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Time traveller: Hatchet job on drink was a right Carrie on; looking back.


"DRUNKEN crowds have taken to roaming city streets, breaking windows and stoning coaches in protest at a tax that threatens to deprive them of their favourite tipple."

No, it's wasn't about 4p on the price of a pint in Cardiff or bumping up the cost of cider. That favourite tipple was gin. And if you think binge-drinking is something new, take a look at the signs outside those gin shops: Not WATCH THE BIG MATCH LIVE but "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence."

This was the Britain of 1736 that inspired Hogarth's dispiriting, if that's the word, "Gin Lane" paintings. The country was awash with drink, one "spirit shop" for every 11 houses and much of it brewed in back street basements. Swap what the government of the day called "a country-wide addiction to gin" for "town centre binge-drinking" and you've got it.

The answer then was a huge tax on drink - something else that's not new.

But drunkenness has always been a problem with pubs and scores of illegal drinking dens prouting in Cardiff until the temperance movements began their battle with what they invariably called the Demon Drink.

The first recorded campaigner was Jonadab, son of Rechab (take the Prophet Jeremiah's word for this)who told his family: "Ye shall drink nowine, neither ye nor your sons forever."

Which is why, in 1837, the longest-lasting temperance organisation of all took his name and called them selves Rechabites. Small Cardiff kids enrolled in this outfit swore to lead blameless teetotal lives and you'd hear tots trilling that "My drink is water bright, water bright, water bright, my drink is water bright, from the crystal stream."

(Come to think of it a drink from a stream these days would be more toxic than the bootleg booze brewed on old Mary Ann Street!).

So any more lessons from the past on how to battle the booze culture that Walter Raleigh warned would "transformeth a Man into a Beast"? Nothing new there, then.

The Victorians used syrupy sentiment to fight the temperance battle.

They flooded the market with poems and songs like The Drunkards's Lament ("I've seen the funeral of my hopes, entombed them one by one") and Breaking Mother's Heart, hoping to appeal to better natures.

They were never short of children trying to drag drunken dads out of the alehouse, while in their hovel "our fire has gone out, our house is all dark, and mother's been watching since tea, with poor brother Benny so sick in her arms, and no-one to watch her but me."

Her irritating cries of "come home, come home, please father dear come home," were generally answered with a swipe across the lug'ole and poor brother Benny expires, his last words, "I want to kiss papa goodnight."

Temperance societies perpetrating these atrocities claimed that many a drink-sodden navvy, overcome with grief at Benny's demise, pushed his pint away. Until next day.

But the most formidable enemy of the Demon Drink was America's Carrie Nation who'd clean up St Mary Street without breaking sweat. For centuries Americans, like us, had been swilling alcohol and again, like us, it was the women who started the revolt. The Women's Christian Temperance Union arrived in 1874 and they were a lot more warlike than our Rechabites.

They'd burst into bars bellowing songs like "No Hope For The Drunkard" before sweeping those drunkards' drinks into the sawdust and they really did get plenty of deafened drinkers to sign the Pledge. And Carrie Nation showed 'em the way.

She'd storm into saloons, Boudicca in a black bonnet, chopping up bar counters and furniture with her famous hatchet, driving terrified customers into the street and in fact, she was so ferocious that not only the Temperance Union but the Anti-Saloon League disowned her. They preferred to shame drinkers with song.

"Little drinks of brandy, little sips of gin, swell the mighty torrents of disease and sin." Pretty tame stuff alongside such epics as Breaking Mother's Heart or Drive Him Out, that "him" being the familiar Demon Drink Yes, drive him out because "He steals the manhood, robs the brain, his tens of thousands he has slain. So end the monster's awful reign, drive him out, oh drive him out."

Fine, laugh. But that sort of stuff eventually helped bring in Prohibition.

So there you go Alastair me old darling, if you want to stop binge drinking tell our kids that "Little drops of whisky, little mugs of beer, bring the keenest sorrow, to the children dear."

But don't bet on it working.


BATTLE THE BOOZE Songbooks like these were used by temperance campaigners to spread their message.
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 25, 2008
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