By day, the center of Newcastle bustles with shoppers, their faces and dress reflecting the ethnic diversity that is helping to breathe new life into this old smokestack city.
By early evening, the city is transformed. Young revelers have taken over the streets. Dance music pours out of clubs with names such as Kiss, Whistle, Liquid, Cage and Pop, and the night floats along on a froth of alcohol-induced exuberance.
"There are two types of night life in England," said Mark Dosh, a 25-year-old window washer from nearby Sunderland. "You can stay home and watch telly, or you can go out and get drunk."
Britain always has been a hard-drinking society, but in the past decade or so, the economics and demographics of drinking have undergone a dramatic transformation.
"In the postindustrial economy, large tracts of our city centers have been handed over to the control of the alcoholic drinks industry," said Dick Hobbs, a professor of criminology at the University of Durham. "We have created these boozing zones. We don't manufacture anything anymore, but we do serve a lot of drinks."
By midnight in Newcastle, it's getting ugly. On the sidewalk outside one club, a 20-something woman is sitting on the sidewalk, legs splayed, skirt hiked up around her hips. Four female friends are trying to help her up, but they are having trouble staying on their own feet.
A pack of about 10 men, also in their 20s, is stumbling down the middle of the street, shouting lewd propositions to women. One man flings a beer bottle against the front of a building.
Outside a train station, two intoxicated men argue with a taxi driver. The driver won't let them get into the taxi with their beer cans. He fears they will vomit in his car.
Newcastle takes a certain grim pride in its rowdy night life, but the scene is similar in other British towns and cities.
"The pattern for British cities is intense shopping during the day, intense drinking at night," said Paul Rubinstein, director of arts and culture for the Newcastle City Council.
A stunning new concert hall has put Newcastle on the European cultural map, and Rubinstein is quick to credit the city's busy night life for helping to revive the downtown economy. But now there are concerns that the drinking and partying are getting out of hand.
"If you are not under age 25 and intent on being part of the drinking culture, you might feel a bit threatened," Rubinstein said. "You don't see many families or minorities on the streets after 8 p.m."
In most European countries, per-capita alcohol consumption is declining. In Britain, it is rising sharply, especially among young people, who tend to binge drink.
"You used to learn the protocols of using alcohol in the local pub where there were people of all different ages. You didn't get drunk, or if you did, you didn't show it. You didn't swear in front of women. You didn't shout. You didn't throw up," Hobbs said.
`No behavior . . . too crass'
"Now kids learn to drink from other kids in these giant kids' bars, and there is no behavior that is too crass for these venues."
Binge drinking, generally defined as consuming five or more standard-sized drinks in one session, has become the norm for many young people. According to a recent study of 15- and 16-year-olds in Britain, 29 percent of the girls and 26 percent of the boys had engaged in binge drinking at least three times in the previous month.
The link between alcohol and anti-social behavior in Britain is striking. According to recent government statistics, 78 percent of assaults and 88 percent of property damage crimes are directly related to alcohol.
A 2003 government study indicated that about 40 percent of all emergency room admissions are alcohol-related. The study also calculated that Britain's economy loses 17 million working days to hangovers. For blue-collar and white-collar Britain, showing up for work with a ripping hangover does not carry the social stigma that it does in most societies.
Drinking is big business in Britain. The pub and club industry, which employs about a half-million people, turns over annual revenues of $45 billion, 3 percent of the national
The industry promotes itself to the youth market in a manner that experts say encourages binge drinking. While suited corporate spokesmen speak solemnly of "responsible" alcohol use, pubs and clubs push happy hours, 2-for-1 specials, ladies' nights and discounts on sugary alcoholic beverages marketed to young people.
Last month, Prime Minister
Tony Blair vowed a crackdown on alcohol-fueled anti-social behavior.
"People are rightly fed up with ... binge drinking that makes our town centers no-go areas for respectable citizens," he told Parliament.
The government's new anti-crime bill, nearing approval with its second reading earlier this month, empowers local authorities to designate "alcohol disorder zones" and force pubs and clubs in these areas to pay policing and clean-up costs.
The bill also gives police new powers to impose curfews and to ban troublemakers from certain pubs.
Experts are skeptical.
"It's not enough to slam someone over the head with a ban. That just displaces the problem. They will drink somewhere else," said Srabani Sen, executive director of Alcohol Concern, a British agency that deals with alcohol abuse.
In Newcastle, where 336 pubs and clubs in the city center draw as many as 75,000 visitors on a busy night, Northumbria Police Chief Constable Mike Craik has launched a campaign to identify troublemakers and arrest them before the trouble begins.
Billboards around the city warn "Get violent, get drunk, get disorderly--get locked up." Closed-circuit television cameras on the streets and inside drinking venues help police keep an eye on things.
"As soon as you become offensive, we will be there, and we will arrest you before somebody gets in a fight," Craik said. "Two arrests get you banned from the city center."
Before the campaign, police made about 600 arrests a month for alcohol-related offenses. In the first month of the campaign, the number doubled.
Scent of soccer hooliganism
Craik said that the culture of drinking and violence required the kind of sophisticated crime-fighting used to combat soccer hooligans a decade ago.
"I will not solve this problem with a four-month campaign," he said.
Later this year, Britain will retire its Victorian-era licensing law that required pubs to close by 11 p.m. This will usher in a new era of round-the-clock drinking.
The government blames the old law for pressuring people to squeeze in too much drinking before last call. It argues that 24-hour licensing will encourage people to spread out their consumption and imbibe in a more "European" manner.
The alcoholic beverage industry thinks this is an excellent idea. Most medical and law-enforcement experts do not.
"The entire research community is opposed to 24-hour licensing," the University of Durham's Hobbs said, "but the government has ignored every bit of evidence in its drive to bring its market-oriented policies to bear."
- ► 2008 (31)
- ► 2006 (147)
- Mad British people
- The Kite Runners by Khaled Hosseini
- Can you change the world?
- do not think of the sky as a limit
- Carpe Diem
- From "A Gift for all Mankind" by Tara Singh
- Meditations on self-reliance, loyalty and inter-re...
- When will wisdom have a voice in politics
- Modern Politics
- Modesty from the I Ching
- Today could be the best day of your life.
- Song of togetherness
- Following also from the I Ching
- from the I Ching
- Giving by Kahlil Gibran
- There is a crack in everything
- The Modern Peace Warrior
- What takes place in the depths of one's being, in ...
- ▼ June (24)