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Deja Vu

January 20, 2010

Tanked Up Beyond All Reason


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2010: The United Kingdom is banning some barroom practices that the Home Office says encourage binge drinking, Reuters reports. The Home Secretary Alan Johnson claims that drunken disorder and damage costs the government up to 13 billion pounds a year.

The…measures ban irresponsible drinking promotions such as "all you can drink for 10 pounds," "speed drinking competitions" and the dentist's chair, made famous by the celebrations of footballer Paul Gascoigne at Euro '96, where drinks are poured directly into the mouth by others. Those practices and ensuring free tap water is made available to revellers are to be introduced in April.

c. 1600 /1905: Twenty-first century England is not the first country to confront the specter of drunken buffoonery running afoul of what's good and right and decent. Seventeenth-century Holland was a hotbed of such bad behavior, a fact gleefully recorded by the peasant-obsessed painters of the day. In 1967, one doctor described one peculiarly Dutch pastime.

Drinking games were very popular. Some of these games required special glasses. The Dutch would have failed their mission in this world if they had not invented a game with a glass and a windmill. The player sets the sails in motion by blowing into a tube, and tries to finish the glass before the sails stop turning. Connected to the sails is a pointer moving over a dial numbered from 1 to 12. The penalty for failing to empty the glass in time is to drink the glass as many times as the pointer indicates. The game was played with Rhine wine. Ladies could get off with only a number of mouthfuls.

And in later years, Americans had their fair share of public drunkenness as well. A 1905 Washington Post article chronicled the good times that could be had in New Orleans ("there are thousands of men in excellent standing who drink practically all the time they are awake"), Chicago ("a beer town mostly"), St Louis ("they drink beer before breakfast"), Detroit ("the leading brandy town"), and Philadelphia ("crafty drinkers"). But San Franciscans occupied a warm place in the heart of the alcohol salesman with whom the man spoke, despite their thirst for absinthe.

No hour of the day is too good for the San Francisco man to take a horn if he wants it, and he doesn't abide by any drinking rules or canons. The San Francisco drinkers do a good deal more mixing than is good for them, and this is no doubt the reason why it is so common a thing to see well groomed men tanked up beyond all reason on the streets of San Francisco.
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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