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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Monday, 20 February 2017

Remembering Lunchtime Drinking

So Lloyds of London announced last week that it is banning its employees from drinking at lunchtime.

Under strict new rules, anyone found to have enjoyed a pint between the hours of 9 to 5 faces the prospect of being fired for 'gross misconduct.'

Having frequently been in City of London pubs at the same time as some of these often boorish drinkers, my first thought was not to spare them any tears. The move comes in response to 50% of disciplinary incidents at the firm apparently having to do with staff members being over-refreshed. 

But whatever your views on our financial colleagues, just let that phrase roll around for a second: drinking alcohol during your lunch break is 'gross misconduct'. Not getting drunk. Not failing to complete your job because you're pissed. But having one drink. 

This ban is symbolic of the ever tightening stigma of drinking alcohol - and of changing public opinion - and I fear it's the first of many similar measures to come.


But according to YouGov, Lloyds are in line with public opinion. I guess I'm not. 

I started my first job in 1991, at an advertising agency in Central London. At that time advertising had a glamorous reputation, but that wasn't the reason I joined: I just wanted a job that would be different every day, one that would be interesting and intellectually challenging, and accountancy (which is what my university tried to push everyone into) didn't seem to offer that. 

I started as a graduate trainee in the middle of a recession, and to most of the people in advertising, this was the first recession they'd noticed, because it was the first that had had a serious impact on the south east. (Coming from Barnsley, I'd just assumed the early 90s recession was simply a continuation of the early 80s recession - I had no idea that some parts of the country had enjoyed a boom between the two.)

So advertising in the early 1990s was like turning up to a splendid mansion on a Monday morning and finding a Rolls Royce in the swimming pool, fag butts stubbed out in champagne glasses, TVs still smoking from having their screens smashed in, and my new bosses minesweeping empty bottles and greeting me with, "Man, I can't believe you missed the eighties. It was so great here then. We had such a party, a party like you wouldn't believe. Where were you? Now get this mess cleaned up, the place is a tip."

(Don't feel sorry for me. When I tell this story to people who work in advertising today, their reaction is along the lines of "There were parties here once? Bollocks, I don't believe you.")

But there were various hangovers of different kinds from that decade of excess. At least once a week during the 90s, the 'Jolly Trolley' would be wheeled down the corridor connecting our veal-fattening pens. It was someone's birthday, someone was leaving, someone had got a promotion, we'd won a new piece of business - there was always an excuse. Me and the other graduate recruits were usually too busy to join the festivities, but when we finished work around 8pm, long after the party had moved on to the pub, we'd scavenge the Jolly Trolley for unopened bottles to take home. For my first 18 months in London, I practically subsisted on stolen crisps, warm Budweiser and cheap, shitty champagne. 

Often, we'd have a mild buzz before the Jolly Trolley even appeared. Frequently, client meetings would run over lunch, and at 1pm a trolley that was only marginally less jolly, loaded with crisps and sandwiches, would be wheeled into the meeting room and unloaded onto the middle of the table. Behind this first trolley, a second full of wine and beer would follow, and people would crack open the booze without even breaking the flow of whoever was presenting acetates on the overhead projector. This was normal. No one even commented on it. From that point, we would drink steadily and moderately until the meeting was over. (I don't remember anyone ever finishing the meeting pissed.)

I can't remember when the drinks trolleys stopped. I didn't notice them becoming rarer and finally disappearing. But some time in the early noughties I was in a lunchtime meeting with Pret sandwiches and cans of Coke and I remembered the lunchtime booze trolley for the first time in many years. I realised that not only had it disappeared; if anyone suggested bringing it back now they would be censured for suggesting something so inappropriate. Somewhere along the line, without it being discussed, the idea of drinking alcohol in a daytime business meeting had become completely unacceptable. Everyone simply knew it was, just as everyone had known a decade previously that its was fine. 

Back when advertising was boozier, the ads were much better, and people enjoyed the job more. I'm not going to argue that the presence of booze was the main reason for this; all I am saying is that when people were drinking, the job still got done. Good ads got made and those ads did good business for the clients. The standard of work did not dramatically increase when the booze disappeared. People were made to work harder and longer, but if anything, the quality of the work they produce has declined. Just watch a commercial break if you don't believe me.

You should be able to trust grown adults to occasionally go to the pub at lunchtime without coming back to the workplace sozzled. If people drink at lunchtime to the point where it affects their work, then they should be reprimanded for it, but the crime should be the sloppy work or unacceptable behaviour, not the drinking itself.

Workplace drinking has beneficial effects as well as negative ones, and while there's no measurement of them, I suspect they're more widespread than the bad behaviour. A quiet pint can smooth things over, avoid problems, thank someone, share problems or create bonds. 

When I visited Japan for my book Three Sheets to the Wind, I discovered that beer solves an apparent paradox in the Japanese workplace. Japanese salarymen tend to give little of themselves away in the workplace, but will only do business with those they know and trust. How do you get to know and trust someone if the shields are always up? Beer symbolizes a switch from 'on' to 'off', a ritualised movement from formality to informality, to a time when they are permitted to bond and share. 

Maybe they don't do it at lunchtime, so it's not quite the same as the plight of Lloyds drinkers. But to ban lunchtime drinking outright, rather than punish any negative consequences of it, stigmatises drinking in general. And if you're lucky enough to still get a lunch break, it's your own time. If drinking is wrong at lunchtime, then surely it's not ideal at other times either? What next: a ban on evening drinking from Monday to Thursday to get rid of the detrimental effects of weekday hangovers?

I have no desire to get pissed with city boys. But thinking about it, and mangling a quote traditionally attributed to Voltaire, when it comes to their drinking, I disapprove of their twattish, drunken behaviour, but I will defend to the death their right to be drunken twats.