30 November 2005

The London Syndrome

One of my biggest gripes about England in general and London in particular has been that most things close down at an hour when New Yorkers are just starting to think about going out for the evening. It's not just the pubs, which have long been required to close at 11 pm (10:30 on Sundays); most cafés and coffee houses shut by 8 or 9, and good luck finding a restaurant that's open past 10 or 11. In fact, I only recently learned that you actually need a special licence to serve hot food after 11.

The ridiculous pub closing laws did have a rationale when they were put into effect: up until the First World War, English drinking establishments opened and closed (if they closed at all) when they felt like it and/or according to the number of customers on the premises, much as it's done in many other European countries. But, worried that hungover workers would blow themselves and the bomb factories to smithereens, the government instituted draconian restrictions on drinking times in 1914. Given the ponderous English inertia which stubbornly resists any change whatsoever to "tradition" (even if said tradition was only recently invented), it's rather startling that any politician dared come out in favour of liberalising licensing hours.

True, people have been moaning about the present system ever since it was put into place, but one thing not always understood is the distinction between English moaning and American complaining. "You Americans complain about things with the expectation of changing them," my friend Danny explains. "Englishmen don't bother complaining, because they know in their hearts nothing will come of it. So they moan. In fact, I rather think they prefer it that way."

Nevertheless, Labour campaigned and won election in 1997 on a promise to extend closing times for pubs, and did so again in 2001. Of course they never actually did anything about it, apart from a continual promise that it would happen "soon." And lo and behold, once they'd won a third term in 2005, it actually did. Americans need to understand that this represents breathtaking speed. If it were something more complicated, like completing the transition from imperial measurements to metric that began in 1965, it might take a little longer. Like 40 years, maybe? Oh, wait, that still hasn't quite happened…

Anyway, the law went through Parliament this year, despite a deafening chorus of opposition from the media, the churches, and the Tories, all predicting that allowing Englishmen to drink after 11 pm would rend asunder the last few threads of the social fabric and see the land awash in drunkenness, debauchery, and wholesale barbarism. If anyone dared ask how it was possible for less civilised people like the French or, God help us, the Americans, to drink far past midnight without a similar fate befalling their countries, they would be sniffily reminded that, "The English have a different sort of drinking culture."

If you've ever seen the vomitous and violent mobs that come swirling en masse out of pubs at closing time, you'd be forgiven for thinking so. But, the theory went, perhaps drinkers wouldn't be so surly if they weren't summarily tossed out into the chilly streets at an hour when they'd only just settled in for a pleasant night of boozing and conversation. And if they didn't feel compelled to slam dunk several pints in the last few minutes before closing time.

All the objections notwithstanding, the new law went into effect on the 24th of November. As someone who'd been complaining - American style - about this for years, I was deeply chagrined by a) being out of the country at the time; and b) no longer being a drinker.

But even though I haven't had a drink in some years, I enthusiastically supported the change, partly because I still enjoy going to pubs, and even more because I hoped that when pubs began staying open later, restaurants, shops and cafés would follow suit, and London might finally have a night life to at least rival that of Omaha or Salt Lake City. So on the 26th, my first night back, I eagerly headed down to Soho to witness the dramatic change.

Result: more or less nil. There might have been marginally more people milling around the streets, and of course the long-established after-hours clubs (most of which charge admission and double prices on drinks) were doing their usual business, but as for the regular pubs? All but a handful dutifully closed their doors at 11 pm, as if nothing at all had changed. It was as if you'd let someone out of prison and, not knowing what to do with himself, he came straight back and asked if he could keep on sleeping in his old cell. All but one of my favourite cafés were similarly shut up tight as a drum long before the witching hour.

Ah well, perhaps these things take time, as someone once sung. I note that the pub next door has taken the daring step of extending its closing time an entire half hour, to 11:30 pm. Perhaps by mid-century, they'll be open until 1 or even 2. Of course we'd then have to take up the issue of how everyone was supposed to get home: the Underground, its own hours closely geared to those of theatres and pubs, shuts down shortly after midnight (11 on Sundays). There seems to be an inbuilt suspicion that anyone out and about after that time is up to no good and certainly can't be trusted to ride on our lovely public transport system.

On the plus side (unless you are a leader writer for the Daily Mail), none of the predicted riotous behaviour has come to pass. Apparently Englishmen, provided they were sober enough to find one of the few pubs willing to stay open, have shown themselves capable of drinking themselves blotto at all hours without the Kingdom falling into rack and ruin. Who woulda thunk it?


resident jason said...

living in springfield, illinois, all of this is such a FOREIGN concept to me. get it? FOREIGN....nevermind..stupid joke. i look forward to your daily musings, sir lawrence.

Anonymous said...

I live 100 miles from London. Here, it's pretty much the same story - most pubs close their doors around 12 now. Maybe 2 or 3 stay open until 2 on a Friday and Saturday, then it's off to the nightclub until 3, yes, 3, with the rest of the herd. Bizarre traditions cloud logical judgement and will eventually sacrifice themselves to a change led by bitter people. Awesome post, Larry.

Richard :)