Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - August 1997
* Off-Licence Free-for-all *
There's been a lot of discussion recently about the problems of underage drinking, much of it linked to the introduction of kiddie-friendly alcopops. But surely the most important factor at work is the simple ease of access to drink. There has been a tremendous growth of off-licences in small shops where drink is only a sideline, and supervision may well be weak. For example, a suburban newsagent near me has recently succeeded in acquiring a licence to sell alcohol, despite the fact that there are several pubs, two proper off-licences and a supermarket within ten minutes' walk. Local people didn't exactly have a problem getting hold of a few bottles or cans if they wanted them before, so where is the need?
The government are quite right too to propose to allow trading standards departments to use under-18s as decoys to try to buy alcohol, as they can already with tobacco sales. In the long-term, cigarettes may do a lot more damage to their health than a few drinks, but in the short-term, I'd feel less worried about the safety of my property and my family if the yobboes on the corner were simply smoking fags rather than drinking cans of Hooch as well.
* Speak For America *
Concern for the welfare of youth has also led to somewhat illiberal suggestions that the minimum age for tobacco sales should be raised to eighteen. Some other countries, though, have already gone much further down the road of restricting the freedoms of the young. Youthful members of "Britpop" bands on their first US tour may well be taken aback to find out that they can't get a drink in a bar until they're twenty-one. Americans can risk their lives in the service of their country at eighteen, but obviously having a beer is considered much more dangerous.
There's no shortage of rock stars and Hollywood actors who are quite happy to lecture us about saving the dolphin, or how Nicaragua should be governed, but fall strangely silent when it comes to what amounts to a major denial of human rights in their own backyard. It's not as if the idea is something jaw-droppingly radical, either. After all, a minimum drinking age of eighteen or less applies in Britain and most of the rest of Europe, and so do crime rates far below those in America.
* Traditional Short Measures *
Many Greenalls pubs display a prominent notice to the effect that "We will be pleased to top up, with beer, the glass of any customer who prefers their beer to be served without the traditional head". A more mealy-mouthed statement is hard to imagine, and in effect it seeks to justify short measure by implying that anyone who wants a full pint is a bit of an oddball who doesn't want to go along with local traditions.
And how far back does that tradition go anyway? Swan necks were unknown on this side of the Pennines a mere fifteen years ago, and I suspect the idea that Northerners like a big head on their beer has its origins in the 50s and 60s when many outlets, particularly working men's clubs, switched over to metered dispense and 24oz oversized glasses, often associated with tank beer. Before then, it probably amounted to no more that the fact that pubs in the industrial North turned their beer over more quickly than those in the rural South, and so tended to serve it with more of a natural head.
Wouldn't it be more honest if Greenalls changed their message to read "We will be pleased to top up, with beer, the glass of any customer who prefers their pint to consist of the traditional twenty fluid ounces"?