A few days ago I was sitting on a bench in Marylebone reading a book. A middle aged man came up holding a can of beer and sat down on the other side. He then turned to and asked ‘Do you mind if I a open it?.’
Needless to say I agreed. But I was somewhat taken aback that he felt he should have had to ask my permission to do something so mundane in a public space. After giving me a cigarette he explained that he had on numerous occassions been made to pour away his alcohol by the constituted powers. Indeed while street drinking is not outlawed at a national level, it has come to be treated with increasing paranoia by communities, the police and local government. Across London increasingly strict byelaws have gone into effect regulating where people can and cannot drink.
It is often taken as a given that street drinking is a problem that needs to be tackled – rather than a reasonable use of public space by, um, members of the public. Indeed guidance from Northampton borough council, to take just one example, descibes an ‘anti-social street scene’ – a form of Anti Social Behaviour – as ‘begging, street drinking, a street sex market or groups of people hanging around .’ My emphasis. The way in which street drinkers are treated today could indeed be seen as an outgrowth of the ASBO culture. Whereas criminal law is generally deployed to prevent people seriously harming others, ASBOs give communities and individuals the right to prevent any behaviour which they find disagreeable or uncomfortable.
But why does street drinking make us feel so uncomfortable? Why are local commnuities ready to go to such lengths to prevent it? There is undeniably a social element to it. As the stats constantly tell us, we all like to drink a hell of a lot, but perhaps find it more threatening when people who cant afford extortionate london bar prices, and who haven’t een approved by bouncers decide to get pissed. The desire to keep drinking penned into the pubs perhaps also reflects a deeply exaggerated paranoia about ‘alcohol fuelled crime.’ The fact that groups of young men drinking evokes discomfort and even fear in passers by is commonly cited as a justification for forcing drinkers out of the public view. But are drinkers the ones who are responsible for the fear that they evoke in strangers? Or does that fear reflect common misconceptions concerning the relationship between beer and violence.
The Office of National statistics tells us that in a single year 900,000 acts of violence were committed by people ‘believed to be drunk.’ That sounds pretty high. Yet we also that in a single week 6 million men and women will drink more than twice the reccomended daily allowance on at least one occassion. Thus in a single year we are looking 312 million incidents of serious drunkenness. Put another way we have one act of drunken violence for every 350 incidents of drunkenness. Any straightforward causal relationship then appears somehwat dubious. If some people are encouraged by every drinking to go out and hit people then they really are a very atypical minority of degenerates.
Perhaps then we need to have bit of a sober discussion about drink. And perhaps we as individuals need to remember that we live in a diverse society, and that these streets belong to us all. And as such we need to stop objecting to – and seeking to regulate - anything that might cause us discomfort.