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The British Disease: the cultural context of alcohol

by Sassafras Sat Oct 28th, 2006 at 01:55:22 PM EST

It has become a commonplace that the British are the worst binge drinkers in Europe, but even four hundred years ago, the drinking habits of the British were cause for comment and concern.  The Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe classified drunken behaviour according to eight animal species:

Ape drunk: sociable and  happy.

Lion drunk:  aggressive, quarrelsome.

Pig drunk:  Sleepy and lazy.  This is the person still on your sofa after everyone else has gone, moaning for another drink or to be covered with a blanket.

Sheep drunk:  able to solve the problems of the world, but mysteriously unable to communicate his vision.

Maudlin drunk: or,  "You're my best friend, you are."

Martin drunk: one who has drunk himself sober

Goat drunk: "he hath no mind but on lechery"

Fox drunk:  the crafty drunk.

(Anyone who wants to read the original and more elegant Elizabethan English version of Nashe's menagerie click here. I apologise in advance to sober Dutch negotiators).  

But what is the link between alcohol and behaviour?  And why does drinking in the UK seem to be associated with excess and violence in a way not necessarily experienced elsewhere?


Griffith Edwards, in his book 'Alcohol, the ambiguous molecule' (now republished as 'Alcohol: the world's favourite drug') cites a number of possible factors:

Alcohol as a pharmacological inhibitor

The explanation of alcohol-affected behaviour as the suppression of "higher", inhibitory brain functions fails to explain why drunken behaviour varies between individuals and across cultures..  "There seems to be more of metaphor than of brain science in this kind of theory." says Griffiths.

Some people, in some societies, may indeed behave in an aggressive or promiscuous manner when drunk, but the range of behavioural outcomes also includes calmness, joviality, passivity, indolence, affability, tolerance, sociability, generosity, volubility, confidence, loquaciousness, sentimentality, gaiety, euphoria, animation, tenderness, tranquillity, boastfulness, jocularity, silliness, laziness, effusiveness, vivacity, cheerfulness, relaxation, drowsiness, peacefulness, etc. In global terms, the most frequently emphasised outcomes are relaxation and sociability.

http://www.sirc.org/publik/drinking4.html

Drunkenness and temperament

Nashe's menagerie is an early version of the folk wisdom that in vino veritas, ie, that alcohol loosens the inhibitions and reveals something about the nature of the person beneath.  Who, for instance, is convinced that
alcohol can create anti-Semitism?

The immediate context

 An aggressive atmosphere is, unsurprisingly, more likely to lead to aggression.

Drunkenness shaped by culture

The early racist stereotypes of inferior races running amok on firewater weren't seriously challenged until a major anthropological study by MacAndrew and Edgerton at the end of the 1960's.  But the study did find that there are indeed major cultural differences not just in the rituals surrounding alcohol, but in the effect that alcohol has on behaviour:

MacAndrew and Edgerton, and subsequent researchers (Marshall, 1976; Douglas, 1987; McDonald, 1994; etc.), have provided overwhelming evidence...to illustrate the learning process summarised in Drunken Comportment:
"Over the course of socialisation, people learn about drunkenness what their society `knows' about drunkenness; and, accepting and acting upon the understandings thus imparted to them, they become the living confirmation of their society's teachings.
http://www.sirc.org/publik/drinking4.html

Heath (1998) provides the following clear summary of the ethnographic and psychological findings:
"There is overwhelming historical and cross-cultural evidence that people learn not only how to drink but how to be affected by drink through a process of socialisation...Numerous experiments conducted under strictly controlled conditions (double-blind, with placebos) on a wide range of subjects and in different cultures have demonstrated that both mood and actions are affected far more by what people think they have drunk than by what they have actually drunk...In simple terms, this means that people who expect drinking to result in violence become aggressive; those who expect it to make them feel sexy become amorous; those who view it as disinhibiting are demonstrative. If behaviour reflects expectations, then a society gets the drunks it deserves."
http://www.sirc.org/publik/drinking4.html

So is the British government,
in asking the drinks industry to clean up its act and with its avowed preference for a café culture, inadvertently contributing to the problem by strengthening the meme that associates alcohol consumption in young people with bingeing and/or violence?

Another possible contributing factor is that associating alcohol with unsocial behaviour makes it just a short step from I-did-it-while-drunk to Alcohol-made-me-do-it to I-am-not-responsible:

Expectations not only shape drunken behaviour, they also enable subsequent rationalisation, justification and excuses (MacAndrew and Edgerton, 1969; Gusfield, 1987). In cultures where there is an expectation that alcohol will lead to aggression, for example, people appeal to the fact that they were drunk in order to excuse their belligerent conduct. This is particularly evident in Britain, where defendants in court often plead for mitigation on the basis that they were intoxicated at the time of the offence. Perhaps surprisingly, British courts often accept such pleading, arguing that the behaviour was `out of character' - a standard metaphor for disinhibition.  In more informal social contexts, excuses such as "it was the drink talking" are even more likely to be accepted.
In cultures where learned expectations about the effects of alcohol are very different from the British, appeals to drunkenness as an excuse for aggressive behaviour would not only fail to be persuasive, they might actually compound the severity of the offence. Among Italian youth, for example, attempts to excuse violent or anti-social behaviour on the grounds that the person was drunk would meet with incredulity (Marsh and Fox, 1992).
http://www.sirc.org/publik/drinking4.html

Is the British disease contagious?

The association of alcohol with binge drinking and violence is spreading.  Possibly fuelled by Europe-wide comment on the British experience, there is evidence that young drinkers across Europe are developing a British attitude to drink:

Spanish Health Minister Elena Salgado says that the number of hospitalizations from alcohol abuse has doubled in a decade....In Germany, young people are drinking almost 30% more alcohol than four years ago. Emergency-room visits caused by "coma drinking" rose 26% between 2000 and 2002; half the patients were female. In Poland, where the number of adolescents who drink jumped 40% between 1995 and 2003, 20% of 17-year-old boys say they got in a booze-fueled fight in the last year. Eight percent of Swedish 15- to 16-year-old girls say drink led to unplanned sex, while 12% say it made them forget to use a condom.
Time Europe

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Interesting diary, thanks for putting that together.

I feel sort of guilty because I was off binge drinking for Wales last night for someone's leaving do, but I tend to just become more sociable up to the point where I've had too much and then feel sick and go home...

I don't seem to be able to drink myself into a state where I no longer know what I am doing -  it has happened to me only once, but I know plenty of people who on a regular basis cannot remember what they have done whilst drunk and tend to become extremely aggressive when they have had too much.

It's just hideous walking through town on a friday or saturday night trying to make my way through hordes of staggering, shouting, rowdy groups of scantily clad idiots with no manners or sense (ie the road is not your pavement just because you can't keep in a straight line).  But that is British drinking culture. It's horrible.

Is there any link between the demise of traditional communities based on where you live, towards socialising in groups using alcohol as the common factor?  The biggest difference that always strikes me is that Britain is rapidly losing it's local community identities but this to me still seems to be strong elsewhere across Europe.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sat Oct 28th, 2006 at 02:43:51 PM EST
America mostly has no local communities but also not much binge drinking--except in colleges where it's a big problem.
by asdf on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 12:53:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the english disease is repression, pure anna simple.  Sounds strange, but I think being told what you can and cannot do, with emphasis on cannot, creates tension and tension must come out...by drink a drink a drink a drinking.  Plus, alcohol (frown, frown, only if you have to) is the only legal drug (apart from frown frown tobacco), so there is a basic frustration.  Plus, and this may just be me, I dunno, LOUD music, NOTHING TO SAY TO EACH OTHER OF EMOTIONAL VALUE, I WANNA SHAG, I'M LONELY!, I FEEL SICK, BLEUUUUUUUUGH!  SHIT!  MY SHOES!  YOU CUNT!  

Ya know, no subtlety, no intention of subtlety, and where can this come from but their parents?  So who are the parents?  Let's say they're my generation, grew into adults during the eighties, say, when their parents were voting for the Thatcher myth over and over, There is no society, You are on your own, You deserve better because You are morally superior, just Look at their terrible behaviour...being enacted on our streets now.  Look at how the word "chav" developed, the sneer in the voice, the desperate rush out of council housing for so many reasons when, really, the state should be building eco-wonder-palaces FOR RENT and with social housing top priority...

Yack yack yack.  Great diary.  Sassafras.  Get that poster a, er, pint of, er, (bows to Sassafras and waves hand at selection of pumps and bottles beyhind the bar, then bows to In Wales and does same, while thinking, "Ah yes, a pint of that I think.")

Yoiks!

(Seriously though, folks, I think there is a major breakdown in families here, and I think it is due to a culture of not thinking that culture has value...that buying things and making money (to buy things)...I dunno.  I'm the kinda guy who will choose the scuzziest caff where a cup'o tea costs 40p, ya know, coz it's my kinda place, whereas I'm always surprised to see intelligent people in Starbucks...my prejudices...issa chain, nothing personal to it, no local flavour, you cannae get to know the staff coz they's on rotation, nothing personal there, a neutral space....perhaps that's it: a neutral space to...do whatever it is you need to do.  

Social disaffectation, alienation, t'was rife when I were young and I guess it were more rife before that, years and decades and centuries of calculated....whassa word...disdain...no, something about looking at something with no fellow feeling, that cultivation of that lack of feeling is a skill to be learned, that weakness is our word for fellow feeling (so you get the "you're my friend really, though" drunks, who have had to bottle it up)...)

Sassafras!  I's been rambling all ovah your diary about drink.  'Tis quarter past five o' the four o'clock here and I have to admit I too had a few pints of beer last night, and a bottle of that german beer that tastes of smoked ham....and a couple of pints of a beer called Andromeda Ale...went to bed a eight, woke up at four...  So maybe I'm still drunk...

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 01:38:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]

?

by Sassafras on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 02:55:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
On the other hand, how divorced from reality does a person have to be to write a diary on alcohol on a Saturday night?
by Sassafras on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 02:56:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ahem.  T'was Sunday morning.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.
by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 07:15:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Now I've confused myself into a sort of crouch, which is the position I will remain in as I back away, trying not to scare the natives...

Coz you wrote the diary, and I was the sober drunk thing person Saturday Night Sunday Morning (I'm backing away, great sheep, great sheep...)

;)

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 07:25:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, &ltself-directed snark&gt  :)

But I did read it back, even before your response, and wished I'd written create a diary...

by Sassafras on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 02:48:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
OK...advice on visible tag brackets gratefully received...
by Sassafras on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 02:50:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think itself-directed snark & G[&]T makes wonderful sense...

Sassafras, great sheep!

Here's a G&T.  Cheers!

Here's a sheep joke.

And here are lots o' sheep.  My local variety looks like this.



Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Mon Oct 30th, 2006 at 11:50:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
(I never did marry Reality, she was always on that one-trip thang, ya know?  I had a sorta relationship, but she--or was it he?--was so boxed in, and all that confusion and...yep...repression...

'Tis the english disease, or is it a saxon illness?

Ikernov Nussink.

Anyway, I got together with the reality brothers and sisters...called themselves the realities...said realities didn't come in the singular...no such thing...so sometimes it can all sound strange no matter how unaffected by beer I is...

Ach, well...nice sheep.  I feel like your sheep now...from Nashe's description, but without the all-encompassing wisdom..or any much...elipses...doncha just love 'em?)

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 07:20:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
(I'm digging a small hole in your diary, just troll rate me and my posts'll disappear.)

(Just wanted to say that Reality, she's not worth it mate!  I heard she was doing the dirty with Realpolitik down the road last night...)

(...arf?)

(I never did learn that lesson about holes and digging...)

(See, I'm still backing away, trying not to draw attention to my confusion--it's sobriety that does me in...alkerl is luvverly at the right moments...the english are told No, no.  Repress.  Block.  Block.  Okay, now.  You're going to get three hours, right?  Three.  There'll be drink.  Wait for it.  Wait for it....

(I think the weather has an effect as well; alcohol warms one up on a chilly night...mountain folk drink strong alcohol, as do those in the far north.  Trolls!  I'm backing away.)

(Sassafras!  Some please.  Stop m--)

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 07:30:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]

...

(Just wanted to say that Reality, she's not worth it mate!  I heard she was doing the dirty with Realpolitik down the road last night...)

(...arf?)

etc..

Still laughing and it's been ten minutes since I read all that! Yeah we're human not machines, suffer from being engineered... shy truths amble in ramblings but linear thought-grids scare 'em off?

"Ignoring moralities is always undesirable, but doing so systematically is really worrisome." Mohammed Khatami

by eternalcityblues (parvati_roma aaaat libero.it) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 08:48:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
alcohol is a poison that hurts the brain, but it has a very strong appeal on many levels, especially the temporary abdication of responsibility it induces.

i wish it were different, because it has some pleasant effects, and wine is one of the most satisfyingly complex flavours of any food/beverage, but it hurts so bad later.

was fun for a while, but i hate the collateral damage too much.

brits are born a couple of drinks behind, they say, and are always trying to catch up.

i have never seen such a stroppy drunk as a yob lout in england, but it's happening plenty of other places too, sadly.

while we're at it, i think the meth epedemic in rural america is pretty f'ing scary, especially combined with alcohol.

in central italy, i see no drunk acting out at all.

very civilised, at least from the public drunkenness aspect.

britain is no fun for most of the prole-class, getting shitfaced is the time-honored solution to a damp, boring existence, with all the boozy corollary consequences.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 03:27:20 AM EST
And why does drinking in the UK seem to be associated with excess and violence in a way not necessarily experienced elsewhere?

I welcome you up to northern europe anytime you want to test the "not necessarily experienced elsewhere" part. In Sweden binge drinking is the way we drink. To promote health alcohol is highly regulated (government monopoly on selling in stores, high taxes), but that is being chipped away by a european community that does not understand that locking it in and throwing away the key is the only way to keep their alcoholic cousins sober. Mainly the restrictions on import from our not so alcoholic neighbours. Consumption is up, so is the damages that can be expected from it (and unplanned sex is a very little part of total damages).

And just so you can not claim that the british invented binge drinking, this was something the vikings did everytime they had pillaged a wine cellar (the mead of the vikings had but little alcohol in it and made no one really drunk). Of course, there might be were you got it.

By the way, beer was forbidden in Soviet but has now conquered yet another market. And as can be suspected in a drunken culture, it has not replaced anything else, just adding up on total consumption.

Just so noone misunderstands me, I am part of my own culture. Mostly ape drunk with a tendency to drift into Martin drunk later. Sheep drunk has also happened.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 10:59:43 AM EST
Funny you should mention Sweden - my labmate has told many tales of her few months in Sweden working on her chemistry postdoc.  They frequently dip into the pure ethanol from the solvent cupboard, for giving a bowl of punch a bit more kick.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 11:07:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah, the advantages of studying chemistry...

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 11:11:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have a stupidly high tolerance to solvent fumes after the last 9 years of studying chemistry, but I've never quite been able to bring myself to take the risk of drinking the solvents.  Even if it is duty free.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 04:10:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When I was an undergraduate, they used to tell us they'd contaminated the ethanol with something that had the same boiling point. I was never quite sure I believed it, but never wanted a drink badly enough to risk it either.
by Sassafras on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 05:00:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My postgrad work required absolute ethanol, so I know it was 99.5% pure at the very least, but I think it's just a line I wouldn't cross to actually try drinking it.  And besides, if you stand there breathing it in for long enough, you don't need to drink any.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Mon Oct 30th, 2006 at 04:54:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
One solution I've heard of in Norway is the home-brew party. Everybody in a village brews their own, which is tax-exempt. Then every week, somebody in the village will hold an open-house party where everybody goes and gets smashed. Great way to get to know the neighbours.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 02:40:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Are Swedish city centres similar to British ones after closing time, or do Swedes behave differently when they've had a lot to drink?
by Sassafras on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 03:08:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You mean:

It's just hideous walking through town on a friday or saturday night trying to make my way through hordes of staggering, shouting, rowdy groups of scantily clad idiots with no manners or sense (ie the road is not your pavement just because you can't keep in a straight line).  But that is British drinking culture. It's horrible.

That describes it pretty well.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Mon Oct 30th, 2006 at 10:19:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have proposed that the british national character is, like our language, a mix of french and german traditions. So by this cod sociology, our drinking culture is a smash between german attitude to drink and an "assertive" french individualism that manifests as a drunken surly aggressiveness.

Perfectly fine if you've got a lot of state-sponsored battles to fight, but competely useless as a self-expression in a civilised community.

One suggestion would be to insist on higher hop rates in lager. Hops are soporific and it's noticeable that aggressive behaviour is most noticeable amongst those who drink low hop beers.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 02:39:13 PM EST
There are a couple of problems with your theory, though. Where do the Celts fit in? And drunken surly aggressiveness, though you can of course come across it in France, isn't really typical of French ways of drinking. But then, the French in England were Normans, in other words Germans...
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 02:50:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Celts are British too. And in Scotland there is a tradition of drinking low-hop beers and scotch.

The french don't drink enough to become a problem, that only becomes an issue when you mix it with german levels of consumption.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 02:59:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Interestingly, I seem to have gone through all phases in my life except pig drunk:

Lion drunk & Goat drunk & Maudlin drunk: early adulthood

Martin drunk: mid-twenties

Fox drunk & Ape drunk & Sheep drunk: nowadays

by Alex in Toulouse on Sun Oct 29th, 2006 at 03:16:02 PM EST


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