NORTHAMPTON, England » It was just after 4 a.m., the last clubs were closing and the police had three young men pinned against a brick wall and a fourth on the ground. The young men, gloriously incoherent, some of them bleeding, could barely stand, let alone respond to the questions of the officers, who were responding to a fight. As the scene in downtown Northampton unfolded, another drunken young man slugged a passer-by, then fled.
A young woman, Becky, tried to attend to her boyfriend, whose arm was numb and collarbone possibly broken. It was freezing cold, but she had on a thin dress and no shoes. He begged her to stay; drunk herself, she walked away, then returned, crying, and began to kiss him as the police tried to restore order.
About a hundred yards away, on the main drag, Bridge Street, a young woman emerged weaving from NB’s nightclub. She threw up on the sidewalk and her own thin, glittery dress, as a friend tried to hold her head. Then she looked up at a policewoman coming over to help, and with vomit in the corners of her mouth, sweetly apologized.
Six miles away, on Shadowfax Drive, in tougher east Northampton, a drunken house party had gotten out of control. Three people ended up in the hospital, one with his arm nearly amputated by a meat cleaver and another missing part of his nose, and 10 others were arrested.
It was just another Friday night in Northampton, where young Britons, often in packs, go out to get thoroughly, blindingly and often violently drunk, said Inspector Vaughan Clarke of the Northamptonshire Police. Given the price of alcohol in bars, pubs and clubs, they often "pre-load" with cheap vodka and gin from 24-hour discount stores or supermarkets. Some arrive in the city center drunk; by the time they leave, they make the city’s vagrants look sober.
From Falstaff to Churchill and beyond, Britons have been known for their love of drink. But whether as entertainment or mating ritual, the spectacle of dressed-up youth wandering the early morning streets barely able to walk or talk has become an issue of growing social importance, because of both the violence that alcohol often engenders and the vulnerability of young women, who are sometimes molested or raped when they are in no condition to defend themselves.
Britain’s Institute of Alcohol Studies said there had been a small decline in alcohol use from its height in 2005, and the country is roughly in the middle compared with other European Union countries in estimates of liters of legally sold alcohol drunk per person. But the institute said that the drinking habits of Britons ages 15 to 24 "differ from older generations," in that "they drink less often during the week, but that they are more prone to heavy episodic or binge drinking when they do," a phenomenon that the police are starting to address more forcefully.
"Those scenes in Northampton would be the same in every town center in Britain on a Friday and Saturday night," said Clarke, who has also worked with the Los Angeles Police Department. "I think it’s just in our culture, but we have a serious problem. People in America don’t go out and get hammered in the same way."
The chief constable of Northamptonshire, Adrian Lee, wants to do something about it. Locally, he has cracked down on drunken youths who commit violence.
He has put police officers on the streets during what is euphemistically known as "the night economy," placed undercover police officers in bars and clubs to check for underage drinking, and stationed a truck with small cells – a "mobile custody suite" – in the town center on Friday and Saturday nights, so that officers can book violent or incapable drunken youths quickly and then return to the street. (The cells have a small plastic chair and a trench that runs outside, for urine and vomit, which can be hosed down later.)
But Lee, appalled by the public money needed to handle and treat the problem of binge drinking, is also proposing a series of measures for the national government to consider, including a privatized system of "drunk tanks" so that those who are merely plastered can be cared for, sobered up, fined and then charged for the service. It costs the public up to 400 pounds a night to keep a drunken person in jail, he said.
Because some 70 percent of alcohol here is currently sold in stores, outside licensed pubs and bars, he also supports minimum pricing for each unit of alcohol, to avoid supermarket "loss leader" sales of cheap alcohol.
For now, that idea has been rejected by the government. But officials say they plan to ban the sale of alcohol at a price lower than that of the tax due on it, promise action against "irresponsible promotions in pubs and clubs" and have increased taxes on frozen "alcopops."
Lee, who represents the Association of Chief Police Officers on the issue of problem drinking, said that there had been a profound social change in Britain, and that what was once seen as amusing behavior had become a serious public hazard.
"I think more people drink and set out to get drunk as a means of entertainment than was the case in the past," he said. "That always happened, but not in the numbers and volume and the almost normalcy created around, ‘Its OK to go out and get so drunk you end up lying on the streets incapable of looking after yourself.’"
He said 50 percent of all violent crime in Britain was alcohol-related, and alcohol was involved in 73 percent of all domestic violence and 25 percent of child abuse cases. Alcohol-related crime is estimated to cost the economy 11 billion pounds a year (about $18 billion), including 3.5 billion pounds for the National Health Service.
Extending licensing hours, an attempt to create a continental-style cafe culture in Britain, has been a "valid but failed experiment," he said. The idea was doomed, he said, because unlike in France, many Britons see alcohol consumption as a pursuit in itself, rather than an accompaniment to a meal.
Alastair Campbell, a former tabloid journalist and press adviser to Tony Blair when he was prime minister, considered himself "a functioning alcoholic" until, while the youngest news editor on Fleet Street in the early 1980s, he realized that his first waking thought was related to alcohol. He once passed out in a train station, was arrested and ended up in a hospital, where a psychiatrist helped him confront his problem.
Britain must do the same, he said.
"I always say that as a problem drinker, you only address the problem when you admit you’ve got the problem," Campbell said. "And I think we have to do the same as a country: We are a problem-drinking country, and you can only address that problem by saying that out loud."
Alcohol has become so prevalent among all classes in Britain that "you never have to explain why you drink, but always have to explain why you don’t," Campbell said. "What binge drinking is, it’s actually saying the purpose of drinking is to get drunk. And I don’t think you do see that, other than with fairly well-developed alcoholics, in other countries."
Roger Hampton and Jane Cosby were out on Bridge Street, too, on that Friday night as church volunteers dispensed bottles of water, blankets and pink flip-flops to those who need them. The flip-flops are for the girls in stiletto heels who at some point in the night can no longer walk in them, Cosby said.
As the police were standing up the bleeding fighters against the brick wall near Bridge Street, two drunken women stumbled by, arm in arm, screaming obscenities. A young man turned toward them, lost his balance and hit the ground. An ambulance arrived.
"You tolerate behavior at 3 a.m. that you wouldn’t at 3 p.m.," Clarke said. "It’s not about stopping the drink. It’s about stopping the violence attached to it."
Steven Erlanger and Stephen Castle, New York Times