Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Trollied Tuesday: A Brief History of Handwringing

I am indebted to my friend Ross for drawing my attention to this article, which also features on the front cover of History Today, Drink: The British Disease?

The standfirst pretty much sums up the subject matter.

Britain has had a long and sometimes problematic relationship with alcohol. James Nicholls looks back over five centuries to examine the many, often unsuccessful, attempts to reform the nation's drinking habits.

Sure enough, the article gives a trawl through five centuries' worth of people complaining about the British love of boozing and how we are far worse than other countries. It should, perhaps, be little surprise that puritans and sundry other tiresome moralisers were especially prone to making these complaints. They are also, and again this should be little surprise, prone to talking utter tosh.

Consider the following:

In 1635 the playwright Thomas Heywood blamed the Danes for first bringing their ‘elbow-deep healths into this land’, but ruefully observed that while north Europeans all seemed ‘addicted to strong and toxing drinks’, it was the English who were ‘most forward to commit this grievous and abominable sin of drunkenness’.

The idea that the Brits (or the English, people elide these two still, which is foolish given that the Scots are also involved) are the worst drunkards of the lot has a long tradition; but Heywood's comments about the Danes almost give the game away. Have none of the people spouting off in this fashion ever met a Norwegian or a Russian? Have they even been to Ireland?

If I have one criticism of Nicholls's articles it is that it only stretches back five centuries. As early as Anglo-Saxon times the authorities were taking measures (literally) to control people's drinking by putting pegs in shared drinking vessels with the hope that people would only drink down to the next one. (I've mentioned this before, but it's worth reminding ourselves that it was completely counterproductive.) Although the evidence is scant, it's probably a reasonable assumption that the ancient Britons were also hopeless dipsomaniacs (certainly their Gaullish cousins were – at least if you believe the Romans).

Doubtless as long as there is drink there will be tiresome prigs moralising about people who drink too much of it, and fantasising about ways they can ensure their fellow citizens behave in a manner of which they approve. I can not say for sure whether the British are particularly afflicted with such people, it strikes me as a valuable area of historical inquiry, however.

One can almost see the standfirst:

Britain has had a long and sometimes problematic relationship with puritanism. Some academic or other looks back over five centuries to examine the many, often unsuccessful, attempts to reform the nation's love of self-righteous meddling.

There is one other striking fact in the History Today article. Consumption of strong drink dropped dramatically in the wake of the First World War. The cause might have been the severe economic recession that followed the war, the heavy loss of life in the conflict or the government's measures to suppress heavy drinking.*

The message, however, should be clear: it's when people aren't drinking that you really want to start worrying.

* Lloyd George, the prime minister of the day, may have been a lecher and deeply corrupt, and he may have destroyed his own party and made things far worse than they had to be in Ireland; but let no one accuse him of underestimating the perils of alcohol. To quote History Today, again:

In March, after meeting a deputation of shipyard owners calling for national prohibition, he stated that not only was Britain fighting Germany, Austria and drink, but that ‘the greatest of these deadly foes is drink’ (after which a Times leader writer was moved to observe that things were ‘getting a little out of perspective’).

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