Checking out Berlin’s bar scene again last weekend, as I’ve done a few times, I couldn’t help but think of the contrasts with London as the hour gets late. This has been especially confirmed when walking around the West End (of London I mean, not Berlin), a truly bereft place beyond midnight, whose peculiar licensing laws (imposed by Westminster Council) ensure that every pub is shut by 11-12pm flat. The net result, of course, is that the only places to go for a drink subsequently are in expensive clubs (with the exception of indie disco After-Skool Club at the Quad in Holborn, and metaller hangout The Crowbar), where you are more often than not packed like cattle into a club playing bland crap far exceeding conversational level, and subjected to a grilling from bouncers.
Of course, the area in London that corresponds most to where we were in Berlin – Prenzlauer Berg – is not the West End, but possibly Shoreditch. But even in the East End of London, the licensing laws still seem somewhat ridiculous considering that London brands itself as a 24-hour city (well, Time Out does at least). Just walk down Kingsland Road where it meets Old Street, and where the inevitable stragglers congregate outside Catch/Jaguar Shoes/Prague Bar, etc. Half of bars are closed by twelve o’clock, with only a handful still operating and inevitably policed by a group of bouncers (leading to bafflement by Spanish tourists, many of whom are probably used to a culture of siesta followed hitting bars much later in the evening).
It is incredible that in 2010 there is still only a handful of pubs or bars in such an area still open after midnight. It seems to me that this is still part of a culture in Britain that emphases drinking straight after work, so as to compete with the absurd 11 o’clock curfew – an archaic law put in place in the first World War. The Sun and The Daily Mail’s instant opposition to the last Government’s admiral stab at liberalising the country’s drinking laws were always going to influence the course of events; the reading figures for The Sun and The Mail are astronomical compared to The Guardian, so the Gruniad’s broad support for liberalised drinking laws meant little. The Government is influenced by what the tabloids say, not by any of the leftie broadsheets, and has always been thus.
As a result, the traditional British ritual of being told by a miserable-looking bouncer/pub owner to drink up at 11 o’clock look set to continue unabated, leading to another ritual, that of fights outside the pub as everyone congregates. This kind of culture has become ingrained, exacerbated by tabloid scare stories about the ‘dangers’ of longer drinking hours, how British society may collapse as we know it in an instant, and how it might affect the impressionable public, accompanied by stories of halfwits – you know the ones, you’ll usually see them in Wetherspoons pubs (or The Elbow Rooms), louder than anyone else - in a coma from excessive drinking. Of course there is club scene in London open all hours – Fabric and the 333 are just two that come to mind - but trying in vain to find a decent number of bars beyond the 1am point has become a surprisingly regular, and frequently frustrating, experience.
It doesn’t have to be this way. London could be like many countries in Europe, where bars open late to the point that people leave at different times, and conversation is invariably more relaxed rather than dominated by having to drink quickly so as to meet looming closing hours. The bar scene in Prenzlauer Berg was a case in point. There were no fights on the street and little need to engage in binge drinking because of doors shutting early. Hypothetically, if the Government was ever to truly liberalise the pub/bar laws – which seems distinctly unlikely under the Tories – what would happen would probably be an initial surge of idiots having to attend hospital after being carried away, but then a subsequent period where the novelty of liberalised bar laws would wear off. What would follow could make London’s pub/bar scene among the best in Europe. Sadly, the tabloids simply don’t want anything of the sort, which leads to us all treated as children, expected to tuck into bed at midnight, duffing our cap to the Queen along the way.