The Dark Evolution of British Drinking Culture

June 28, 2017
I first met alcohol in the late 1980s. It was the morning after one of my parents’ parties. My sister and I, aged 9 or 10, were up alone. We trawled the lounge for abandoned cans.I remember being methodical: Pick one up, give it a shake to see if there’s anything inside, and if there is, drink! I can still taste the stale, warm metallic tang of Heineken (lager; 5 percent alcohol by volume) on my tongue.

Just mind the ones with cigarette butts in them.Other times we’d sneak a sip of Dad’s Rémy Martin VSOP (cognac; 40 percent) when he wasn’t looking, even though we didn’t like the taste. It came in a heavy glass bottle that he kept in the sideboard.He’d pour himself a glass at night, the ice cubes clinking as he walked to his small office to make phone calls. On special occasions—family birthdays, Christmas lunch—we even got to drink legitimately: usually half a glass of Asti Spumanti (sparkling wine; around 7.5 percent), served in the best glasses.In my mid-teens I started to drink drink. It was easy enough to get our hands on booze, even though it’s illegal in the U.K. to sell alcohol to anyone younger than 18.

The bigger chain pubs checked IDs, so we stuck to the ones we knew to be less stringent. My older boyfriend would buy me Archers (schnapps; 21 percent) and lemonade in the pub opposite the supermarket where I worked on Saturdays.Trips to music festivals and birthday parties always involved booze, invariably in violently flavored and oddly colored forms. Standouts include Apple Sourz, a neon-green fruit liqueur with an ABV of 15 percent, and Hooch, a classic alcopop that looked and tasted like lemonade but was stronger than many beers.

Yet it wasn’t until university that booze and I became properly acquainted. My memory of my first week is of social anxiety offset by cheap alcohol. It was a harbinger of the next four years. On Friday and Saturday nights, the air in Flat G4, Devonshire Hall, University of Leeds, would be heavy with perfume and hair products vaporizing from hair straighteners. The five of us girls who lived there would sit on the plastic-tiled floor of our kitchen, backs against cupboard doors, drinking from mismatched glasses and mugs. We were pre-loading: priming ourselves for the cheap spirits and pints that lay ahead with even cheaper vodka and red wine.I found that drinking made being a human easier. It wasn’t that alcohol made my social anxiety disappear; that feeling would show up again the next morning, accompanied by a headache and bottom-of-a-bird’s-cage mouth. But drinking meant I could talk to people more easily, sometimes even dance.

Still, there was always that one last drink that tipped me over the edge. At one ball I drank so much free wine that I vomited the stud out of my nose and down the sink.My diary entry that night consisted of four oversized words scrawled in turquoise pen: “drunk + sick / Freshers’ Ball.” But that was how it was: Sometimes you were the one bundling people into a taxi, sometimes you were the one being bundled. We’d always make it home eventually, armed with a greasy box of Hawaiian pizza, carrying our shoes, our hair stinking of cigarette smoke.

After I graduated, I found myself in a new city but with the same habits. I ended one night by tripping over my own feet and grating my face along a north London pavement. The next morning I had a black eye and a need for a tetanus injection. Getting into a serious relationship didn’t change things, either. I started seeing my now-husband in 2003—a courtship unofficially sponsored by Stella Artois (lager; 4.8 percent) and Smirnoff (vodka; 37.5 percent).

We’d go to a pub near one of our houses, get drunk on lager and then, when we should have been calling it quits, switch to spirits.None of this seemed particularly remarkable. I didn’t feel that I had a problem with alcohol, nor did any of my friends. We got drunk, sometimes too drunk, and then suffered the consequences. We were just doing what young people did. But recently, with nearly 20 years of drinking under my belt, I started to wonder if my generation’s relationship with alcohol was abnormal.

When I looked into the numbers I realized that it was. I discovered that 2004 was Peak Booze: the year when Brits drank more than they had done for a century, and more than they have done in the decade since. Leading the way to this alcoholic apogee were those of us born around 1980. No other generation drank so much in their early twenties. Why us?

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