I heard a report on the radio today that startled me; the British government has approved a law that would allow sales of alcohol twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I believe the British people must be toasting in the streets to this exciting news, effectively lifting an antiquated system that basically rationed alcohol to the public since World War One.
Having spent a good portion of my life in England in the early 1980s, I can bare witness to the oppressive rules concerning the purchase of alcohol or drinking it socially. What I recall was that liquor stores (actually called package stores as I remember) had strict opening and closing times. There was also an afternoon closure of the stores, so that if I wanted a pint to take with me as I went to sit in Hyde Park in the mid-afternoon, I would be out of luck because the package stores were closed.
Anyone who has gone out to London pubs at night knows that the system is a crazy one. I can remember my friends going out so early (at least judging by New York standards) because the pubs all closed at 11pm. Can you imagine bars in New York having to close at 11pm? This created all sorts of logistical problems. For example, if one took a girl on a date to the cinema, and the show ended around ten o’clock; there was just an hour left for a quick race to the pub for a drink or two.
There were creative ways around the law if I wanted to drink after the pubs closed. The best way was to go to a restaurant. One could drink alcoholic beverages as long as one ordered food. While this did present an option, it just wasn’t the same as hanging out at the corner public house drinking pints.
If I was not on a date, the other viable option was to go to a club. Our frequent game plan involved hitting our favorite pub, which happened to be The Friend at Hand in Russell Square, where we would drink pints (and sometimes harder stuff too) until closing time. In those days the landlord had a lovely collie who assisted him in clearing the pub at 11pm. The bartenders would howl, “Ladies and gents, please drink up” and this would be reinforced by the dog making the rounds, barking at patrons at each table to make certain they understood it was time to go.
After leaving the pub, in good weather we would walk down Southampton Row and make our way toward the clubs. Right off Cambridge Circus there were a few regular haunts, but there were drawbacks to going to the clubs to continue a night of drinking. The biggest was the entrance fee, which I recall usually was around five quid (back in those days that seemed like a lot of money). Once inside the club, the beer was served in half pints and was more expensive than the full pints back at the pub. Also, the crowd was always different in the clubs, and the atmosphere was far from the relaxed almost home feeling of The Hand.
When I went back to London in the 1990s, things had changed a great deal. All the people I had known were gone, yet the old drinking laws remained the same. I recall someone telling me one night that the strange drinking laws had to do with World War One. The men were all getting so drunk and unable to get in to work on time in the factories the next day, where they were needed to make the machines of war. So the government took the drastic step of setting up restrictive closing times. Pubs would also close in the afternoon from two to five and close even earlier on Sunday nights. I haven’t been back to London since 1993, but as far as I know the restrictive laws have remained until now.
So this is good news for the British and for Americans who visit London and the rest of the nation. For example, after seeing a show in the theatre district, there is no need to rush out and get a quick pint anymore. One can take a leisurely stroll up The Strand and not worry about the pub closing down. It is also good news for young people who will not have to do what my friends and I had to do long ago; they’ll be able to settle into a comfortable pub and not worry about drinking quickly to beat the clock. As I think of it, that rule only encouraged drunkenness, for most everyone was trying to drink his or her share before closing time.
Even though I know the British don’t celebrate turkey day, on this Thanksgiving Eve they have something for which they can be definitely thankful. Cheers!