Explaining the Bizarre World of British Nightlife to Americans
British nightlife is a beautiful free-for-all of internet drugs, Wavey Garms girls, illegal raving, and regretful sex. But to the American outsider, it can seem confusing.
Still from the recent VICE film, "Locked Off"
Photo by Bruno Bayley
British nightlife is beautiful. In its present-day form, it's a wonderful, if increasingly beleaguered, free-for-all of house parties, grown and sexy nights, night buses, night trains, Afrobeats, gabba, internet drugs, shufflers, 24-hour casinos, Irish pubs where you can belt out "Total Eclipse of the Heart" while obscure horse races play on mute, Corsa cruises, lager boys, craft ale wankers, Wavey Garms girls, nitrous oxide, pre-drinks, afterparties, iPhone meph mirrors, rave nostalgia, rave revival, rave martyrs, Rave Mums, easy sex, tough love, CCTV justice, taxi wars, drug drivers, student music, xenophobic beer mats, queer politics, jacked Snapchat banter, industrial estates, and noise complaints. And all the tools you really need to do it properly are CityMapper, Uber and – apparently – entire rainforests worth of cocaine.
But while this is a list that would set anyone familiar with the Great British Night Out's teeth to Pavlovian grinding, all that paraphernalia and polyvalence can be confusing to outsiders, such as Americans, who still tend to be confused by the tribalism, street drinking, and slang. How do you explain the feeling of 4 AM drizzle on the nape of your neck as you realise that, yes, everything is shut, and yes, the only way of extending the night is with that bloke from the high-rises who wants to talk about hunting knives and Brexit? The wildly inconsistent drug etiquette? The tortured politics and prurience surrounding one-night stands?
Which is why a bemused Yank – VICE's US weekend editor, Zach Sokol – sent me a series of wide-ranging questions in an attempt to make sense of the whole sorry mess.
The word count for this article could have run into the tens of thousands, and no primer on British nightlife could ever be truly comprehensive, but for now, here's a brief overview of a sordid, sublime, sprawling world.
Zach "Yank" Sokol: What's the difference between a pub and a bar?
Fran "Brit" Garcia: The difference can seem negligible but is actually profound. For example, if you walked into a bar and loudly proclaimed it to be a "pub," no one would bat an eyelid. Do the same in the wrong pub, though, and you'd get your head staved in in the bogs (toilets). Another giveaway is the music – bars tend to play songs about lust, and pubs will play songs about love, or at least songs that celebrate the death of it. As such, someone who goes to the pub too often is probably an alcoholic, while someone who goes to a bar too often is probably a pervert.
"Bar" is actually quite a vague, wide-ranging term used to describe everything from the sticky, neon 99p-a-mixer fuckpits where most British teenagers experience their first pangs of fake ID freedom, to the joyless payday venues full of pension-ready office workers filling the abyss in their souls with xenophobic ale every Friday night. Perhaps most crucially, dogs don't live in bars.
But pubs. Well, pubs are one of the big, fat pillars holding up the whole edifice of "Britishness." They're in terminal decline, are loftily idealised, and the concept can seem wooly – at best – when you try to define it for an outsider. They are at once enduring and persecuted spaces, full of cliché and myth. They suggest discarded football accumulators, locals playing bar billiards, pool, computerised quiz machines or dominos, rounds of foaming chestnut brown ale, and dogs, which often live in them or on them, depending on the sturdiness and angle of the roof. You'd have your first pint in a pub and your first shag in a bar, often in the same night.
Yank: Would you ever go on a date in a pub?
Brit: This sounds like a huge cop-out, but it depends. It depends on your location, the origins of the date (dating app = bar/pub = taking your girlfriend back to your hometown for the first time) and the intensity of the date. Casual, low-stakes dating is for aggressively lighted midtown bars or the nearest cocktail place, but pubs are for the dates of desperate yearning. Nothing screams "I am intensely in to you" quite like a room temperature pint of Caffrey's (in case you were wondering, it tastes like a liquidised loaf of bread made from coins) and a bag of Taytos down a proper spit and sawdust local.
Yank: How does it all begin? At what age do Brits start getting obliterated?
Brit: In your teens, at different ages and with varying amounts of enthusiasm. Or at least that was my experience of it: oversized bottles of supermarket own-brand cider shared between hyperactive, cynical, and slightly scared gangs of kids in parks and at bus stops, on housing estates and outside corner shops. These are the eternal rallying points for the rites of British teenhood. These days, many fifteen-year-olds make their entrance into the nightlife at illegal gabba raves in repurposed metropolitan abattoirs, like Home Counties Christiane Fs – but for me, it was the time-honoured combo of shit cheap booze and underage boredom.
However, what is more or less universal is the process that occurs between the ages of twelve and seventeen, which turns every little acne-ridden Tom, Dick, or Harriet into an expert in duplicity. A tangled web of lies regarding sleepovers will be woven, bedroom windows will be subtly unhinged, jackets will be marinated in the smell of cigarettes and then attacked with entire cans of Lynx Africa. As you've probably already figured out, it's a type of duplicity that all but the most gullible parent immediately sees right through, leading to the time-honoured "conflict years" between child and progenitor that you've been immortalising in your country ever since that "Yakety Yak" song was in vogue.
Yank: What are those teenage rites you mentioned, and how do they differ from what happens in the US?
Brit: Here, things do tend to be uniquely British. Teenage transgression tends to start with a game of football (or soccer, to you) with the older kids from school who inexplicably don't seem to have any mates in their own year. (Judging from what I've gleaned from American pop culture, you guys tend to replace the football element with throwing toilet rolls at people's houses and setting fire to animals in the woods.) These older kids from school, they always seem to love stealing their mum's cigarettes.
You will try one of their mum's cigarettes. You will be sick. You will graduate to patrolling the local area thumping on the doors of the local citizenry until an old man gets so mad that you get a chase. You'll keep doing this till Ricky gets caught and essentially kidnapped until his mum has to come and get him. Ricky is never let out again.
You start drinking tins (cans) or bottles that the weird, older kids nick (steal) from their dads. You are sick again. You realise that as you are one of those equally cursed and blessed fourteen-year-olds who can grow a beard, you are now designated carry-out provider. You go to the local shop and buy 50 quids' (about $70) worth of communal cans and fags (cigarettes) every single weekend. You are a god, you are untouchable. Every weekend you get home at 11 PM, fight with your mum, and send messages of deep, unrequited yearning to a girl in your biology class. Gradually, virginities are jettisoned, gang loyalties are built and destroyed, parties are attended, gatecrashed, but never danced at, eyes are filled with blood at the behest of scandalously overpriced "bush weed."
You are caught by the local police one weekend and say that you've left your ID in your car. They ask where your car is. You panic and say that it was nicked. They laugh and say they know your mum. You are taken home and promptly grounded till your eighteenth birthday.
That's how it was in my day at least, can't imagine much has changed.
Yank: So drinking on the street is legal, correct? I feel like in London, people don't make drinking outside as much of A Thing as other EU cities, like Berlin. Do you feel the same? Do people purposely meet by the river or in a park to "slug brews" and talk bullshit?
Brit: Yeah, it's legal, and yeah, it's very much A Thing, maybe just not in a way that a Berliner or Parisian would be able to comprehend. I grew up in London, so it never felt particularly abnormal that, on those rare, four-clover-leaf days of summer, everyone would head directly to the nearest designated green space to smash tin after tin of supermarket deal beers. It still exists to this day, except with more people huffing NOS balloons, and if it ever gets banned in London, it's a sign that this city really is dead as a concept.
That said, leave the glazed unreality of the capital, and you're in very different territory. I've spent a significant amount of time living in Scotland, where confusingly drinking outside is a) illegal and b) a national pathology. Despite the fact that it cops a hefty fine, every – even rarer – day of sunshine will unleash legions of braying "tapps aff" (tops off) lads ready to obliterate any patch of grass or hedgerow in the noble pursuit of ripping the arse clean off the next twenty-four hours.
Yank: What type of alcohol do "bros" or "basic" people drink? What is the UK equivalent of a Natty Ice, Mike's Hard Lemonade, Four Loko, or Bud Light Limerita? What about alcoholics? What's their tipple of choice?
Brit: Without knowing what the fuck any of those drinks actually are, I know exactly what you mean. Normos/squares here have a litany of luridly coloured, diabetes-inducing "alcopops" on which they can suck to pep them up before their next Tinder date. (Up north, these drinks often have the spectacularly un-PC sobriquet "poof juice" attached to them.)
Then you have the weird, class-spanning drinks like Buckfast and Mad Dog (MD 20/20). They have a mythical hold and this hold increases the further you go north. It's been reported that Buckfast – a 16.5 percent fortified wine that is brewed by Benedictine monks and has a caffeine content equivalent to three Red Bulls – made over £36 million ($52 million) in sales last year, the vast majority of that taken in Scotland.
Yank: What's adult pre-game culture like? In the US, it's still common to meet up before a house party/DJ set/whatever and drink, bullshit, do drugs, and chain smoke cigarettes with your friends—even if you're in your twenties.
Brit: Pre-drinking is one of those odd rituals you're supposed to shed as soon as soon as you hit your early twenties. The reality is that it just modifies, subtly. You might jettison the dirty pints of Jack Daniel's, spit, and Stella, but the underlying impulse remains the same, just with more expensive drugs. In London, I don't know anyone old enough that the pre-game lifestyle has completely loosened its grip. In the suburbs, pre-drinks are a distant dream in the worn-out eyes of young men and women who've swapped kicks for kids.
Yank: What is the social policy like re: drug sharing? If someone has coke or molly, is it fair game to ask for a line if you're friendly? Are certain drugs considered more of a rare commodity or something?
Brit: Absolutely fine, as long as you're actually mates, you don't take the piss, and you don't call MDMA "molly."
Yank: Do people give a fuck about strains of weed like indica vs. sativa and all the precious specifics in the UK like they do in the US? Or is weed just weed?
Brit: Ah, the connoisseur stoner, one of the most tedious and pervasive of nightlife stereotypes the world over. Over here, they exist across every campus, are embedded in every satellite town, linger perpetually at the edges of every shit house party. Between the ages of fifteen to twenty-five, you will inevitably encounter a small legion of Pink Floyd poster purchasers who just can't wait to outline every minute facet of the looooud cranberry kush they've just picked up, fam.
They're ultimately harmless, though. They are basically the sound of farts in the bath, made human.
Yank: What's considered a "late night" in the UK? Like, if the average "lad" was "on one" and went out hard, when would he or she be getting home? Do you see the sunrise often?
BRIT: This is probably the one bit of the night, or early morning, that we do best. The eight in the morning trudge to the local hill, reservoir, park, field, or drugs flat with a blue off-license bag full of tinnies and a saucer-eyed slab of regret is one of the tiny moments of universally recognised transcendence available in these blighted little times, on this declining little island. In fact, the British night out, and all its attendant romance, has always been more about the edges of the night, the start and the ending, than it has the central, primetime thrust of it. We do private introspection far better than public jubilation.
Yank: What drugs are considered taboo at most parties?
Brit: The usual, I guess: Smack and crack don't seem like viable nightclub intoxicants and aren't particularly welcome guests at most house parties, other than in certain parts of south London and Bristol. I feel like life-shattering hallucinogens, such as DMT and salvia wouldn't help most party hosts foster the desired "vibe." There's also a certain sniffiness about M-cat (or mephedrone, to you uncultured snobs), which makes you a) smell like cat piss and b) incredibly horny. Nothing too "Romeo and Juliet" about that combo, really.
Yank: Dogging. Let's talk, dawg. Do people actually fuck in public regularly in the UK?
Brit: Yep, most nights. At about four in the morning, the roads leading out to the darker, leafier edges of town are clogged with cars and cars full of people migrating to the nearest dogging spot to shag the shit out of whoever and whatever they find there, usually in the hope of waking up Monday morning to find they've "gone viral" in an embedded Facebook video. Some clubs even run mini-bus shuttle services. If you want in, approach the bar exactly five minutes after the bell has rung for last orders and ask the glass collector for a "ticket to ye olde fuck show" while curtsying and rubbing your genital region with a slice of lime.
Yank: What's the appropriate way to hit up a new drug dealer you haven't bought from before? In New York, you wouldn't be like, "Yo I want a gram, you around?" You have to ease into it... What's that first text like for y'all?
Brit: "u about m8"; "lookin for 1" (Not Delivered, 8:42 AM); "Hi man, wee johno gave us ur number" – cast around for a reliable contact and sling any of those at it and you're pretty much golden. These are – generally speaking – paranoid, twitchy, busy people, and so conversation, if it exists at all, shouldn't extend much past mumbled pleasantries in the back of a blacked-out Vauxhall Astra.
Yank: How common is drug use in bars, clubs, and other non-residential venues? Do bouncers give a fuck? Will they kick you out if they catch you doing lines in the toilets?
Brit: In terms of frequency, public drug use is rife and routine. The bouncer's reaction to that is largely dependent upon what sort of place it is. There tends to be a correlation between how "trendy" a club or bar is and how lax its management are when it comes drugs. Generally speaking, the more wank and expensive a place is, the easier it is to sniff blow in the toilets. Pubs are a different beast altogether, where the opposite is probably true (see the toilets of every pub within a five-mile radius of a football ground when the local team's at home).
Yank: Is there anything else I should be aware of?
Brit: Ketamine is a lot more popular here than it is in the US. I have no idea why.
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