Remember that old public service advertisement about domestic violence? "Break the cycle" it exhorted us. Quite apart from anything else it confirmed the problem was far from a new one; that whatever was happening in the present stemmed from generation upon generation of Kiwi blokes belting women in the past. That's right, we're talking about our own fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. Old habits, it seems, die hard.
It started me thinking about New Zealand's binge drinking debate, regularly in the news now the Alcohol Law Reform bill is in its final stages. Or to be more accurate, it was an interview last week on National Radio that raised the eyebrows. My friend Michael Donaldson, deputy editor of the Sunday Star-Times and author of the fascinating book Beer Nation, was discussing Kiwis' historical drinking habits with host Jim Mora.
Funny how you miss things during your childhood. I can distinctly remember preparing for the currency changeover in 1967 but at the time had no idea it was also the year the six-o'clock swill was abandoned. The most surprising bit, at least for these ears? When Donaldson reminded us the 6pm closing rule had been introduced as far back as 1917. Fifty years earlier. For half a century we'd trained ourselves to drink like men dying of thirst.
Most of us have heard the stories. Faced with a maximum of an hour's drinking between the knock-off hooter and 6pm, workers learnt to guzzle as much as possible before time ran out. What we now call binge-drinking was institutionalised, fuelled by the early-closing law. Grizzled old men would show fresh-faced 21-year-olds the ropes. Techniques were refined; habits were formed, all in the name of getting blind drunk in a matter of minutes.
As Donaldson noted, the irony was that the 6pm restriction was introduced to avoid precisely the behaviour it caused. You can just imagine how much fun it must have been for many of the "housewives" and children of those days, as dad arrived home at 6.30ish. Certainly, reports of carnage on the roads were common, despite the relatively few number of vehicles. But whatever the mode of transport, there was one regular outcome. Men arrived home plastered.
Which brings us to today's most prominent public service advertisement catchline: "It's not what we're drinking it's how we're drinking." Makes you wonder, doesn't it? I mean, it isn't so different to how we were drinking for most of the previous century. And while we might not have deliberately taught our kids to follow suit, there's nothing quite like a younger generation for sensing hypocrisy. "Do as I say, not as I do" has never really cut the ice.
Barring the wrong-headed prohibitionists, no-one's genuinely tried to break the cycle. Not really. Each generation has anguished over the levity of the next but has studiously avoided making changes that would impact on its own. As "oldies", our hearts aren't in it. Even now, as our politicians clamp down on the "synthetic high" industry, cannabis and tobacco, they busily seek to dilute almost any meaningful measure in the quest for alcohol reform.
Reading Donaldson's Beer Nation was a reminder that very little has changed. The second chapter, entitled Temperance & Swill, is required reading, especially for anyone under the delusion that prohibition or part thereof will achieve anything. Another chapter, exploring the old duopoly between Lion and Dominion Breweries hints at the real power-brokers in this debate. Until there's a government willing to take this lot on it's hard to imagine much improving.
Hence? The binge-drinking cycle is destined to continue.
» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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