First, some reminiscing about the way things were:
One of my favourite memories of a childhood in Wales is sitting with friends at a bar in the centre of Cardiff drinking a quiet pint on a Saturday morning. We were ten years old.Ah, yes. That golden era when no-one thought it odd that fathers took their sons into pubs, even for a non-drink, without the Righteous shrieking in chorus…
The pint glasses were real enough and the bar had authentic pump handles, but what they dispensed was dandelion and burdock.
In the decades since then I have sunk more pints in Cardiff pubs than I care to count and, as a young man, I often went home the worse for wear. But I won't be drinking in Cardiff city centre pubs again - at least, not on Friday or Saturday nights, and not unless things change very radically indeed.Ah, here it comes.
I was warned that there might be trouble. Indeed, that's why I went there. I am compiling a series of reports for the Today programme on the way society in Britain has changed since Labour came to power and the extent to which politicians can be blamed (or praised) for it. One of those changes is the way we drink. Correction. The way we get drunk.‘We’..? Who’s ‘we’?
I haven’t changed the way I drink, and neither has any of my friends and relatives. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I was drunk and incapable.
Oh, wait, yes I can. It was when I was about 28, at a friend’s party, and I got such a merciless ribbing from everyone there the next morning that I’ve never, ever mixed my drinks again. I’ve never therefore made a tit of myself. It’s not magic, you know. Anyone can do it.
So lay off the ‘we’ eh, Humph? This has not changed everyone’s drinking habits, and you know this for the truth.
But the salacious, we are all going to hell approach brings in more viewers, doesn’t it?
So what did happen? Well, the first few hours were peaceful enough. I was mildly shocked at the sheer number of young people crammed into the pubs - on a busy night as many as 130,000 - many of them bused in from the valleys and nearby towns. That's half the entire population of Cardiff.Well, it’s that ‘equality’ thing isn’t it, Humph, the one you progressives all pushed for.
And not just young men. There were at least as many girls and women in their 20s and 30s.
Can’t keep telling us that we are equal to the boys and can do everything they can, and then be shocked when we act unladylike, can you?
Well, you can, but it’d be a tad hypocritical…
And not all youngsters. I met a doctor and his friends who showed me proudly their 'drinking plan' for the evening: eight pubs in four hours, with a drinking 'target' for each and points awarded for exceeding the target.A doctor! Shock! More hypocrisy. And it seems the target-driven NHS culture now extends to the staff leisure time…
The first hint of trouble came when a drunken man, in a violent rage with his drunken girlfriend, started shouting and smashing his fist into a bus shelter window.But…but…we can’t stigmatise people by putting them in prison! By punishing them when they commit an offence!
Sergeant Scott Lloyd, who was with me for the evening, remonstrated with him. I asked Sgt Lloyd why he hadn't arrested the man. He was, after all, clearly drunk and disorderly and that's an offence. By allowing this to happen, weren't the police effectively allowing the drunks to take over the streets?
'If we tried arresting everyone like him we'd run out of officers very early,' he told me.Heh! I don’t think Humph has read much Inspector Gadget or the late lamented Nightjack. If he had, he might be better placed to pinpoint the problem.
Fair enough, but I couldn't help wondering whether the young sergeant wasn't being a bit of a wimp, simply trying to avoid trouble. Maybe he was nervous of a confrontation with a violent young drunk.
Perhaps he should read some Bystander too, to get an idea of what happens after the police have swept the refuse up from the streets…
Let me repeat: this sort of thing - often even worse - happens on Friday and Saturday nights across the country.Only on Fridays and Saturdays?
That’s odd, because unless I’m very much mistaken, the relaxed laws count for Mon-Thurs too. So if it’s these that are solely to blame, why only Friday and Saturday?
Why? Every police officer I spoke to, from the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Ian Blair to the bobbies on the beat - believe extended drinking hours are partly to blame. They laugh at the notion of a continental-style 'cafe drinking culture'.And yet, clearly this is a mostly weekend phenomenon and it clearly isn’t performed by everyone.
There’s not a phalanx of police outside all pubs, is there?
But they think new planning laws are the biggest culprit. There are simply too many pubs, and far too many of them are so-called 'vertical drinking establishments'. There is nowhere to sit and chat over a quiet pint, nowhere even to rest your glass. You stand and drink.So these businesses are catering for, shall we say, a certain clientele?
In fact, they may well be drunk even before they leave home. That's the other thing that worries police officers like Scott Lloyd: what they regard as the ludicrously low price of alcohol in supermarkets.I wasn’t aware that we were letting the police dictate the retail price index…yet.
Obviously, the politicians did not mean this to happen when they amended the licensing laws. This is the law of unintended consequences in action.If the ‘genie’ in question is the siren voice of extended opening hours and planning laws, and this alone is considered responsible for corrupting good citizens, then yes, of course it can.
A worried Today listener reminded me of a line from the 17th-century poet John Milton: 'And when night darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.'
Belial, in mythology, was a demon, an evil genie. The question facing our politicians today is whether the genie can be put back in the bottle?
But it isn’t. As Humph knows all too well.