churchill was another funny little man with a privileged background and a taste for brandy, after all, yet he turned out rather better than Kim. It might be that he had an innate heroism, resolution, eloquence and foresight, which the correct dose of the correct brandy brought out; whereas Kim had an innate cowardice and degeneracy (don't we all?) which an injudicious and flashy consumption of expensive brandy drew out of him.

Alternatively, it may just be that one should avoid Hennessy and stick to other brands (or, if you wish to be literal-minded, shun the DPRK's mixture of mysticism and Stalinism and stick to liberal democracy).

The full relationship between drink and one's nature is a question for the philosophers ultimately. Do we all have it in us to be another Churchill, another Kim or even a real-life Flashman - or is it the brandy that makes us so? It's one that the likes of Socrates, Plato, Kant, Marx and Hume – all of whom were found of the dialectic method of arguing the toss over several drinks – would have been well-qualified to discuss.

Since they're all dead, however, we can outdo them in this at least. What drink would you choose to bring out a hitherto unexplored aspect of your nature?

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

The government should not

Headlines that should not even need to be written:

The government should not look to Jeremy Kyle for answers.

It could be part of a series. The government should not drink bleach; the government should not base its economic strategy on the belief that something will turn up; the government should not go into that tiger's cage with a packet of Whiskas saying 'here, puss, puss'; the Government should not expect sympathy when it is taken to hospital with a vacuum cleaner shoved up its arse claiming that it slipped while doing the housework in the buff.

Okay it has – kinda, metaphorically – done all these things already. But one really should draw the line at Jeremy Kyle. His audience may have a higher than average proportion of hopeless deadbeats, but many of them would not be foolish enough to look to the man for answers.

As the Observer helpfully reports elsewhere in its a pages a government agency, Learndirect, had sponsored the show to the tune of £500.000 a year until it noticed rather belatedly that the show was a little exploitative. Let's lay aside the justifiable suspicion that this apparent obsession with spending public money on Jeremy Kyle is based on the lazy, asinine and patronising idea that a man who is watched by so many feckless layabouts is the very man to hector said layabouts into changing their ways. Instead, let's remind ourselves of another bit of sound advice that really should not need to be pointed out at all.

The government should not, if it feels the need to waste public money on humiliating pieces of idiocy, trumpet this idiocy as part of its plans to turn around its fortunes.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Historic errors

John McCain would appear to be another one who isn't so good at learning lessons from history. You can see what he was thinking off when he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate: a feisty, independent-minded woman who appeals to the religious nutt... that is to say conservatives he needs to turn out en masse if is to have any chance of winning.

No matter that she wasn't his first choice, no matter that it blunts any attacks on Obama for being inexperienced, the real mistake was ignoring the golden rule of selecting a running mate: make damn sure they've been thoroughly vetted.

Republican presidents before him have lived to regret selecting the likes of Dan Quayle and Spiro Agnew on a whim and, with Palin, turning out to be someone who makes Obama look massively experienced and presidential by comparison, the McCain camp looks singularly unprepared to deal with it all.

As one grateful hack puts it: Thanks to McCain's miscue, everything the press touches about Palin turns into a scoop: her earmark flip-flops, her political inexperience, her Alaska Independence Party connection, her views on teaching "creationism," her book-banning phase, plus the "troopergate" scandal, her husband's ancient DUI, and her pregnant teenage daughter. And the press rampage has only just begun.

How bad could it get? After most of his original choices turned him down, George McGovern finally announced Tom Eagleton as his running mate.

Twelve days later Eagleton stepped down after news he'd received treatment for depression. A lot of the consequent speculation about his mental state was deeply personal and deeply unfair - just like some of the stuff about Palin's family - the problem was that people began to wonder what else the campaign didn't know and why the campaign hadn't been prepared to deal with the questions.

If your own campaign reeks of bumbling incompetence, you're going to have a hard time convincing people to let you run the country. I would that the other question is why a man with McCain's long years in politics didn't remember all these precedents.

The real danger is the Troopergate case. Of course this was known about when she was selected - though possibly not the rather disturbing pattern of her firing state employees who cross her - but there are a couple of factors which make it especially risky. Firstly the Alaskan state legislature is releasing a report on October 31 - right before the election. Secondly, she's relying on a combination of Democrats and Republicans - many of whom have cause to despise her - to get her off the hook with that. Good luck, I'd have said, but there appears to have a masterplan to neutralise the isse: ask said Democrats and Republicans really nicely if they could wait a bit and, if that doesn't work, make a formal complaint about your own behaviour. You're bound to look good one way or another.

It probably won't get to the Eagleton level but there is another historical precendent that people will remember. William Henry Harrison shows the danger of selecting an elderly war heroes to beat the Democrats: they might die suddenly. Harrison keeled over a few weeks into taking office and his VP John Tyler- picked to balance the ticket - was not an unqualified success. (One thing he did achieve, though, was setting a precedent that when the President dies, the VP takes over for the rest of the term.) It's bad enough that the doubts about Palin make people question McCain's judgment, but for those doubts to then remind voters of their doubts about McCain's health and age makes it an especially spectacular own goal.

Probably. She's addressing the Republican convention tonight and one has no doubt that she'll get a massive ovation from her fanbase. She could turn it around with a great performance, but her first speech after receiving the nomination doesn't inspire much confidence in her abilities. Others may disagree, but I thought immediately of Jacqui Smith and the general air of an over-anxious, earnest sixth former being completely overwhelmed by the situation - and that's before it emerged she'd told an easily detected lie. Amateurish and foolish to an incredible degree.

But she still has a slim chance (I put it at about 3/1 at the moment) to avoided becoming joining the list of historic exemplars of what not to do. Because history also gives us a model what Sarah Palin needs to do. Here was a Republican VP candidate who survived an ethics scandal with a masterly performance.

In 1952 Richard Nixon was facing all sorts of questions about his financial dealings, which he addressed in the speech here. The most famous bit comes about six minutes in with the sentimental hokum about Checkers the spaniel and managed to get people feeling sorry for him. Note, though, how he transformed himself from a ruthless political operator into a poor misunderstood family man being bullied by the big nasty media and note how the seeming candour and directness helped him turn move from a desperate defence into an all-out attack.

We all know how well things worked out for him subsequently. Sarah Palin has already fluffed her introduction to the big stage so badly that she needs to follow Nixon's example and make people feel sorry for her. Because otherwise she'll be on the fateful path that Dan Quayle, Gordon Brown and other over-promoted deputies have followed: ridicule, pity and oblivion.

NB: I've been trying to embed Nixon's speech into this thing. But it doesn't appear to be working. I don't know why, but I suspect George Bush is to blame in some fashion.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Another puritan, sigh

My comments on Peter Haydon's Inebriated History of Britain, referred to the long-established pattern that in every age the inevitable puritan appears, fingers wagging and using all means available to force people to act in accordance with the moraliser's own standards; and how this almost always fails.

And sure enough, here comes another variant on the theme: John Harris uses the Guardian's comment pages to urge Kirkcaldy's own Lord Protector to use his bully pulpit to stop people drinking. Harris's utter wrong-headedness is best encapsulated in his closing remarks:

Not so long ago, an anguished minister told me the key to a resurrection of Gordon Brown's prospects lay in a revival of the moral certainty glimpsed in the cancellation of the Manchester supercasino. Here is an obvious opportunity: the make-or-break conference speech he is set to make in that city next month. Surrounded by streets that reflect the booze trade's absence of restraint as much as any Greek resort, he could take aim at the supermarkets, bar chains and fly-by-night club owners, and use the kind of words that usually elude him - not "we are in the midst of a review", but something altogether more simple: "This is wrong."

If Labour ministers and supporters like Harris think the casino stunt was Brown at his best it provides a clue as to why the party is so monumentally screwed right now: it was a pusillanimous pandering to purtianism for no good reason other than to appease an axis of self-righteous meddlers and win favourable coverage in the Daily Mail and The Guardian (the twin poles of said axis).

As for Harris's suggestions, oh they're mainly a plaintive bleat urging someone to do something, anything, and give him "the solid thwack of state intervention". (What type of mindset gets so excited at the prospect of interferring in other people's lives? It's most unappealling.) And were Labour to take them seriously, you could assume quite safely that they would follow the age-old pattern of being utterly counterproductive.

Two issues are tangled up in Harris's piece: our old friend cheap booze from the supermarkets and "vertical drinking establishments". In the case of the former, he advocates all sorts of new petty rules and, in extremis, legal action to control prices. Historically, of course, price-fixing has been used in all sorts of desperate situations and - unless it is really a matter of life and death - has never worked. In this instance, if you whack the price of drink up, people who really want to get hammered will respond by buying ever more potent gut rot. And people who just want to drink whatever it is they want to drink will be pissed off by having to pay more it. Not ideal for a party as terminally unpopular as Labour.

Restrictions on off sales, however, *might* have some effect (or it might just piss people off for no good reason). However, they would most likely drive people into pubs, and it's here that the limits of Harris's approach become more apparent. "Vertical drinking" establishments (ie lots of people can stand in them), now known as superpubs have a long history. In the 19th century they were known as gin palaces. And - guess what? - there's a trail of historic precendents of attempts to supress them which ended up harming other, more genteel establishments far more.

The original gin palaces developed when there was a growing urban population wanting somewhere to drink and a growing number of legal and fiscal restrictions on the sale of drink. The net result: the only economic way to sell drink at all was to build establishments along the pile em in, get up pissed model.

It's not exactly clear what Harris would like to do (this may or may not indicate that he really hasn't thought this through). However, given that he seems to like blunt legislative and economic instruments, I'd be fascinated to hear if there are any ones that can be used which wouldn't hurt smaller, calmer and less profitable "sit down" establishments. If you attempt to control the price at which bars can sell alcohol, you might see fewer superpubs selling two for the price of one; but it won't put them out of business. They might however, find ways to compensate by using their superior economic clout to put their small, more civilised competitors out of business. It has happened in the past.

I don't imagine for a moment that Gordon Brown will use his speech to announce measures to help small publicans sell drink more cheaply and easily. But if he does wish to do something to tackle binge-drinking he'll need to help smaller pubs compete against the supermarkets and superpubs. For history shows that nothing else - except maybe a major European war – really works in fighting what we now call binge drinking. And though the conflict might be easier to organise, I doubt very much it would be a vote winner.

PS: See Locker on the closure of one of his few neighbourhood boozers. Is there any way in which this development will improve the area or cut binge drinking? The pub company will bank its profits, the offies will move into the vaccuum and all that will be dimished in the sense of community.

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