August 17, 2011

Binge Drinking: An Explanation

I am no puritan when it comes to alcohol. I consider myself a lover of wine and a connoisseur of beer. Having been born and raised in the brewing capital of Great Britain (and once of the world), I grew up with the smell of beer in my nostrils, and soon developed a keen sense of barrel freshness, correct cellaring, the vagaries of beer that has had to travel, and the signal importance of being given good head by the barmaid.

While a significant minority of my compatriots share my studied enthusiasm for hoppy warm ale, most other Englishmen abuse the most obnoxious weasel urine in the name of simply becoming intoxicated. Anti-social as this is , especially in provincial cities on a Friday and Saturday night, recent rioting tendencies have given the weekly, or nightly, drunken binge a rather more sinister edge. Why then, do the English, more so than any other great drinking nation, consume their alcohol in such a rapid, indiscriminating, and ultimately harmful (to themselves and to those around them) fashion?

Licensing laws have recently been relaxed in Blighty, with certain bars and clubs staying open to all hours. The vast majority, however, still habitually close at 11.10 p.m., and it is to the historical reason for this timing that we must turn.

Before the Great War, the average pint might have cost a penny. You could reckon on it being 8 or 9% vol., and you could buy it in pubs for 17 ½ hours in the day. Men on different shift patterns could have a drink after work whether they finished at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. There was no rush to drink, and indeed, many of them would have been drinking steadily throughout the day at work. The industrial nineteenth century had conquered many things, but the best way to guarantee safe drinking water was still, in many places, to boil it. The cheapest way to do that was to buy boiled water in the form of beer. In hot trades – steel works, for example – a man might consume twelve pints of small beer per shift. The nutritional content often meant that beer served for lunch and dinner. Indeed, in Russia until a couple of weeks ago, beer was classified as food, not as alcohol.

The war changed all of this. Britain was led by the temperance fanatic David Lloyd George, who famously declared that ‘we are fighting Germany, Austria and Drink, and and as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink’. With raw materials now being diverted for the production of food instead of brewing, the drink trade was instructed to reduce its output and to weaken its beer. The price also rose, through extra taxation for the good of the war effort, and because of the premium on beer’s ingredients. At the same time, the need for ‘national efficiency’ focussed attention on drunkenness as a hindrance to the production of munitions. 17 ½-hour opening was quickly ended, being reduced at a stroke to a mere 5 ½ hours per day.

The anger aroused among the British public was immense, and the Royal Commission of 1917 charged with investigating industrial unrest found that the chief cause of strikes was anger at the scarcity of beer. Nevertheless, the brewers’ profits soared under the new conditions, and drinking habits changed accordingly. The average man continued to spend his spare change on beer, but now he consumed as much as he could in the time available. The habit had to be served as quickly as possible. Moreover, the weakness of the beer now incentivised drinking even more of the stuff, but again, for only five hours per day. Binge drinking had been invented by a government determined to eliminate drunkenness.

The obvious choice, one might think, would have been to return, post-war, to the way things had been. But actually, the brewers’ new business model served them rather well. They could now charge more money for a weaker product in a streamlined business. Temperance activists were also happy, having not fully put two and two together about the consequences of reduced opening times. So, the licensing restrictions remained.

Until a couple of years ago, these restrictions were basically still in place. They had been steadily relaxed to allow afternoon opening and Sunday opening, but the last call at 10.50 p.m. (10.30 p.m. on Sundays) is a sort of national institution. The high price and weak beer still tend to result in people drinking a relatively large quantity in a short time, in order to maximise the effect of the alcohol.

Perhaps in time the relaxation of the licensing laws will reduce the lager loutish behaviour on the streets of England.  Until then, I’m rather fond of laying the blame at the feet of Lloyd George, the Welshman who brought binge drinking to the streets of Britain.

August 16, 2011

Utterly Incensed

I’m hoping some of the lovely bloggers on/of domestic elegance pick this up and help me out. Mrs. VB and I just moved in to a new apartment. One of the vagaries of contract work is that one never settles, and as such we often find ourselves in furnished places, subject to other people’s tastes. I have a high degree of tolerance for ugly domestic interiors, but I’m finding a certain hidden devil here rather difficult to live with.

It seems the previous tenants were burners of incense. I know of no good reason for incense, unless one counts Catholicism, and this experience is not improving my opinion. The smell won’t shift. The essential oils, or whatever they are, somehow seem to be in the very fabric of the place – in the wood, the walls, the floors – and no amount of fresh air and vinegar seems to be doing the trick.

Any suggestions?

August 15, 2011

The Politics of Mindlessness; Or, I Predict A Riot

I’ve been watching in despair as my country goes to the dogs, in almost as much horror at the politicians as at the rioters. I’ve heard the word ‘mindless’ bandied around so much by the powers that be, in an almost Tsarist display of denial at the social reality of the nation over which they preside and sit in judgement, that one truly suspects the word would best be reserved for the politicians themselves. The outpouring of violence and brand-name-driven looting – aggressive shopping, you might say – was frightening enough, but the failure of the authorities to understand its causes is more alarming still.

The segment of this generation of teenagers who saw fit to riot and help themselves is lost to a greater extent than any since the teenager was invented around the turn of the twentieth century. They have no idea of anything greater than themselves. They have been raised to aspire to empty celebrity, sloth, consumption, and all the glistering fool’s gold of post-modern consumerism. They have never been subjected to a meaningful ‘no’, for they have not been raised with a moral code or a moral conscience. Their idols laud criminality, anti-intellectualism, and the acquisition of shiny things. One way or another, English society has spawned a generation of magpies.

I remember distinctly when religious instruction in English state schools was outlawed. It preceded the birth of last week’s rioters by a year or three. Up until the age of about twelve, I used to get my moral education in school through the preaching of Christian values in daily assemblies. Whether one is religious or not, one has to figure that the idiom of this moral education ought not to have been removed without some plan to continue the moral education somehow. It might be considered possible, even useful, to educate people about morality, community, citizenship, without demanding that children make a pact with God. Values are embedded in tradition, in a sense of belonging (civic pride), and are based on human relations (family, friends, school). The instillation of esprit de corps, or the notion of a greater collective purpose than that of any individual aim, fuels self-respect and a sense of mutual responsibility. If people in authority do not provide the foundation for this esprit de corps you can bet that young people with come up with their own. Gangs of rampaging youths organised together through social networking could just as easily have been pulling for a worthy cause. But it’s too late now.

Sure enough, once religious assemblies were outlawed they were replaced by meaningless activities and collective head scratching about what to do. The timing of this pedagogical innovation coincided with the enforced death of Britain as a centre of manufacturing (primary industry was already dead) and of the demise of training in technological, vocational, or artisanal skills. Meanwhile the universities underwent massive expansion so that degrees could be handed out en masse, affording the hordes of the future unemployed a chance at dejection and feelings of under-achievement on a greater scale of self-inflated ego than hitherto. Those unable to matriculate could no longer depend on a trade or a skill, but were glamorised by the laddish lager and drug culture. Their sense of social exclusion was intensified. The ironic anthem of my generation – is it worth the aggravation to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for? / It’s a crazy situation, but all I need are cigarettes and alcohol – became the disturbing reality of the next. The political landscape was squashed into an ugly composite portrait: a set of homogeneous white men distinguishable only by their respective red, blue and yellow ties. The lack of purpose in the individual lives of poor youths was mirrored in the lack of political will to really do anything about social fragmentation and ever-widening inequality. The lack of political choice led to disengagement, apathy, fatalism. Votes, as it became painfully obvious in the last General Election, have ceased to mean anything. Go to Burger King or go to MacDonald’s. In the end you get much the same thing: a bland burger that will kill you eventually.

What happened to the spirit of the Blitz?

These riots were not mindless. This violence did not come out of the clear blue sky. The situation has been produced by the aimless and feckless politicking of a generation and it is time that somebody stood up and took responsibility. There can be all the talk in the world about the future policing of this kind of collective outburst, but until somebody starts talking seriously about how to teach values and virtues, and until somebody starts to think seriously about how communities work, there will only be one certainty: it will happen again.

August 04, 2011

Complaints and How to Answer Them

After a recent travel debacle, I decided to complain. My letter and the response are below. Sometimes being manly is about knowing when you've been wronged as a paying customer and standing up for yourself, within civilised bounds, of course. It clearly hits home. I congratulate Delta for the tenor of their reply.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I would like to describe to you my journey from Montreal to Berlin on Air France on the 28th-29th June, 2011. I would like to ask you if you would yourself tolerate such an experience. I further wish to know why, given the competition in the airline market, I should ever choose to fly with Air France again? You should be aware that this is a trip I have made about three times per year for the last five years or so on different airlines. Of all of these experiences, my recent Air France trip was the worst. I hope you will reply promptly to this letter. In two weeks time I shall publish this letter on a blog that receives about 12,000 page views per month. I should very much like to include your reply.

My trip began with a delay. The scheduled departure time of 17.20 was put back to 19.00. No explanation was offered. In the event, we did not depart until 19.45 because of “boarding difficulties.” This delay occurred even though boarding began at 17.30 – a full 90 minutes before departure. The first load of passengers, myself included, were driven to the aircraft in a vehicle that raised and lowered itself. When this vehicle arrived at the aircraft it stood there, suspended thirty feet in the air, for 40 minutes. There was nowhere to sit, no ventilation, and no explanation.

Once underway I realised immediately that the screen in my seat did not work. I informed a flight attendant who said he would “re-set” it. He forgot. When I could next attract his attention I asked again and he saw to it. It was one hour into the flight before I was able to avail myself of the in-flight entertainment. I watched a movie. As soon as it was over, the screen went black and the system remained inoperable for the remainder of the flight.

At no point before being served a meal was I (or anyone else) offered a drink. What happened to champagne in economy? It was your proudest boast in former times. By the time I was served my meal I had been sitting in my seat for three hours. The man next to me repeatedly asked for water and was either ignored or told explicitly to wait for his meal.

The quality of the meal was very poor. I’m not sure of the wisdom of serving scallops in economy even under the best of circumstances, since they are dangerous when re-heated. In this case, however, it was completely inedible. I actually wondered if a small piece of hard rubber had accidentally landed in my salad by mistake, until I realised that everyone had one. In addition there was no choice of meal offered. It was a questionable beef and pasta dish or nothing.

My connecting flight was in Paris. Unbeknownst to me, I arrived in chaos. When I first checked the boards, my 10.20 flight to Berlin was showing “on time.” At 10.00 it changed to “delayed until 10.55.” At 10.30, the flight disappeared altogether from the boards. I asked three separate Air France members of staff at the gate what was happening, and all three assured me that the flight was not cancelled.

At 10.50, it was announced that the flight was, prior assurances notwithstanding, cancelled. At this point, the Air France member of staff at the gate began to communicate without a microphone and only in French to the assembled crowd. I could neither hear nor understand her. Confusion was extreme. Eventually I managed to get re-booked onto an earlier flight that was about six hours (!) delayed.

No reason was given for any of this. Rumour was the only source of information: a French strike? A lightning strike? Only at 12.00 did the pilot of the next flight tell us of a massive systems failure in Paris, but it is hard to believe that this can be allowed to happen.

I arrived in Berlin shortly before 14.00. The baggage did not arrive for nearly an hour. No reason given; no communication. Needless to say, when the bags did arrive, mine was not there. I went and joined what turned out to be a very long queue of disgruntled Air France customers reporting missing bags. Mercifully, I was near the front. I reported my case, and was assured the bag would be with me the next day. That should have been today (June 30th). I called the service and was told that my bag had been found but was still (!) in Paris. I am now expecting delivery tomorrow. Of course, I am without clothing, and without some important items in my case.

I left the airport finally at 15.30. The total travel time, from scheduled departure until leaving the airport at my destination: about 16 hours. From Montreal to Berlin, that is completely ridiculous.

In all, my trip was a series of delays, with poor service, poor communication, poor food, and lost luggage. I highly recommend that your senior customer services representatives try flying Air France Economy some time and see how they like it. I wouldn’t wish this trip on my worst enemy, and yet I undertook it voluntarily! I even paid hundreds of euros for the privilege! It seems that Air France needs to be reminded that its customers are neither cattle, nor are they cargo. Your passengers were sorely let down by this frankly brutal experience.

I hereby challenge you to make amends: what assurances, or compensation, can you offer me that might once again induce me to purchase an Air France ticket? I promise you I will not be easily tempted to return.

Sincerely yours,


Dear Dr. [VB]

Thank you for your communication.  I would like to inform you that Delta Air Lines represents Air France and KLM in North America.  Therefore, on behalf of Delta Air Lines and our SkyTeam partners, I would like to extend our sincere apology for flight disruptions causing your late arrivals and our service failures on your trip to Berlin on Air France.

After reading your email, I can only imagine your frustration when the Air France flight from Montreal to Paris was delayed.  I am so sorry for this inconvenience of leaving over two hours late.  To make matters worse, the connecting flight to Berlin was canceled and you were rebooked on another flight that was delayed six hours.

We all take on time performance very seriously and despite our tough economic conditions are not sacrificing these goals or safety in any way.  At the same time, we realize travelers want an airline they can count on to reach their destinations in a timely manner and how upsetting it is when plans are disrupted.

Additionally, it is disturbing that you were not offered explanations by the Air France staff regarding these flight disruptions.  We expect our team members to provide prompt flight information updating our passengers at the gates, but I apologize your experience in Montreal and Paris was to the contrary.

Also, I am truly sorry for your disappointment with the inflight service received on our flight from Montreal to Paris.  I deeply regret our video system was malfunctioning  on this lengthy flight, you were not offered a beverage prior to our meal service, and the food quality served was unfavorable without being offered a choice of meals.  We want our partner's inflight environment to be pleasing to our customers, but I understand your disappointment with the inadequate service you received on this flight.

Finally, after waiting one hour for the checked in baggage to arrive, I am so sorry your checked in luggage did not arrive with you in Berlin. Like you, we certainly wish that instances of mishandled bags never occurred.  Your frustration is understood considering you were without clothing and some important items during this delay.  Please know we have dedicated goals for delivering bags, but I apologize, again, for this inconvenience.

We appreciate you taking the time to advise us of this unfortunate experience.  It is important for us to know any instance where our partner's service is lacking.  Please know your concerns are taken very seriously and have been thoroughly documented.  Be assured, I will be sharing your comments with the Air France Airport Customer Service leadership teams in Montreal, Paris and Berlin for their internal follow up.

As a gesture of sincere apology for our flight disruptions, our inflight service failures and your mishandled baggage,  I have issued an Electronic Transportation Credit Voucher (eTCV) in the amount of $200.  Please note the voucher number and associated Terms and Conditions will be arriving in a separate email.  I encourage you to add Delta Air Lines to your receiver list so the voucher document is not misdirected to your spam folder.  Please keep the voucher number and the Terms and Conditions since the number is required for redemption.  It is also important to remind you that there is no Direct Ticketing fee for reservations confirmed online at

Dr. [VB], thank you for your support as an Ivory Flying Blue member and for trusting your business to us. We hope you will continue to choose Delta Air Lines and our SkyTeam partners, Air France and KLM, for your future air travel needs. Please know your comments will not go unnoticed.  We will make every attempt to serve you better in the future as we look forward to our continued business relationship.  Thank you for writing to us.


Thomas Wyborski
Coordinator, Customer Care
Delta Air Lines
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