Meeting London's Morning Drinkers
A ritual once defined by night-shifts is now much harder to pin down.
If people go to pubs in the evening for the atmosphere, they go in the morning for the lack of it. Walk into a Wetherspoons before 12PM – it's always a Wetherspoons – and the first thing that strikes you is the quiet. It's like being pulled into an airless, carpeted vacuum. It might be the middle of the morning, but when you can hardly see any sunlight who knows the difference?
There have always been traditional pockets of morning drinking in the UK. From the pubs surrounding London's old meat and fish markets in Farringdon, up to the Leith docks in Edinburgh, overnight industries used to be responsible for a culture of 6AM licenses – the bar staff catering to those at the end of the night shift. But as the balance of the UK's economy has shifted, so too have the morning drinkers.
While we'd probably assume drinking on a Tuesday morning to be a hallmark of alcoholism, the truth is as nuanced as it is varied. Looking for answers, I took the question to a handful of London pubs over the course of a couple of weeks.
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Hamilton Hall is the Wetherspoons next to Liverpool Street station. Like most Spoons, it's an impressive looking space – an old hotel ballroom in this case – which leaves you unsure as to whether you're upscaling your pints or dribbling all over a once respectable building. Wedged between London's financial district and a train station, it's uniquely placed to catch the strays of both industry and transit. On an average morning it's already pretty busy by 11AM.
When I order a coffee at the bar, the guy serving explains that while things get busier the closer to the weekend it is, footfall is heavy every morning. "The bulk of the people we serve mid-week have just finished work," he explains. "Paramedics, policeman, contractors on building sites in the area." You perhaps wouldn't notice the pub was full of finished night-workers if you'd just walked in, but as soon as you know what to look for, it becomes obvious. The barman gestures to a table in the corner where six blokes in battered denim and dusty T-shirts sit hunched over pints. Upstairs, three journalists who have just left the news desk drink lagers before heading home for a sleep. In the smoking area out front, a member of Stansted's lost luggage team tells me he often pops in around this time, on his way home from the airport.
The quiet is constant and compulsory. During my second visit to Hamilton Hall, I notice a group of students killing time before a train, in particular one whose whinnying laugh keeps shooting into the air without warning. Whenever it does, the pub visibly tenses up. The morning drinkers freeze, as though he'd just cracked them on the head with the back of a spoon. That's not to say the atmosphere is hostile. Despite their harrowing appearance, the two sesh gremlins who stumble through later in Moschino shirts stretched to distortion – taking it in turns to visit the toilet, clearly still bumping keys from the night before – have no problem fitting in, precisely because they are so battered they can barely speak. In the realm of the morning drinkers, your business is your business, as long as you keep to yourself.
The next batch of morning drinkers is made up mostly of people stopping by for pints during their working day. From as early as 10AM, men drift up to the bar and set glasses next to their laptops like cups of coffee – standing up to take calls and organise meetings between swigs. Two men in their late twenties stride in, ID lanyards swinging across their chests, bouncing with excitement. They order two Jack Daniels and cokes and head straight outside to smoke. I catch them on my way out and ask if they're going back to work afterwards. "Yeah," they laugh, after checking I'm not going to write their names down, "this just takes the edge off."
The working drinkers are a surprisingly common fixture. In a majority of central London pubs there is a steady turnaround of men in suits, with bluetooth headsets and briefcases. The team at the Flying Horse in east London, which starts serving at 10:30AM, tell me their most reliably regular customers are a bunch of city boys who arrive at 11AM every morning for pints of Guinness. "They all get a break around then, I think," I'm told. "They have a drink, stick around for a bit of chat and then head back to work."
Over the phone a week or so later, I speak to Andrew Misell, a director at Alcohol Concern. He stresses that while we might assume certain things about morning drinkers, we should be wary of moralising. "Someone who drinks earlier in the day hasn't necessarily got less self control," he tells me. "From a biological perspective, it's a matter of units."
Misell explains that certain high-pressure careers – bankers, lawyers, doctors – are more likely to come with an intense drinking cultures. "If you work under such pressure and for such long hours with people, that heavy drinking is both a relief from that pressure and a part of your corporate bonding." He's keen to stress, however, that attempting to balance alcohol with work is rarely successful. "We might like to think drinking makes us more relaxed and creative, but as anyone who has ever had a pint with their lunch will tell you, you're just not as good."
Most of the people I witness seem to have a functional relationship with booze. Of the working drinkers, nobody stays for very long – it's a pit-stop that slips unnoticed into the daily routine. That said, some seem more in control than others. During a spell in the Wetherspoons closest to my office – the Masque Haunt, Old Street – a loud man in an even louder pink shirt bounds around in front of the bar. He's just eaten breakfast, but the coffee's given him a headache, he announces to anyone who will listen. He "needs some medicine", he adds, eyes darting nervously. He buys a pint – "a real start to the day!" – and returns to his seat, pursued by his own self-conscious laughter.
The farther from the city you go, the more you see of the third type of morning drinker. He's a 60-something male, white. He wears a short-sleeved or polo shirt unbuttoned to his sternum, three-quarter length shorts, sandals and a gold chain. He has reading glasses, which are lowered to the front of his nose. He holds his smartphone a metre away from his face so he can read the screen. Smartphones in leather flip cases are everywhere. Among the morning drinkers, they are more commonplace than newspapers, books or fruit machines. I've always thought my parents' generation were more hooked on their phones than mine, and nowhere is this more obvious than in a Wetherspoons at 10AM. Those in groups only talk to each other when they're taking a break from their Facebook feed, or waiting for a betting app to reload.
The Capitol, in Forest Hill, used to be an art deco cinema, and since it's a listed building it's safe to assume it hasn't changed much since it opened in 1929. Now Spoons own it, it's a gloomy, medicinal-smelling auditorium with an out-of-use upper-circle hanging over it like a bad fringe. Away from the engine of central London there's a mood of gently pissed conviviality. There's a family eating breakfast, two men in suits at opposite ends of the room drinking coffees in front of their laptops, and a middle-aged couple demolishing fry-ups while they plan a walking holiday. Then there are the drinkers. Two on barstools – one man and one woman – and in the centre of the room, another two men sitting with pints. I'm sitting with them.
"God's waiting room," Graham pronounces solemnly, when I ask about the pub. "There was a time when there'd be four or five tables full of us. Now they're all gone." I turn to Harry, his drinking partner, who stares through me with milky-grey eyes. Despite some initial reticence, they don't seem too bothered about me joining them. I ask about the other local spots and Graham reels off every pub in the area, from the Bird in Hand up the road, to the Signal round the corner. He only stops once, to ask if I'm a copper.
There's a lot about Graham and Harry that is unsurprising. They are over 60, they are retired – or "don't work any more" – and have spent the last 15 or so years being chased around south-east London by rising rents. They have that gently glazed-over expression that people who don't speak very often develop, as though their minds have wandered so far they now have to consciously "check back in". Yet, it would be a mistake to characterise them, and by extension their morning drinking, by their misfortunes. When I ask if they drink in here every day, their answer is resolute. "No!" Graham laughs back. "This is my first drink in two weeks." They see each other when they can, for a morning session that peters out by the early afternoon.
"I remember someone in public health saying to me that isolation killed more people than alcohol."
Bar staff at pubs all over London tell me similar. They have a cast of regulars, but the faces alternate, and pretty consistently none of them are there every day. "They normally drift out by the early afternoon," I'm told over the phone from the Kentish Drovers in Peckham. Staff at The Flying Horse experience much the same, a returning cast who are there some mornings and not on others.
"I remember someone in public health saying to me that isolation killed more people than alcohol," Andrew Misell continues, over the phone. "It's important that this demographic – mostly post-retirement men – have the opportunity to socialise, see their friends and share their worries." He concedes that there is often too much drinking going on, but points out that chain pubs, where the staff know their name, offering cheap breakfasts and cheaper pints, are an attractive alternative to staying at home alone. "We should be careful not to judge. It's not our place to say, 'No, don't drink in the morning, go and join a health club.'"
The line between tradition and habit is a fuzzy one, but if morning drinking was solely about alcohol dependency then the drinkers could save their money and stay at home. The men – and, bar a few exceptions, it is a majority male sport – who slink into pubs at the start of the day aren't there just for the alcohol. Plenty of them don't even order booze, opting for coffees or glasses of diet coke (no ice). The regular morning drinkers are men who have reached retirement age and been met by minimal disposable income and a surplus of free time. If we want to talk about systemic cause, we'd have to blame loneliness long before we blamed addiction.
The picture painted by a few London pubs is likely the same you'd see elsewhere in the country. Old boozers have ceded ground to chain pubs, the hubs of industry have scattered and market men have morphed into a mixture of precarious contract workers and the retired unemployed. In some places this has turned morning drinking into a joyless, anonymous exercise, but further away from the city its role becomes clearer. The pub is the agora. The drinkers are there to sit in silence and stare at a Metro, or to pass quiet comments between each other. Morning drinking might be a ritual sent into retirement, but it isn't dead yet.