If I am following the destiny of Andrew Marvell so well, chances are that, thanks to biographical hints from John Aubrey, I will have to develop a taste for the grapevine.
He kept bottles of wine at his lodgeing, and many times he would drink liberally by himselfe to refresh his spirits and exalt his muse.
Though [Marvell] loved wine he would never drink hard in company, and was won’t to say that he would not play the goodfellow in any man’s company in whose hands he would not trust his life.
But this development probably took place near the end of Marvell’s life when he had more powerful enemies in London than trusty friends. We are not surprised then to see one of those enemies call him, after his death, a drunken buffoon, ‘temulentus scurra’.
Pierre Leguois, Andrew Marvell: Poet, Puritan, Patriot (1968), 98.
It is not surprising that a man obsessed with privacy who was eventually elected as an MP at least had an understanding of public impressions. In the context of the slanderous and wide-reaching seventeenth-century print culture, this limited trail of evidence suggests that Marvell’s vice was, by and large, a private one. In the context of what is to come, I share a modicum of my own private life: Friday night.
I had not been out for a late Friday night for a long, long time. Despite being tired, it was a good night at Reflex 80s in London, and included a mild and good-humoured attempt to get me drunk for the first time, which failed. Although I seldom drink alcohol, I have a tolerance which belies the ‘inexperience’. Call it an absolute determination to stay in control, which is the centre of my personal sovereignty.
On my way home, via Richmond, at approximately 1am, the antics more typical of an ‘English Friday Night’ started manifesting themselves. A group appeared rowdily at the bus-stop. The one male amongst them was heavily inebriated, and started hitting the bus shelter before sitting down and wailing hysterically. A bus came along that the rest of the group tried to pile onto, and then begrudingly got off because their wailing friend had not moved from his pitiful state. Cue noise, arguments, and more raucousness. The general mood was of total embarrassment.
Also waiting were a group of four French folk in their early 20s, making a fine mockery of English drinking culture in their foreign tongue. Perhaps, as per Family Guy’s ‘Wasted Talent’ (2000), a Smirnoff Ice or two had finally attuned my foreign language capabilities, and it propelled me into the longest (and most enjoyable) French conversation I’ve ever had. Amusing too that the group entertained the thought that because I had spoken to them in French, that everything they said had been understood by everyone. Hardly!
It was all very good-humoured, but what was abundantly clear, to them and myself, from an 18 month stay in Switzerland, was how unruly this country is. Self-discipline has long gone out of the window, and perhaps that is why, as a PhD student who works on privacy and needs to survive from discipline alone, I value it so much.
Alcohol is continually at the centre of this crisis. We can surely call it a crisis when over 20% of male deaths up to the age of 44 are alcohol related (and over 25% 16-24s), and 15% for women, and the NHS is spending £2.7 billion per year due to alcohol. Take into account costs to society, employers, et al, as the National Social Marketing Centre has done, and we’re looking at over £55 billion. Turns out that you can put a price on how out of control we are. [Sources: House of Commons Report; Times Online, Eureka Zone]
The main problem, as I see it, is a libertarian culture now so barbed that it is difficult to regain control. It’s a ‘me’ culture now. Children are becoming more belligerent in schools. If the government gets its way, they will be judging their own curriculum. Spreading the seed is out of control. Popular politics has demanded liberty to drink. We’re spearheaded by bankers who genuinely seem untroubled by the idea of demanding and accepting significant sums of taxpayers’ money. It all surmises that in the familial, leisure, and professional worlds, we are spiralling out of control.
Pronouns are important. ‘Because I can’ is exactly that. The civil liberties we have are astonishing, and yet it procures a selfishness that disregards the effect upon others. It ends up being ‘we’ because we are all caught up in this way of life, whether we choose to be or not, and we are all affected by the consequences. Might we get fewer people wanting to work for the ambulance service in the future because they are threatened and attacked by the people they turn up, free at the point of use, to help? Will we get fewer teachers because of difficulties with discipline? Will it become perennially unsafe to walk the streets when this generation type covers the wider demographic?
What this shows is that we lack the capabilities to control ourselves. Centuries have proved that there is no way to accommodate everyone.
Take alcohol, where evidence of the consequences is most prominent. Any attempts to renege on these liberties we have – a unit tax on alcohol or limiting drinking hours – will be angrily met as “punishing the majority to spite the minority”. Is not the balance the other way around? In reality, without some real backbone, nothing will happen. There are infinitely better causes that the £2.7 billion per year can go towards rather than dealing with drunkenness. The fundamental argument should not be that people are upset at paying more for a damaging substance, but that so much public service money is used up in this way.
Other countries would never let this happen. In Switzerland, the obligatory private health insurance would rocket. There is little better incentive not to go overboard. Moreover, Richmond on Friday was only a small taste of other countries’ perceptions on our barbarism. Parties of Brits are being blacklisted internationally because of the collateral damage that has been caused there [Dublin (1998), Amsterdam (2002), Barcelona (2009), Riga (2009)] Everyone wants to show that they can enjoy themselves, but we are on the threshold of our solipsistic and selfish ways becoming a serious international diplomatic problem.
The common answer for this kind of issue is always education, but we are well beyond that stage. Most people – myself included – know very clever people who lose control on a regular basis. Teenagers claim ignorance of how pregnancy happens. It is scary that popular politics might have to cater to them.
Many of these ‘pleasures’ revolve around self-discipline, and that is not just taught, but engrained. We find ourselves with reactionary politics over preparatory politics. Less ‘education’, more rehabilitation. Measures must be legislation led. We’ve been educated about alcohol, smoking, drinking, and unsafe sex, and all has fallen on deaf ears. Are Brits a nation of hedonists? Most of us work very hard, but demand and expect pleasure in result, and pleasure the way we like it – ‘because I can’.
We are so far behind the cultural models of the likes of Switzerland and Holland, it is untrue. Both undoubtedly have their own weaknesses, but generations are growing up into excellent frameworks for adult development, and everyone accepts a tighter state control because it doesn’t piss about with their civil liberties.
Alphaville, ‘Control’, from the album Salvation (WEA, 1997)
Recycling is another perennial problem; a small amount of effort that many of us cannot meet. Why do many trains do not have paper recycling facilities when most of the refuse is newspaper?
For several years now, often to some considerable ridicule, I have carried plastic bags whenever I expect to shop. My relatively small consumption could easily amass 125-150 bags per year. Imagine the duplification, and the scale is terrifying. Plastic bags all use resources, and all end up somewhere.
Hence, I was disturbed today to read the mass of arguments against Boris Johnson’s declaration to reduce the number of plastic bags by 2012. Any such changes might require a modicum of thought or effort to reuse plastic bags; God forbid that we might have to subject people to that.
The London mayor radically divides opinion. From promoting cycling, to banning alcohol on the tube, to recycling, he is trying to force some measure of control and self-discipline back into Londoners’ lives. It doesn’t happen by choice, so it’s not particularly popular. It’s a brave move to implement necessary correctives for what has been allowed to stray out of control.
If measures have proven success, domestically or abroad, why not implement them here? The Republic of Ireland cut consumption of bags by 90% through charging 15 cents per bag. We complain about speed cameras because we know our impatience would never see us stick to sensible limits. Whether it is human nature overall, or British nature as it exists today, leaving us to our own devices would just be a disaster. Alas, we have come to need absolutism.
Measure for Measure
It’s sad that we will only react to measures that affect our own gain. It seems that, as a nation, we’re not focussed enough on the broader picture outside our own lives. There has been plenty said about Cadbury’s inherently ‘British values’, but those values have been treading water for some time. Bittersweet irony, then, that by jumping ship and surrendering to money, the company might just showcase these British values drowning.
(I’m glad, too, to post in a place where masses of the general public will not come and give me abuse for my observations.)