We all know about George Orwell’s favourite pub, which he celebrated in a 1946 essay for the Evening Standard. The Moon Under Water was near a bus stop but tucked away on a side street, so drunks and rowdies never seemed to wander in. There was a long, hidden garden at the back, the barmaids knew everyone by name and pints of stout were served in mugs, not nasty glasses (Orwell was particularly partial to strawberry-pink china). Best of all, it was quiet enough to talk, even with the singing on Christmas Eve. Indeed, most of the regulars, who occupied the same chairs night after night, came as much for the conversation as the booze.
But sometimes we forget that it was a fantasy. No pub as perfect as The Moon Under Water could possibly exist in reality, even in the 1940s, decades before the era of Wetherspoons and alcopops. Orwell is famous for his dystopic visions, his nightmarish versions of the future, but in conjuring up this small and cheerful utopia, he got right to the heart of the appeal of social drinking and its deep place in British culture.
You wouldn’t have got trashed in The Moon Under Water and you wouldn’t have been sick outside it. It wasn’t a place for shots or binges, for messy nights that spree into nauseous, head-pounding mornings. It was a harbour for enjoying drinking’s best and most substantial magic: its happy knack for stimulating conviviality.
A substance doesn’t become a nation’s preferred recreational drug unless it has at least some socially desirable effects and it’s not difficult to see why a tight-lipped and awkward people, stuck in a cold climate and not known for their sunny dispositions, might make alcohol their drug of choice. Drink, as the porter inMacbeth observed, is a great provoker of three things: nose-painting, sleep and urine. But it is also a great producer, in small doses at least, of social ease. Whether you are drinking draught stout, Orwell’s preferred tipple, or gin and tonics, or Manhattans, or any of the many other drinks we’ve invented and perfected and imbued with cultural status, the basic effect is the same.
Alcohol profoundly alters the chemistry of the brain, interfering with the activity of neurotransmitters and giving rise to intense feelings of pleasure, accompanied by potent disinhibition. It unlocks tongues; it sweeps shyness away. Hardly any wonder that the watering hole has remained such a reliable element of Britain’s motley, hybrid culture. From the Anglo-Saxon alehouse to the artisanal cocktail bar, a substance that dissolves social anxiety and produces swift, free-flowing streams of talk is literally on tap.
But drinking has always been regarded with anxiety too. Any substance that brings about intoxication is potentially dangerous and social ease can all too easily topple over into antisocial behaviour. This was the central concern of the Temperance movement, which began in the early part of the 19th century, and which was determined to wipe out the scourge of drunkenness, to put a stop to the evils of drinking both in public and at home.
A Temperance tract entitled On the Effects of Ardent Spirits provides an excited list of the grotesque behaviours that follow intoxication, among them unusual garrulity, profane swearing and fighting, as well as “singing, hallooing, roaring, imitating the noise of brute animals, dancing naked, breaking glasses and china and dashing other articles of household furniture upon the ground or floor”. It sounds funny, this sort of undignified loss of control, unless you’re on the receiving end, the partner or child of an enraged drunk, the stranger set upon at closing time.
Drinking and masculinity have often entwined, often with toxic consequences. Surprisingly, there’s none of that in Orwell’s fantasy, in which the pub is an emphatically democratic space, welcoming to women and children alike. He describes the kids trotting in from the garden to fetch drinks for their parents, adding: “This, I believe, is against the law, but it is a law that deserves to be broken, for it is the puritanical nonsense of excluding children – and therefore, to some extent, women – from pubs that has turned these places into mere boozing-shops instead of the family gathering-places that they ought to be.”
Here, the imperative of getting off your face is secondary to alcohol’s better gift, of facilitating social interaction between diverse people, diverse groups of friends and strangers.
These days, it’s the physical body we worry about, not the moral turpitude that comes with nightly quaffing. No doubt there are people who will describe thechief medical officer’s dramatically reduced new guidelines for safe drinking as puritanical nonsense too, though it seems clear that each consecutive drink downed raises the threat of cancer, as potentially carcinogenic as a cigarette. All the same, it’s hard to imagine a Britain not driven by alcohol. How would dinner parties work; how would anybody ever kiss a stranger? (A friend who recently moved to New York complained that she had no idea how to start a relationship without alcohol as an engine.)
Yet alcohol is undoubtedly a poison and not just to alcoholics. Buried deep in the report from the chief medical officer about carcinogenic effects is a stray sentence that hit me hard. Every year a thousand people die of intentional self-harm while intoxicated, over 800 of whom are men. Drink disinhibits and what it allows to bubble up is not always just friendliness or tipsy lust. Often, it facilitates violence, often it facilitates harm.
What would Britain be like without booze? Healthier and safer, certainly, though also more isolating and more staid. I’m sure we should drink less, but I can’t help feeling Orwell had it about right. The Moon Under Water: that’s where I want to do my boozing, in a place where alcohol is used purely to encourage social warmth and where nobody puts away enough to get a hangover, let alone more lasting damage.
Olivia Laing is the author of The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking(Canongate)