Richard Robinson: ”Waves of Excess: Drinking Cultures in Brighton 1880–1939”. Lectio Praecursoria 5.3.2016

Richard Robinsonin väitöskirja ”Waves of Excess: Drinking Cultures in Brighton 1880-1939” tarkastettiin 5.3.2016 kello 10 Helsingin yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä toimi Dr. James Kneale (University College London) ja kustoksena Björn Forsén. Väitöstiivistelmä löytyy osoitteesta http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:ISBN 978-­951-­51-­1941‐4

By 1880, Brighton – the coastal focus of my thesis – was the biggest seaside resort in England, with a population of around 99,000.  I would like to begin by reciting an abridged version of a poem about the town written in that same year, entitled “Sunday Night on the King’s Road”.  The King’s Road formed part of Brighton’s most famous stretch of seafront, between the West Pier in the west and the Aquarium in the east.

You may talk of your banquets, and parties, and balls,
Of dances with beauties in brilliant, bright halls,
Of picnic excursions, and Saturday “outs,”
Of theatres, concerts, receptions, and routs,
But nothing in Sussex can yield such delight,
As Brighton King’s Road on a fine Sunday night.
There are shop girls in plenty, all doing the fine
In bonnets resplendent (this style two-and-nine);
Their cardinal ribbons tied under the chin –
Though the colour’s so common we almost begin
To regard wearing it as a cardinal sin.
And the simpering misses from Cliftonville way,
Whose speech is so fine you can’t tell what they say,
And the merchants so stout, crawling slowly as grubs
To their houses of call, or their favourite clubs,
Besides elegant youths, who possess but six d.,
And turn in at the “Star” for half soda and B.
And police court attorneys, forgetting their squalls,
Stroll along, while the musical bell of St. Paul’s
Calls the faithful to worship, reflection and prayer,
And spinsters responsive troop hurriedly there.
And as you go past you’ll observe not a few
Wipe their lips as they leave the adjacent Belle Vue.
And the “spooners”! however can mortal describe
The varieties there of that numerous tribe?
There are “Aquarium,” “Pav.,” and “White Lion” belles,
Arm-in-arm with magnificent Hannington swells
Who are smoking cigars (at a florin a score),
These are there and at least fifty specimens more.
What a motley, amusing and singular throng
They appear as they ceaselessly journey along;
All intent on enjoying the fun at its height,
While weather is good on this fine Sunday night.

Now, before many of you make a hasty dash for the exit, I want to make a solemn promise that this will be the only poem recited during this defence.  Moreover, I entirely appreciate that, to the listener unacquainted with Brighton, some of its stanzas perhaps verge on the incomprehensible.  In fact, its occasional obtuseness is the very reason that I elected to start with it, as it neatly underlines the way that a phenomenon seemingly so familiar to contemporary life – the confused mixture of crowds at a holiday destination – can be wrapped up in codes of language and cultural presumptions that are so spatially and historically specific.  And this is something that I wish to particularly stress in relation to the consumption of alcohol: just because drinking is such a dominant and visible social practice nowadays, this does not mean that it consists of or has been contained within predominantly ahistorical processes.  By examining the depictions, consequences and conflicts of drinking in Brighton from a variety of perspectives, this thesis explores how alcohol use could be justified and condemned according to the specific context.

This, too, is succinctly illustrated by the poem, for it hints at alcohol consumption on a couple of occasions, with various degrees of opacity and with various assiduous implications.  The ‘elegant youths’ who ‘turn in at the Star for half soda and B.’ – or visit the Star and Garter Hotel for a half soda and brandy – are engaging in a charade of affluence by visiting such a fashionable location and ordering a gentlemanly drink in spite of having only sixpence in their pockets.  The second reference to alcohol is less clear cut, but it is to be found in the description of the spinsters wiping their lips as they rush to their Sunday church service from the licensed Belle Vue MansionWith this brief aside, the poem’s unnamed author is slyly suggesting that the spinsters’ show of religious devotion stands in contrast to their less than abstemious lifestyle.  This duplicity was particularly pertinent at a time when the influence of sabbatarianism – the belief that the Sabbath should be a day of rest – meant that pubs’ opening hours were more restricted on Sunday than during the rest of the week.

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Illustration by Joseph Longhurst, in ”London’s Brightest Suburb”, Brighton Queen of the South, Autumn 1906, The Keep (Brighton History Centre).

Whether imbued with aspirational value or stained with the shame of insincere piety, alcohol could be adopted to a multitude of meanings and roles.  Indeed, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – for much of the time period of this study – alcohol’s position in English society was more flexible and contested than ever before, and perhaps than at any time since.  The communal foundations on which alcohol’s popularity was based had started to fracture already from the late 1820s, with the emergence of the first anti-spirit groups – the forbears of the temperance movement – and with the increasing domesticity of the middle classes detaching them from public houses.  However, from the 1870s drink’s established position in society began to be torn asunder, undermined by an indomitable and politicised temperance movement, by the medical profession’s increasing disquiet about alcoholism and drink’s effect on health, and by theories of degeneration that saw drunkenness as a threat to urban civility and the nation’s future prosperity.  On top of a stream of new legislation stemming from such movements, per capita consumption of alcohol began to decline from the mid-1870s and the working classes’ leisure horizons began to stretch beyond the pub and towards less alcohol-sodden activities, like seaside holidays for example.  In spite of all this, and even though both the number of pubs and the services they provided were on the wane, the institution was still the beating heart of local communities, and even began to appeal to respectable middle-class customers again.  Private clubs, both for gentlemen and working men, were flourishing and restaurants, hotels and even off-licences proliferated, allowing all social classes – although particularly the well-to-do – a variety of contexts in which to purchase and consume alcohol.  For those who looked past drink’s immoral and demonic connotations, it could still be a social lubricant, a cultural symbol and even a cure-all.

When I first began my doctoral studies, I was determined that these latter ideas – of drink as a malleable accompaniment to everyday life – would be central to my work, and I naively wondered why so much previous research focused instead on temperance, political and medical debates.  It took a number of archive visits before I began to accept that the mundanity of quotidian drinking habits meant that they were barely recorded and those that were had an impermanence that defied easy categorisation.  Furthermore, I began to realise why many social histories of drink are tightly bound to the pub, since not only is it an institution steeped in book-keeping and paperwork, it also provides a ready-made frame within which to interpret a drinker’s actions.  The work you have before you today is a product of these archival realisations and compromises: it examines drinking cultures not as intricately woven collections of habits, but as loose potential experiences built around particular representations (like adverts), states (like drunkenness), and institutions (like the pub and the club).  Even though it relies heavily on regulatory and disciplinary sources, which tend to record the disruptive edges of alcohol use, its analysis is still directed towards those doing the drinking, rather than those debating about drink.  It does not ignore such debates, I hasten to add, but instead sees them as connected to the drinking experience, rather than as self-contained discourses.

Aside from those already listed, the other central category around which drinking cultures are ordered in this study is the tourist, or perhaps more accurately Brighton as a tourist resort.  Although this is most immediately studied in the second chapter, the attraction of visitors was so integral to the town’s character that it filters through the thesis as a whole, since it created an environment that had to be sold, rather than merely inhabited.  For an idea of its importance, consider again the poem at the start: although its terminology may be unfamiliar, the author’s voyeuristic vigour towards the throng of people is plainly apparent, and his emphasis on the mixture of classes illustrates well the mythology that surrounded Brighton and, to a lesser extent, other large seaside towns of the period.  Victorian England was often a place of divisions, of careful class demarcation, but on this strip by the shore a whole variety of human life could assemble.  This points to the well-established appeal of the seaside resort by this time; having grown out of the health spas of the 18th century, it first became popular as a place of medicalised leisure for the upper classes.  Slowly but surely across the nineteenth century, the restorative connotations of resorts were outshone (if not entirely supplanted) by the pursuit of pleasure.  This coincided with some resorts becoming an increasingly customary destination for working-class daytrippers, following the considerable expansion of the railway in the 1830s and 1840s and an assortment of acts that improved workers’ rights, not least the 1871 Bank Holiday Act.  However, even in Brighton, which was relatively unique in being able to attract visitors from across the social spectrum, this class medley should not be exaggerated.  As the working classes descended on the town in ever greater numbers, the middle and upper classes first shifted their season to the winter period, and then, particularly after the First World War, holidayed abroad with ever greater frequency.

This change underlines the fleeting quality of the genteel pleasure ideal in the face of the pervasive liminal potential of seaside locations.  Situated between the land and the sea, these towns could permit visitors to transition between everyday and holiday identities, ones that could break down social barriers and encourage relatively transgressive behaviour.  Of course, some resorts successfully maintained their class exclusivity; another south coast town, Bournemouth, famously built its railway station far from the town centre to discourage rowdy excursionists from visiting.  However, by the late nineteenth century, Brighton was already too large and too well-connected to London – by road, by rail and by the popular consciousness – to turn against the mass-market tide, and by the interwar years the town even began to embrace elements of its own infamy.  Nevertheless, in becoming more disorderly, or at least less respectable, the town still conformed to the broadly positive narrative of tourism history over this period, one that celebrates the increasing accessibility of holidays as part of the working classes’ improved position in society and their subsequent integration in consumer culture.  That is not to deny that there was conflict about the type and the conduct of visitors at holiday destinations in the late nineteenth century – much as there are debates nowadays about tourism’s sustainability and post-colonial connotations – but the broad historical arc is one of increasing equality and pleasure.  In contrast, there is no smooth historical arc for drink, rather spikes of disruption and division; when alcohol consumption has attracted most attention, it has scarcely been because it has been a constructive societal force, but instead because it has been a recurring source of conflict that has not, to this day, been resolved.

And yet, here, in a destructive nutshell, is the value of drink history.  As has repeatedly been demonstrated – by James Nicholls, Jessica Warner and many others – historical panics about alcohol and changes in its regulation have been reliable indicators of wider political, moral or cultural unease.  In drink debates, in other words, alcohol is often the secondary issue, a conduit for more deep-rooted social concerns or cynical political manoeuvring. Take the act of 1643 that introduced an excise tax on drink producers for the first time – the principal reason for this was less concern about intoxication, and more to fund the roundheads’ war against the royalists.  Indeed, Henry Yeomans has asserted that, even into the twentieth century, excise taxes on alcohol have risen whenever England engaged in an international military conflict.  The temperance movement, too, did not solely flourish because lots of people were drunk, but rather because public drunkenness gradually became more offensive, due to the increased domesticity of the middle classes, and because of increased notions of respectability which went together with a range of bourgeois social reform campaigns, from gambling to prostitution.  In fact, combining drink’s preponderance for controversy with its ever-presence in social settings, it is only a small exaggeration to claim that it has been integral to the formation of industrial and commercial societies in Europe.

Talking of societies in Europe, I feel that I should address one issue that many of you are perhaps wondering, namely: does this study of drink in a seaside town in England have anything to do with Finnish history?  Well, the short answer is no; this piece of research is firmly rooted in the trends and debates of English society at that time.  That said, the longer – and less flippant – answer is that English and Finnish debates about alcohol were not and are not so divergent as the dearth of comparative research might imply.  The most obvious points of association are their temperance movements – indeed, Harry Levine has identified both countries as temperance cultures based on their Protestantism and high levels of spirits consumption.  However, this conspicuous connection risks obscuring the fact that, even after the marginalisation of temperance, both countries have continued to share a pervading unease about drink’s role in society, one that has forced itself into the public consciousness at times of change.

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”Disgraceful Scene near Brighton”, Illustrated Police News, 16.02.1884, 1. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Finland has perhaps always been slightly more extreme in its legislative measures, bringing in prohibition between 1919 and 1932 and then nationalising the liquor trade.  That said, a similar nationalisation in England was briefly mooted during the First World War, which resulted in the state purchase of the licensed premises in the town of Carlisle.  In 1959, Finland began a campaign to encourage wine drinking among its populace with the slogan “mieluummin viiniä kuin väkeviä”, or “better wine than spirits”, which bore a striking similarity to one encouraged in England by Gladstone almost one hundred years earlier, in 1860.  Most recently, there have been panics in both countries about the youth culture of binge drinking, as well as continued debates about the extent of liberalism in alcohol policy.  In England, these have resulted in 24-hour licensing from 2005, where as in Finland’s more cautious climate, the current discussion is whether wine and strong beers should be sold in supermarkets.  Finally, Pekka Kuusi’s pioneering sociological surveys on Finnish drinking habits from the late 1940s were a more statistically accomplished version of the sociological work that Mass-Observation began in Britain in the 1930s.  There are plenty more unexplored points of comparison, and, although conceptually challenging, it is this sort of transnational research that can shed new light on the consumption customs and conundrums of society. In fact, I already have a preliminary title: Finntoxication and the Inebritish.

Nonetheless, this scope for wider comparison should not obscure the utility of local, spatially-distinct research in the study of everyday activities.  To refer to the poem one final time, the author makes it clear that King’s Road functions as the structural host for the revellers, directing and framing their procession, but it is still unable to fully order and unify the ‘motley, amusing and singular throng’.  To make an analogy with alcohol history, the road’s role is equivalent to the national legislation, campaigns and trends that prohibited, contained and guided drinking habits.  Their importance is self-evident, but to solely consider them is to detract from the mixture and inconsistencies of local networks of intoxication, to risk ignoring not only the motley, amusing and singular throng of drinkers that ceaselessly journeyed along Brighton’s three hundred streets by the sea, but also those that flooded and seeped in waves of excess through towns and cities across the country.

 

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