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Anyone who knew me in my youth, or indeed in my middle youth, or even in my later youth, will testify that I was commonly fond of a pint of beer. Or two. Or three. And those were often washed down with a wee whisky chaser. Or two. Or three.
It was even observed of me once or twice that I was “the worse for drink.” To this I would retort, “No, I’m very much the better for it.”
Anyway, if you’re an acquaintance who knew me back in my hellraising days, brace yourself. I’m about to make a statement that will shock you. I actually agree with the new alcohol minimum-pricing law introduced yesterday in Scotland.
The new Scottish legislation means the cost of alcoholic beverages will now be determined by their strength, i.e. every unit of alcohol they contain will automatically add at least 50 pence onto their price-tag. Thus, a two-litre bottle of super-strong cider (containing more than your medically recommended alcohol intake for an entire week), which was previously available for as little as £2.50, will now cost at least £7.50.
The intention is to reduce the physical, social and financial carnage wreaked in Scotland by alcohol abuse. Statistics include 1,265 alcohol-related deaths in 2016; 36,325 alcohol-related hospital stays in 2016-17; 42% of offenders in violent crimes being under the influence of alcohol in 2016-2017; and alcohol’s cost to the public purse in terms of health and social care, policing, lost working hours, etc, being an estimated £3.6 billion in 2007.
Personally, I doubt if upping prices and doing away with bargain-basement booze is likely to stop your average, hardened, russet-faced, Godzilla-breathed, middle-aged jakey seeking his or her daily alcohol fix. But I suspect it will cause a gradual improvement, in that more young people – a section of the population that’s increasingly strapped for cash these days – will be dissuaded from acquiring holocaustic drinking habits. Mind you, that seems to be the trend now among young folk in the UK anyway.
My own reason for supporting minimum pricing isn’t to do with public health. I just think it might reduce, ever so slightly, the competition that Scotland’s hard-pressed pubs have faced from the supermarkets, whose shelves until yesterday were usually a blizzard of cheap-drink offers. Now that the gulf between pub prices (which are too high to be affected by the new legislation) and supermarket prices is fractionally less wide, a few people might be encouraged to visit their neighbourhood public houses more often – which might in turn save one or two pubs from going to the wall.
In recent years, the UK has experienced a virtual bar-mageddon. According to figures from CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, an average of 18 British pubs go out of business every week. The ridiculously low price of alcohol in the supermarkets is one of the causes of this, though there are other factors too, including the smoking ban, stricter alcohol limits for drivers and changing social habits generally. And let’s not forget the sorry situation in London, where many beautiful old pubs have lately been destroyed by the rapaciousness of wankerish property developers.
Meanwhile, pubs that have survived in downtown areas of British cities have often been disfigured by proprietors desperate to lure in the Friday and Saturday night crowds: office workers, students, start-of-the-evening clubbers, hen and stag parties. This means tearing out alcoves and seating areas (making more room for standing-up punters) and blighting the premises with deafening music, giant TV screens, zinging games machines and karaoke, none of which are conducive to meaningful human conversation and communication. The result is pubs that aren’t so much social venues as standing-room-only drinking stations.
Personally, the main reason why I enjoy alcohol is because I enjoy being in pubs – proper pubs. I’d much rather take a drink in a lively social environment than take it on my lonesome at home, even if that seems to be the default setting for many drinkers nowadays. And a good pub has so many things going for it. Firstly, now that most other venues for community interaction have disappeared from modern Britain, such as the corner shop, the little neighbourhood post office and the old-style gents’ barber, the pub is about the only place left where you can meet your neighbours and catch up on the local news and gossip.
There’s also the heritage factor. In terms of interior décor and, sometimes, external architecture, British pubs can be treasure troves. I’m thinking of such gorgeous bars as the Café Royal in Edinburgh, the Gatehouse in Norwich and the Crown Posada in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
And I love the idea that you can walk into a pub and never know who you’ll end up talking to: folk from all walks of life, strangers with interesting, occasionally fascinating stories to tell. All human life is potentially there, human life that you have no chance of encountering if you’re sitting on the sofa at home quaffing a £3.19 bottle of Rich and Ripe red wine from Asda (now bumped up to £4.88 in Scotland).
For that reason, when I reminisce about the different places I’ve lived, half the time I find myself thinking about pubs associated with those places: the Machar Bar in Aberdeen, the Hebrides Bar in Edinburgh, the Honjin Murakame in the Japanese town of Takikawa, the misleadingly-named Tadessa’s Grocery in the Ethiopian town of Debre Birhan, and so on. No doubt in years to come, when I think back to the time I spent in Colombo, many of my memories will centre on the dear old Vespa Sports Club on Sea Avenue. It seems to me that a town without a good pub is a town without a soul.
Although many towns have lost a depressingly high number of pubs in the last few years, my hometown of Peebles in the Scottish Borders has got off relatively lightly. The last time I was back, eight months ago, I counted a total of 18 pubs, hotel bars, club bars and wine bars still on the go there, which for a town of 8,376 people (2011 census) works out at one pub per 465 inhabitants. Not that this seems to have negatively impacted on the health of the population. On the contrary, the average Peeblean has a life expectancy slightly higher than that of the average Borderer and a couple of years higher than that of the average Scot. Maybe it’s all the hurrying from pub to pub, from the Neidpath to the Trust to the Crown to the Central – it helps to burn off the calories.
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