I Followed Bottles of Vodka Home from the Shops to Meet the UK's Drinkers
If people aren't drinking in pubs any more, where exactly are they drinking?
Years ago, before Clarkson-era Top Gear and protracted political disasters were how the world kept up to date with the UK, the way they'd teach foreigners about this country was to commission renowned writers to write essays about it.
Last week I picked up one that George Orwell wrote during WWII, named "The English People". It was part of a series that was intended to help preserve British culture if the Germans ended up winning the war and immediately launching a campaign to turn all Cumberlands into bratwurst and make English men wear extremely tight swimming trunks. Though it mentions little things like our indifference to politics, dwindling patriotism and stiff upper lips, the true constant over its 50 pages is our obsession with one thing: boozing.
It doesn't matter whether he's talking about the English language or our moral and political outlook; Orwell's observations always seem to end up back at "the basic institution of British life", the pub. Which makes sense, as the pub – the one place where class, creed and company didn't really matter after six pints of 1950s stout – would have been the best place to paint a representative portrait of Britain.
But it's not any more: over the past 20 years, pubs have gone through a transformation, pricing out lower earners, ostracising smokers and replacing billiards tables with venison burgers served on bricks. They've also been closing down at a rate of 29 a week, which doesn't seem like a great sign. So what's happening? Are people not interested any more? Are we now all teetotal dweebs who prefer spending our Friday nights working out and drinking almond milk mocktails? Are we fuck. We have the corpse of Madam Mim as our prime minister; of course we're drinking.
Take Scotland: last year alone, the equivalent of 41 bottles of vodka were sold to every adult in the country. But where is all that vodka going? Where do people of different classes, creeds and cultures go to drink now they're not going to the pub? Their front rooms? Parks? Public swimming pools? Outside primary schools?
To find out, and to hopefully build some kind of portrait of Britain's drinkers in 2016, I hung around in some supermarkets like an absolute creep, waiting for people to buy a bottle of vodka so I could follow them out to wherever they were going.
SAINSBURY'S, EAST DULWICH: THURSDAY, 6:45PM.
It's a sticky Thursday night. The kind of night we all pretend we want a barbecue, when really the absolute worst thing to do is stand next to a pile of hot burning coal. I'm standing in a Big Sainsbury's looking at cat food. I've never owned a cat. There's a conveyer belt of people in the alcohol aisle, but they're not interested in vodka; they're pretty much all going for white whine or crates of Carlsberg.
You'll be glad to know that it takes less than 30 minutes of my watching people and rotating the same box of Whiskers to rouse suspicions. A security guard comes and stands beside me for five minutes, realises I'm not a threat – just a bit fucking weird – and ambles off towards the clothes section. Eventually a bottle of Russia's finest is snatched and I'm onto my first purchaser. I loop around, catching them head-to-head at the rolled oats.
After bumbling through a rehearsed explanation of what I'm up to, the couple embarrassedly start cracking gags about the fact the respective bottles of rum and vodka they've picked out are Sainsbury's Basics, and how I must think they're alcoholics. I assure them that I don't give a shit, asking what they plan on doing with their evening, and they chuckle, explaining they'll be dipping into each bottle at home in front of the TV.
An astonishingly accommodating couple, they don't seem fazed when I ask to join them for a drink. So we pass through the checkouts and join them for a walk over the road. Entering the estate, however, the impulse of the invite has passed and I sense trepidation. After a quick discussion, we decide I should help with shopping bags to the flat but give that shared drink a miss. Three's a crowd, after all.
LUKS SUPERMARKET [SIC], STOKE NEWINGTON: SATURDAY, 00:30AM.
I'm heading south after a casual drink at a friend's house, a little bit pissed. Having missed my bus to Waterloo, I decide to head into a 24-hour place for an energy drink, and – lo and behold – a couple are stood in the doorway holding a bottle of vodka. I ask if I can join the party, and to my surprise, I can: I'm invited to join them at a gathering just down the road.
One small thing I forgot: I hate vodka. The moment it touches my tongue my entire body recoils and it feels like someone's started a house fire in my throat. People laugh and ask how old I am. "Fourteen," I reply. The vibe is actually really good and people are pretty funny. Responding to my story of how I got this shit haircut, one of the guys tells me I look like Pauline Quirke from Birds of a Feather. I laugh and agree, telling him he looks like Sue from Light Lunch. We get on.
The vodka stops tasting so bad, bathroom trips become more frequent and I get into a heated debate with someone about whether or not the Bowie street party in Brixton was a statement of white privilege. Obviously, by this point, hours have disappeared from my phone's clock, but at some point I remember the vodka: it's nowhere to be seen. I wind down the staircase and my eyes rattle around the room. It's not on the table, under the sofa or in the bedroom – but eventually I find it, being clutched by two girls outside. So with the sun rising, we see it off.
WAITROSE, HIGH STREET KENSINGTON: SATURDAY, 3:30PM.
Waitrose is a portal to another dimension; one that Hyacinth Bucket took control of in 1995. A place where "limoncello dessert" is deemed an Essential. Could this be where Britain's stately drinkers hide in 2016?
It's a weekend, but there are prams marauding and legions of school children dressed in high-vis jackets. The shelves are packed with things like Heston Blumenthal's lapsang souchong tea smoked salmon, flamboyant body gel and 56 different types of herbal tea. I could name most of them from memory, because I've been stood in Waitrose Kensington for almost three hours. And that's not because people aren't buying vodka. They love vodka, they just don't want the creep with the unwashed Pauline Quirke hair and suspicious Strongbow sunglasses taking photos of them or coming back to their houses. I've made the decision to leave and am racing to the checkouts when I notice a bottle of Grey Goose being fondled at the end of the aisle, so I rush over and make my case.
The lady with the Goose seems equal parts sceptical and entertained by my idea. Funnily enough, she arrived in from Moscow last night after a short trip away and has returned with a taste for vodka (I should go, she assures me, as it's "only a few hours away"). Eventually we come to an agreement: I'll not be invited to her house, but if I buy her this bottle of Grey Goose she'll pose for a picture now and send a photo of her enjoying it at home later on. It's a shitty deal, I know, but you take what you can when you've been lingering around in a supermarket for most of a Saturday afternoon.
Still waiting for that photo. 38 fucking quid, I spent, for nothing.
MORRISONS, PECKHAM: SUNDAY, 10:30AM.
It's the early afternoon, the sun is shining and it's too hot to do literally anything. It's the kind of day that would have inspired the sweaty Britons of yesteryear to pack into a pub garden, take shelter under a parasol and complain about the heat with friends and family. So where are they now? Well, there's a queue at the spirits and cigarette kiosk. At the front of it, a trio of guys are having some trouble with a security guard. The tall and lanky youngest of the three is eventually escorted out, which is a weird thing to see on a Sunday morning. I get talking to the remaining two. When I ask what they're drinking, the older one explodes into a story about his home country, Russia.
"Are you drinking it out in the sun?" I ask.
"Yeah, bro. In the sun in a spot not far away."
"Do you mind if I come for a drink?"
"Tell you what – you chip in and you can have a drink."
So I hand over five pound coins to the guy. Next comes a disagreement over what type of vodka to buy, and eventually we all agree on a bottle of Smirnoff. Heading towards the door, a security guard blocks our path. He peeks at the receipt for the Smirnoff, smacks his hand against my rucksack and pushes me on. Outside, our ejected lanky friend shouts excitedly, "Got rum?" We do not. The spot is a wall on the far side of the Morrisons car park. I'm fine to take photos, I'm told, but our lanky man doesn't want to be in them, so runs out of view. After taking a few, he asks if I'd like a photo with me and the other two. "Sure!" I say, handing my phone over.
"Don't hand that man your iPhone, you fucking imbecile!" the Russian man erupts. It takes a moment for the penny to drop, but drop it does as the lanky man cracks into a sinister cackle. He was obviously going to take my phone, wasn't he? I'm not in, am I? I'm as in as Chunk doing the truffle shuffle. I fake laugh and take a swig of vodka. Moments later, the security guard emerges from the supermarket and they quickly assemble. Do I want to move with them onto their next spot? No. I refuse to be a fucking Screech.§
Drinking is not just a part of British culture; it is British culture. An autonomous force that becomes the defining factor of whatever we do as soon as we've started doing it. It is one of the only things many of us have in common with each other. It's ingrained into our psyche, and that's why – like a debilitating super virus – it will always find a way to mutate and adapt to our incomes, surroundings or political climate.
I can't say I discovered much I didn't know in my quest. People don't generally invite strange men into their homes, drunk people are the first to invite you to a party and wealthier people have no qualms about taking from the poor (me). But it did make one thing clear: you can destroy the pub trade but it won't stop anyone from drinking.
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