The public house culture of Britain encourages excessive drinking

Ami Tian

One of the most significant differences, at least in terms of my day-to-day life, between the UK and the United States is that the drinking age in the UK is 18 as opposed to the United States’ 21.   Since I’m underage in the states it’s hard to compare the legal drinking scene of the UK to that of the States; I could try to compare pub culture to bar culture, but not having spent much time in bars, I don’t have much basis for comparison. What I can remark on, though, is what part drinking seems to play in the culture here.

Credit: Binta Loos-Diallo

The typical thing said about Europe is that since the legal drinking age is much younger, drinking isn’t that big a deal, so young people are less likely to abuse alcohol when they come of legal age.   Children grow up drinking wine with their parents at dinner : it’s not a forbidden substance, some magical elixir exclusively for grown-ups. The UK, however, seems to have escaped that stereotype and is known for being a nation of alcoholics and binge-drinkers.

I talked to some northerners who speculated that the heavy drinking might have to do with the weather; if the weather’s bad, it becomes easier to shut yourself inside and drink because there isn’t much else to do.   That seems reasonable, but then how do you explain why in the winter you’ll find people standing outside of pubs shivering and clutching their pint glasses with gloved hands?   Or why you’ll still find binge-drinkers in London even though the weather’s not that cold (although we do have our share of rainy days)?

I blame that fine British (and Irish) institution known as the public house.   While economic factors such as the cheapness and availability of alcohol undoubtedly factor into the equation, I think that excessive drinking may be more culturally acceptable here because drinking is such a central part of social life.

Pubs are open from noon, and often offer free Wi-fi. You can sit with your laptop and a pint and do work. Have a pint with your lunch: pub grub will often include, at the very least, pies, chips, bangers and mash, etc. Have another pint after lunch, for kicks. Have a pint at four in the afternoon. Have a pint, or two, or three, in the evening before going clubbing, if you’re into clubbing : if not, hang around and drink some more. I can understand why the English might be drunks, but seriously, why isn’t everyone in this country horribly fat?

Part of why I suspect coffee shops close so early here (as early as 5:00 p.m. sometimes, but usually around 7:00 p.m.) is because the pubs are open. Like a coffee shop, a pub functions as a third space between the workplace and the home. And while Londoners aren’t quite as British as the rest of England (just as New Yorkers aren’t quite as American as the rest of America), for the most part Londoners aren’t the workaholics that Americans are known for being. I’m not including people who work in the city of London, who work 14-hour days and are actually insane. Londoners might not be headed to a coffee shop as late in the evening because they’d rather relax with a beer rather than with a cappuccino, which might not actually help you relax, but (at least in my case) might just serve as a break from work with the intention of returning : an excuse to work harder, later.

Still, so far I’ve only described how the British drink socially. Why do I associate pubs with heavy drinking? The focus of the pub, in addition to providing a casual atmosphere in which to socialize, is to let people drink. Although food is offered at pubs, the food is offered alongside the alcohol rather than the other way around.   You don’t just go to the pub to hang out, you go to the pub to drink and hang out : the drinking part is essential. Drinking and socializing are nearly one and the same. In that respect, it’s easy to reason that the more you drink, the more fun you have : although that may not necessarily be true in all cases, it’s not entirely untrue, either.

Back in the states there’s a similar perceived correlation between fun and alcohol. I don’t have the numbers for it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we did a fair amount of binge-drinking, ourselves. The main difference between drinking in the UK and in the United States would be that the UK has a public social space for drinking that’s so thoroughly present and embedded in its culture. The downside of which may be increased binge-drinking, but the upside of which is that pubs are actually nice places to spend time in.   The existence of the pub also promotes healthy, truly social drinking, the kind of socializing that occupies the middle ground between the temporary relief of a coffee break and the oblivion of a night of binging (which could almost be described as anti-social drinking). The focus of the pub is on the drink and the conversation, rather than on the drink and the game of Beirut used to facilitate the consumption of more drink. When I go back to the states, it’s not the drinking itself I’m going to miss : it’s the space, that fine institution, the public house.