Sarah Lyall grew up in New York City and is now London correspondent for the New York Times. She lives there with her husband, the writer Robert McCrum, and their two daughters. Her first book was entitled The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British.
Question: What is the average Brit’s relationship to alcohol?
Sarah: They just like to drink a lot more, you know? It’s weird, ‘cause I come from New York, and certainly I did my share of drinking in college, etc. But after, you get over it and you’re not kind of out getting trashed every single weekend. And, I think, with Brits, because they’re uptight, you know, they really depend on alcohol often to even have a decent conversation. And I’m really shocked, when I had lunch once years ago with a friend, and my husband was there, and it was a friend in Long Island and she invited us to her house, and it was just like a simple lunch, like a salad or something. And as we left, my husband said “God, you know, that guy she had there was such a nice guy. It’s a shame that he’s an alcoholic.” And I said “Well, why do you say that? We didn’t even have anything to drink.” He said “Well, yeah. That’s why I assumed she didn’t serve wine, because he has a drinking problem.” You know, he couldn’t, like, fathom the idea of having a meal with no alcohol. And I think, Brits, because they have a kind of ambivalent attitude in the society toward alcohol, you know, there’s a kind of strain of puritanism there, the way there is here, they really overdo it. And just specially, kind of kids and people even in their 30s, the object is to get as completely drunk as you can. It’s like frat boys every single weekend and, you know, they quickly move beyond the place where it makes them voluble and interesting and fun to where they are, like, insensible and vomiting. There’s like a pretty short span, ‘cause they drink so fast, too.
Question: Do the women drink as much as the men?
Sarah: Well, the girls drink just as much as the guys do, because they figure if you can’t they’re not going to talk to you. You might as well be drinking also, and maybe they’ll be able to meet someone. I mean, they all seem to get, like, completely trashed and then go home with each other without literally having had a conversation, and the whole idea is get fucked up, have sex, and maybe you’d like each other tomorrow, or maybe not. And over and over again, and the big issue now is women binge drinking the way the man do, because they’re trying to be cool the way the men are. And it seems like just as bad. It seems like a completely across the board problem. And, you know, you go to these cities in Britain in the weekends, and you can’t even walk down the street because there’s everyone sick, and they’re fighting, and they’re insensible and then they, it’s like being in college. The next day, they’re like, “Well, I was so fucked up, I can’t even remember how I got home. It’s so cool!” And it’s just, you know, after a while, you just think, “Grow up little bit.”
Question: Why do Brits get so smashed on holidays?
Sarah: The Brits really enjoy the behaving bad part. They really enjoy the aggression that it allows them to give play to. And so, what they do now is they take these cheap flights all over Europe and they go to these really beautiful places, like Prague or Budapest or, you know, Ibiza and Spain, where it’s cheaper. The drinks are cheaper, the bars and clubs cater to British tourists and have really cheap kind of package deals, you know, all you can drink for $40 kind of thing. And the idea is, you know, just drink as much as you can, as much as you can. I interviewed these guys… I couldn’t really put it into the piece. It’s too long. But they’re telling me what they had had the night before, and this was, I met them at breakfast, and they were kind of completely hung over, having a little, you know, hair of the dog in the morning to get them through the day. And they described to me, and they said, you know, in the hotel we had some vodka and some lager, some beer. Then we went out, and there was this special thing where they had, like, 6 types of alcohol all mixed together, plus fruit juice, and they have 5 of those apiece, and they’re in bowls, and there is some special €2 per bowl. And then they had some kind of rum drink. Then they had some more mixed drinks. Then they had, they said, 5 Stella Artois apiece. And I said, “God!” you know, “So was that it?” That’s when they said, “No, no. Then we met some women and brought them back to the hotel.” And they said, “But it’s a problem because often you have to pay, like, €30,” and I said, “What? Prostitutes?” and they said, “No, no, no. The hotel’s just trying to, you know, make extra money, so if you bring a woman back that’s not staying in the hotel, you’ve got to pay extra. So we try to meet women who are already in the hotel, ‘cause it’s just much cheaper that way.” And I thought, you know, where is the romance?
And these were, like, 25 year old guys who worked. One of them was an architect, and one of them was, he worked as, like, a painter decorator. And, you know, and they said we work so hard back home, this is the way we release our tensions, you know? This is the way we let our hair down, and we’ll do this every night for 10 days and then we’ll go back home and we can do it on weekends at home, but we can’t do it during the week and that’s what’s so sad.
Question: Are the British the worst-behaved in Europe?
Sarah: Well, they… It’s because again, that, you know, they have all these laws trying to limit their drinking. The pubs aren’t open 24 hours, you know. There’s… The government is always trying to restrict the type of alcohol that can be sold to certain sorts of people, kids and stuff. And I think they just haven’t worked it out. You know, they’re not… They’re a very repressed society. That cliché really is true, too. So that they, you know, they work so hard and this is the way they let it out. They don’t have any kind of European café culture. They’re not good at sitting around, chatting over a bottle of wine, the way we would. That makes them really nervous, you know? They just like the drinking. And there was a joke, you know, that I have in the book, where two guys going to a pub, two kind of hard working men, and they’re… they drink pint after pint and they’ve had, like, 12 pints, and one of them says to the other one, you know, “So how is your day?” and the first one says, “Have we come here to drink or we’ve come here to talk?” And there’s kinds of… Just so, it’s a weird thing, you know, and they do it as a way, as an excuse to act badly. You know, it’s not like they drink and then lose control, it’s like they want to lose control, and so they drink in order to do it. You know what I mean?