A Peek Into Britain’s Drinking Culture

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Britain is known for its drinking culture, its pub tradition of drinking until you can barely stand. A report by the World Health Organisation placed England as the 13th highest country for heavy drinking. For such a small country, it’s a very high ranking and a frightening statistic, but I doubt it comes as a surprise. It should be rare to see people intoxicated to the state where they are physically unable to walk, think independently, act responsibly. Yet this is every Friday night in England, maybe every night even. Do people drink so much due to stress? Pressure? To lose inhibition? Or is it habit?

After a long day at work, many retreat to the warmth of their local pub for a few pints of their local ale. The pub is a second home for many, a place to unwind with friends and quite literally drown sorrows. A seemingly innocent place to socialise, pubs have become a British stereotype for drunkenness, an internationally known location for brawls and inebriated behaviour. Turning to a drink at the end of the day fails to help issues, and if anything it hinders any chance of helping ourselves, but the stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction in England has led to us turning a blind eye on drinking problems. We are quietly aware of the issue, yet unable to alter views and make changes. It seems impossible, laughable even, to go for only one drink at the pub; there has to be the end goal of getting wasted. Drinking leisurely has disappeared, and has been replaced with drinking dangerously.

University, the symbol of all day every day drunken fun, right? For many, being drunk is a fantastic thing to boast about. Hearing countless comments such as, “I was so wasted last night, can’t remember a thing,” tires after a while, but are repeated weekly. Many feel the pressure to drink in excess, and so succumb to the drunken cooing pleads of their flatmates to drink that night, only to wish they had woken to the cooing sounds of their mum the morning after as they stumble into the bathroom. The idea of being sober is too daunting, too intense. The phrase “I don’t drink” is rarely spoken, and when heard is treated with confusion, revulsion and questioning. To not buy in to this drinking culture is to not buy in to being a student, an Englishman. Some go to university for the ‘student experience’ instead of the academia. Often the focus is on drinking in order to enjoy yourself. As I have heard many times, you definitely can’t go to a club and have a good time sober. I was recently in a club where the dj shouted ‘Put your hands up if you’re an alcoholic.’ I scoffed, baffled at the audacity of his immoral behaviour, until I saw the hands of everyone around me shoot up, while they jumped and screamed. Yay for alcoholism! Really? Is this what we should be aspiring to? Alcoholism is not something that should be glorified or glamorised, yet it is the dangerous truth for many in England. The focus of having a good time is drinking. It’s not about enjoying yourself, it is about getting drunk. Drinking is a competition – who can drink the most? Who can get drunk the quickest? Who is the first to vomit? Pick me, pick me! Does anyone truly enjoy this?

Self-confidence is an ongoing issue in drinking. The face many put on is merely for show, and relays a deeper issue of wanting to belong and to be accepted. We are taught to be polite, reserved, to be courteous. But does this get us anywhere when meeting people? Plucking up the courage to talk to a stranger means downing a few drinks and stumbling towards the person with a frightened grin on half of your face. To lose your inhibition means to become fearless, to become a different person. The idea of not being your awkward, polite self when drunk is appealing. Maybe you’re a nicer person when you’re drunk. There is something exciting about being able to talk to whomever you like, with the excuse of being drunk to fall back on if it doesn’t quite work out. Drinking is an excuse for doing things you wouldn’t normally do, for doing whatever you want and often not facing consequences.

Laws and legislation do little to Britain’s drinking ego. Recent attempts to introduce a night-time ‘café culture’ in universities, from what I gather, has been rejected and shunned by many students. From the age of 15 we wait with great anticipation until we are 18 and can legally drink. Being able to vote doesn’t get nearly as much excitement. It is thrilling to feel different to usual. This pressure to do something everyone does, the pressing desire to belong, is too much to counter-act the lure of drinking like everyone else. It is so easy to fall into this dangerous cycle of loss of inhibition and self control. It is only when we learn to respect ourselves and our own decisions that this cycle is broken, and we are able to face the problem.

The idea of a more sober Britain is fascinating. What would people do? Would the pub culture die down? Or would an evening café culture arise? What about clubbing? Would people still want to dance without the absence of their reserve? Perhaps there would be more time for talking, more time for thinking. But then again, perhaps there would be less socialising, less conversation. It’s impossible to judge. We are creatures of habit, and two of our damaging habits are drinking and conforming. Perhaps we would revert to nightly tea drinking. It’s a nice thought.




Book Review: Idiopathy by Sam Byers

“’Fuck me like you’re a child,’ said Keith, back from holiday and fucking her in a way that reminded her of an animal in a veterinary collar – as if she were something to be shaken off, a constraint of which he needed to reverse. “Fuck me like you’re scared of me.’”

Where to start? Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement, psycfriday-idiopathy-ukhiatric wards, Twitter celebrities, unfulfilling sex, fulfilling loneliness, hesitant love, sharply honed humour, breath-taking assuredness, Idiopathy has it all. It is, of course, a satire but also deeply humane and, in Katherine, Sam Byers has created one of the most memorable characters in British fiction for some time.

The plot is simple and elegant: three old friends, Katherine, Daniel and Nathan, decide to stage a reunion a year or so after they last saw each other. The precise nature of why their friendship ended adds an interesting level of intrigue, as does the way Byers expertly teases out the grotesque and the hysterical in his premise. The three main characters often lose themselves in their own heads, and the deeper they tumble down their own private rabbit-holes, the stronger the novel becomes. Quite simply, solipsism has never been so damn funny.

“If it is possible to miss someone,” Daniel muses near the beginning of the novel, “while simultaneously hoping you never have to see them again, then this is how Daniel felt about Katherine.”

Set in and around Norwich, the modern English world is rendered hilariously disconnected – people exist, like separate atoms within a circuit, to bounce off of each other and collide but never come together. And where better to set a novel about conflictions and cattle than Norfolk? In a world where relationships and being perceived to be in a relationship is tantamount, Byers presents us with three brilliant characters who, despite themselves, just can’t do it. Katherine has resound herself to arbitrary sex, Daniel has trapped himself into a coupling he’s not sure he’s all for, and Nathan, well. Nathan is the true heart of the novel, and his story is best left experienced. Whilst Idiopathy is, firstly, a hilarious book, Byers still manages to generate a fair amount of pathos.

“Without fear, she thought, without drama, there was only the grey blankness of late-middle-age relationships, where, as far as she could make out, concepts like love and passion were replaced by what she saw as the wretched terminology of co-dependent ennui.”

The proliferation of connectivity tools that web our characters together – Twitter, mobile phones, language etc – only serves to reconfirm their isolation. Byers undermines anything and everything that humans use to connect, rendering them as useful to us as a set of stairs for a cow trapped on the second floor. “I’M TELLING YOU HOW I FEEL,” Daniel says to Katherine. “AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN.”

And it’s not just the humans. The amusing sub-plot of Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement, a disease spreading through cows which literally makes them anti-social, fleshes out the world nicely. Whilst this strand, in lesser hands, could have come off as too obvious, Byers cleverly places it behind the action, and we only catch passing glimpses of the growing pandemic:

“Any indication that a cow might be staring excessively, ceasing to move, desisting from common bovine behaviours such as cud-chewing and tail-flicking, or indeed simply standing alone for any period of time needs to be reported immediately.”

Love and loneliness, like a disease, are things that can transcend isolated bodies and connect two separate parties beyond the void. As much as Katherine, Daniel and Nathan feel alone, they are united by it. As much as they want to escape each other, they are drawn back together. This is mimicked in the prose, which is at turns terse and sharp and sprawling and circular, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace at his most entrancing.

Idiopathy is a very British novel, written by an insider-outsider with a keen eye and daggered tongue, and, if your reading experience doesn’t end with a distinct sense of having lost some quite wonderful company, then, please, check your pulse.

“No, no, [Katherine] thought. Better the sense of odds, of struggle; the ongoing and repeated relief of trauma endured and survived. Without it, there was only the security of the unimaginative: an unspokenly dwindling sex life; roiling resentment; his-and-hers facial hair.”

Sam Byers’s Idiopathy was published in April 2013.



Novel: The Folded Man by Matt Hill

“Saturday. First light is a fresh yolk dashed across the Pennines – an orange line that turns the edges of morning pink. But there’s always a fragility to sunshine over the moors – a pregnancy. Because for everyone here, everyone nearby, warm weather on these hills is just weather waiting to relapse.”

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The Folded Man confirms Matt Hill’s prodigious talent for both his literary prowess and imagination. The novel takes aspects of many genres and combines them with staccato sentences that punch with such precision that the experience of reading the novel borders on the delirious. Quite simply, The Folded Man reads like Coetzee with ADHD.

Just the concept can stagger the mind – Brian is a lonely man living in a Britain that has been devastated by war, as nationalism runs rampant and divides races and creeds. It’s a stunning debut, inside which Hill has created an equally memorable dystopian world.

Such darkness can only seep into the macabre ensemble. Brian, legs fused together due to a medical condition known as Sirenomelia, is bound to his wheelchair and pursues a life of drugs and sexual gratification in seedy brothels. He believes he is a mermaid, cursed by his legs being bonded together at birth. Brian hates his life and seems to punish himself regularly in ways that verge on body horror.

“On these powdered rocks, the mermaid throne. A throne in his six foot sea. He reaches for the skimmer, begins to fish bits of himself from the surface. For Brian, in the bath downstairs and bleeding, the pink water holds a charge – an alternating current he’s found for free.”

Brian, when his anti-social existence is disturbed by the necessity to socialise, often dabbles in the wrong crowds, as seen in Noah, the drug dealing, foul mouthed cretin that pushes Brian into an awkward situation that holds the pivotal plot points.

“But Noah is shouting and swearing, isn’t he. Driving faster. You fuck this up for me I’ll swing for you, he shouts, hurling them at sixty towards the hair appointment in the centre of town. Balls this up and we’ll have ourselves a big fall out.”

Plot takes the supporting role to the fascinating world that Hill has created, and the novel never needs to look back. Hill’s main focus Britain’s social decline after the riots which are fictional but seem inspired by summer 2011, and battles fought over skin colour “We’re only joshing, you know, he says. Got to look out for these pakis an’t we?”

Racist themes fuel this ruined landscape and challenge societies perceptions of patriotism. Hill twists contemporary ethnocentrism and tribalism to a wonderful satirical end: we see men defending the borders to their counties with assault weapons, people of colour requiring a licence to go out during state imposed curfew. Hill has taken the preposterous and created a tense and oppressive world where it seems nobody matters any longer.

There is a maniacal streak that runs through the novel and this can be seen in both story and narration. The Folded Man blends elements of modern satire, speculative fiction and horror while using a narrative that is unique and also wonderfully intricate.

There is brooding detail and delicious dialogue but the novel is always remarkably changeable, picking up local dialects on the fly and switching styles as necessary. Hill handles these elements with skill and the result is never conflicting.

At one memorable point (of which there are many) Brian falls from his wheelchair and is left helpless next to a canal in pounding rain. He is set upon by ravenous pigeons that decide to feast on his conjoined legs. Within this small moment, every nuance of the novel is apparent; from the dark humour to the distressing state of the world. It sums up life at its lowest in a world of constant, ubiquitous aggression. This moment is genuinely harrowing and helps to elevate a dark tension that lingers throughout.

“Brian leans forward, shouts, Fuck you, and reaches into his top pocket as the first bird strikes his webbed toes. Brian takes out that last corner of sniff. A finger in, a finger out, a finger in his nose. Enough to take off the sting. Enough to tighten his grip. Just water left, now. And the birds take chunks off his shins. The birds screaming with war, their beaks shining with the red and the wet, his blanket torn a little more.”

The Folded Man is a novel worth being passionate about.

Matt Hill’s The Folded Man will be published on May 16 2013.