A Sobering Train of Thought

It was a journey of two halves and the contrast couldn’t have been more startling. I was on the London-Glasgow train on a Sunday afternoon. Having stood on my headphones, I couldn’t listen to music or watch a movie – so the other passengers passed for entertainment.

On the first half of the journey, a small child and her mother cheered me up. Seated at the coveted tables, Mum had come prepared with books and colouring pens. They conversed and cuddled all the way through middle England. I assume they had a bicycle waiting at York station. For when they disembarked, in a funny touching metaphor of motherly care, the mum put a bright pink helmet on her child and the little girl proudly, happily marched off the train.

Their place was taken by eight drunk, foul-mouthed men from Motherwell. Big baldy nappers, massive beer bellies, tattoos, they brought a carry-out onto the train for a carry-on.

It’s hard to describe the strange foghorn quality of their ‘conversation’, carried on at ear-splitting volume. You know the barking sound that followed Iain Gray into Subway the other week – as if one of Marge Simpson’s sisters had grown up on Clydebank and Buckfast? Well, imagine that, from obese louts who think the whole world is deaf.

Only one of them had brought a newspaper and they were, literally, talking crap. They didn’t mention movies or music or all the books they weren’t reading. Or news or politics. Incredibly, they didn’t even discuss football. Instead, they shouted about shitting their pants and skid-marks, about getting mad-drunk and mad-drunker, about battered food and battering people.

While VisitScotland spends public millions selling the Scottish experience as ‘Feel it, Live it, Visit’, our bold ambassadors were teaching a trainload of our neighbours to ‘Fear it, loathe it and get as far away from it as you can’.

The drunkest of the party had obviously finished his carry-out before getting on the train. He had a wall-eyed glare that reminded me of American storyteller Garrison Keillor’s advice for moose-rutting season: do not make eye contact. Passing through the carriage with refreshments, the strangely beautiful young trolley dolly handled him like a true pro though.

‘Cunnuhuvvuhbee-urrr’ he slurred. She didn’t understand, and didn’t even pause in pulling her trolley. ‘Cunnuhuvvuhbee-urrr’ he said again. ‘No, I think you’ve had enough,’ she smiled and glided out of the carriage, the Grace Kelly of the eastern line.

Our heroes seemed dimly aware that they were making arses of themselves and their nation. From time to time, the loudest of them would yell: ‘Stop swearing!’. Then they’d go back to shouting about all the hilarious times they’d had together being anti-social. Like some absurd self-referential Kafka-esque nightmare, their camaraderie revolved around drinking and shouting about making a nuisance of themselves while drinking and shouting and making a nuisance of themselves… If they were 17 you might understand. These guys were in their mid-40s. How did they live so long and stay so dumb?

Their best bit of banter happened when a woman with a dog went by and one of them called out ‘Is that dog a cat?’ Obviously an in-joke, the surreal comedy was undercut when they all began to repeat the line, and then did it all over again when she returned to her seat. At Durham, they performed the name of the city in the style of the Pink Panther theme. Funny the first time, by twentieth chorus I could take no more and switched to the eerily silent, weirdly normal next cabin.

And there you have it. In a nutshell: “what’s wrong with this country.”

Point 1: education. It’s a huge issue in every sense. But, suffice to say, the answer to these guys’ problems wasn’t two years less schooling.

Point 2: alcohol. Whoever wins the forthcoming election, our drinking culture  falls under the category of “something must be done”. Alcohol-related deaths and disease are rising in Scotland. But, of course, that’s only part of a picture that impacts social justice as well as criminal justice; life chances as well as welfare costs.

Professor Sally MacIntyre of the Medical Research Council has written sensitively on the subject of health and inequality and, crucially, what kind of interventions really work.

Human behaviour is complex and, certainly, a range of different measures need to be applied to effect change in a politically-acceptable way. But, without wishing to caricature Professor MacIntyre’s work, it’s hard to avoid the interpretation that consultation is useless.

It seems high-handed, almost draconian regulatory interventions, applied fast and hard, work best. Why? Is it because a typically namby-pamby, widely consultative process simply serves to muddy the waters, delaying and diluting effective action as freely as I mix metaphors?

The argument on alcohol pricing is a case in point. The medical profession is bamboozled why minimum pricing can’t be introduced when it seems the big booze brands and retailers largely support it.

But this simplistic concept masks a complicated commercial reality. Minimum pricing would help the power brands fight off smaller brands who often compete by selling cheaper. Indeed, the top brands would prefer if the big retailers weren’t allowed to degrade their image by using them as loss leaders. Higher prices also create extra profit – though with the negotiating tactics of the supermarkets, it’s debatable how this would be split between the retailers and the drinks manufacturers. Plus extra profits attract extra marketing…

And then there’s the state of our pubs. Higher prices would hurt licensees and could hasten the demise of community bars – when many feel it’s cheap off- sales that are behind many problems.

Drink is relatively cheap because we’re richer. But current prices have outstripped inflation and we’ve kept drinking. So culture remains the real issue, not price.

What we drink is driven by self-presentation. How much we drink and how we act under the influence is motivated by how we feel. Let me give you an example.

A few years ago, some friends of mine took over a dodgy pub. They had no experience in the trade, and the local police kindly pointed out the pub’s ‘previous’ – a list of brawls, knifings and general mayhem as long as the arm of the law.

Undeterred, my friends took over the bar and, hoping to bring in a better clientele, they set about getting rid of the trouble-makers.

Do you think they put the prices up? Nope. They quickly deduced what the ne’er-do-wells liked to drink – seemingly Scotland’s favourite ‘cooking lager’, a dark rum from Dundee and, for the ladies, a coconut flavoured concoction. They simply substituted those drinks with different (but no lesser) brands at the same price. The old regulars drifted away, creating the opportunity to build a successful business in a new, more civilised bar.

So, here are two suggestions for changing the drinking culture in Scotland in a draconian way. Firstly, no booze on public transport. Not as a carry-on, nor as off-sales from the train shop or airplane trolley. Second, and I can guarantee that the big retailers won’t like this, no supermarket sales of anything stronger than mid-strength beer, say 3.5% vol.

If that sounds crazy to you, consider the ultimate party town, New York. There, you can only buy strong drink from good old-fashioned licensed premises – a bar or an independent specialist shop.

The potential benefits are obvious. Firstly, alcohol becomes a considered purchase and people tend to drink more considerately. Secondly, it could encourage a new market for mid-to-low strength beers (and long drinks) where Scottish producers could excel. Thirdly, smaller scale distribution would mean prices would inevitably be higher. But it would re-dress the power balance in the booze market and also open up opportunities for local bars and off-licenses, around which other local shops might develop.

So, whoever wins the election, let’s get down to the hypermarket and celebrate with alcohol that costs less than water while we still can. Because folks, every party knows: the party is over.


A version of this article previously appeared in ‘The Scotsman’