Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bottoms up!

This week we discuss drinking habits on either side of the Pond, and welcome Marsha, a Canadian who is living in London and pursuing her dream, to be a published writer.


Midnight in Pub-Land... and All's Quiet

It's my first week in London. Straight from the Canadian hinterland (otherwise known as the country's capital, Ottawa), I saunter into a pub for my first real night out in the big city. My friend and I eagerly head for the bar. It's quarter to eleven, and the night is just beginning.

'I'll have a glass of house red,' I say, opting for the cheapest option on the menu. I've yet to start working, and my Canadian bank account is dwindling fast.

'Sorry, last call was fifteen minutes ago.' The bartender's bored with me already.

'What?' I look at my watch. Has time suddenly shifted forward by three hours? Surely no pub would close at 11!

The bartender smiles. 'Welcome to England.'

In the five years I've been in England, I've adapted to the harsh reality of such early closing times for pubs -- although I've yet to understand it. Even with the recent legislation enabling pubs to stay open later, most have opted to keep their opening hours the same. Do British people need their eight hours' sleep? Have they drunk so much that by eleven o'clock they're so blathered they need to head for home? It's a mystery to me.

Not that I want to drink into the early hours, but I like the option of hanging out past twelve. In Canada -- Montreal, in particular -- pubs and bars stay open until at least 2 a.m. People don't even start to make their way out until around 10. But there again is the difference. Here, people see pubs as a way to unwind after work; for a quick pint on the way home. Night-clubs are for serious partying, those nights when double vision is your constant companion and the toilet bowl your best friend. And there's not a heck of a lot in between the two. You're either home by 11, or you're a slave to the dance floor. For people like me, who fancy a glass (or two) of Chardonnay after midnight in an environment where I can actually hear what my friend is saying, it's a sorry scenario.

You hear a lot in the news about 'binge culture'; of people drinking so much, so quickly, they're destroying their health. I can't help but wonder if that's a legacy of early closing times. Yes, people are responsible for their own behaviour, but if they didn't feel eleven o'clock approaching so quickly, maybe they wouldn't feel the urge to drink so fast.

All I want is a pub that stays open past the magic hour of midnight. Is that too much to ask? In my part of London, apparently so.


I can see a pub from my bedroom window, and it stays open till 2.30am at the weekends. I live not far from several bars and the thing that continues to (pleasantly) surprise me is the total lack of alcohol-induced violence. I am sometimes woken by drunken arrangements being made for the following day, or questionable renditions of “I Will Survive”, but never a fight. They even serve alcohol at baseball games for heaven’s sake! Yes, people will be ejected or refused service if they appear too inebriated, but Americans, I find, are fairly happy drunks.

What is it that reduces the worst form of Brit to a marauding Neanderthal after one too many? Why does the aim of a night out, for many young Brits, appear to be to get as knee-walking drunk as humanly possible. When the licensing hours were allowed to be extended, some thought that this might make alcohol less of a “forbidden fruit” in the UK, perhaps leading to more responsible drinking. It doesn’t look like this has happened at all.

What I have noticed in my 19 years in the US however, is the amount of drink/driving that goes on. I was a driver when they cracked down on this in England in the 80’s; several acquaintances received a year’s ban and a huge fine for being slightly over the limit. It taught everyone a lesson and most of my friends and relatives don’t touch a drop when they have the car now. When my husband and I leave the car at home on a night out in the US, our friends usually assume it’s because we are worried about parking. The fact that we can flag a taxi down quickly makes it very easy to stay on the right side of the law. In many newer cities and rural parts of the States, there is no real public transport system, but it doesn’t seem to occur to people that it’s probably not a good idea to have a few brewskies while driving.

Here, although all states now have a .08 blood alcohol limit, the fines and consequences for driving over the limit vary wildly and aren’t nearly punitive enough to act as a deterrent. In Alabama, you’ll get a 90 day ban for your first offence/offense and a year for your second; in Arkansas it’ll be 120 days followed by a 2 year ban, while in Kansas you get a piffling 30 day ban the first time, followed by a year ban next time round. The irony is that were you to hit someone while over the limit (or under the influence as they say here) you could quite easily be punished in the criminal justice system then hit with a civil suit by the other party. Not even that possibility seems to make people stop and think.


  1. Interesting. My husband has just taken the theory part of th New York State driving test, and half the questions were about drink-driving; this is clearly why.

    As for the theory about early closing hours leading to drunkenness: this is widely held, and is one reason the British government sought to extend licensing hours recently. Unfortunateley, I think the British attitude to drinking is so ingrained - get as much down your neck as you can, as soon as possible - that even changing the hours won't change it in this generation, and possibly not even in the next.

  2. The pubs here in my village all stay open until at least 1am. I however live in an extremely Americanized area (due to the military bases). Back in the states I did notice that drink driving is a much bigger problem. My husband and I are one drop no drive people ( too much of a risk), and since we moved to England it has been much easier because cabs are so much more accessible than in the states.

  3. We were two thirsty Brits doing a driving holiday in the Four Corners area (Arizona,Colorado,Utah and New Mexico) plus parts of California, and at times had trouble getting a drink at all! The Utah situation we expected and had come prepared, but the fact that a drink was hard to find elsewhere was most unexpected. One motel owner in New Mexico saw us unloading a bottle of wine from our car and told us drinking 'hard liquor' was forbidden in his establishment, many restaurants didnt sell 'hard liquor' at all, and consumption of more than 2 glasses of wine each was actual cause for comment in more than one place. We met our Australian cousins in Scottsdale Arizona, where our modest(in our opinion)consumption was greeted by raised eyebrows and "gee, you guys sure are thirsty". It was quite a relief to get back to the village pub!

  4. Ah yes, the "dry" spots. One could write a whole nuther post on that. It's also difficult travelling round the States because the laws change from one state to the next. In North Carolina, for example, you can't order wine or beer with your lunch on a Sunday; in Arkansas you can only buy Arkansas wine (?) in the supermarket etc.
    The one thing I have noticed is that Americans will quite often have a beer or two and then stop, whereas Brits will just keep on drinking until the party or the evening is over. Not that they get paralytic necessarily, but they do keep on drinking. Must be something in that.

  5. The benefit of early closings and great public transportation? Fewer drunk drivers. I'm all for it.


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