Proper Gander: Fancy a Pint?

How many of us unwind after yet another unfulfilling day of wage-slavery with a glass or two of temporary escape? Alcohol is one of our coping strategies, but it’s also, of course, a great social lubricant. Pubs, bars and clubs just wouldn’t be the same without “the magic liquid that unlocks the door to the human heart”. And our drinking takes place in a context of the “unwritten codes and rituals” which govern what, when and how we drink. BBC4’s documentary The Rules of Drinking took us on a pub-crawl through Britain’s boozing habits. Along the way it showed how the etiquette around alcohol has changed over the last seventy-odd years.

For example, our place in society has often been reflected in what we drink. Programmes like this rely on generalisations. So, if you’re a miner wanting to wash your throat of grime from t’pit, then you’d choose beer. If you’re a demure debutante, then you’d sip cocktails until you got terribly squiffy. And if you’re a twenty-first century teenager, then it’s nine pints of lager, two flaming sambucas and enough vodka to drown an elephant.

The programme also showed how alcohol’s etiquette extends to how we drink. In working men’s clubs, beer and whisky was the usual tipple for everyone, so your status within the club was reflected in where you drank it. Apparently, the younger members would stand on the lino until they were invited to stand on the carpeted section by one of the older clientele, a sign that they had been accepted. Women usually only stood behind the bar.

Nowadays, we’ve gone back to drinking the same amounts as before the First World War, albeit in different ways. Keeping up with other social changes, the rules around drinking have became less rigid over the decades – cue inevitable footage of plastered twentysomethings vomiting up alcopops in the gutter and picking fights with double-decker buses.

Even when alcohol is used to try and blot out the pressures of capitalism, the ways we drink it still reveal something of our class position. Documentaries like this can get away with glossing over the details as long as they distract us with enough archive footage of garish 70s dinner parties or men in flat caps. And The Rules of Drinking served up enough enjoyable old shots to get you drunk on nostalgia.

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