The Times reports today that sales of alcohol went up by 10% in a year. We are not as bad (yet) as the Czech Republic and Ireland, but worse than Australia and the US (who are both almost puritanical when it comes to drinking). The figures are not surprising, and probably explain the growing sense of dislocation from British society I've had for the last five years or so. In 1997 I started getting pains in my lower back (kidney region) whenever I drank alcohol. Sometimes it got so bad I had to be hospitalised. I had loads of tests, paid to go private when the NHS couldn't figure out what was wrong, and the doctors still can't explain the symptoms. As a result, I don't drink at all, which is contrast to everyone else, who seem to be spending more time being drunk. I don't really miss it that much - I never liked making a bleary-eyed idiot of myself or the subsequent hangovers. The most annoying things about not drinking though are a) having to "out" myself as a non-drinker to every new person I meet (I sometimes tell people I'm a recovering alcoholic - it gets more interesting reactions), and b) not participating in the many alcohol-related conversations that seem to happen around me. People seem to love talking about their favourite drink, their favourite brand of their favourite drink, how much drinks cost and where they can be found cheaply, how much they had to drink, the hilarious consequences of being drunk and how awful they felt the next day. Not drinking also means that there's often very little point in going to pubs and clubs - through the eyes of sobriety, such places often seem much more grim than usual (most British town centres become sick buckets and fighting arenas on Friday and Saturday nights anyway.)
For some people, alcohol appears to be a form of escapism from the mundanity of everyday life or a way of allowing themselves to relax in company (with our anti-social/unsocialised nature that's no surprise). Talking about alcohol also provides an easy topic of conversation while getting drunk. I often wonder how we would socialise if everyone developed a similar condition to mine overnight. Finally, alcohol consumption acts as an indicator of masculinity (increasingly a popular commodity for men AND women) - showing how much you can knock back being a sign of toughness and also how "up for it" and "mad" you are. Alcohoic Patsy from Ab Fab is seen as more fun and a better role model for the British than dull little Saffy who sips herbal tea. Teetotalers, or people who drink in moderation, on the other hand are boring, no fun, puritans, kill-joys etc.
As with most things that are currently popular, money is at the bottom of it all - breweries and advertisers being the real winners here. As we develop a collective higher tolerance for alochol, it can only end in one way - with the entire country eventually standing up and saying "My name is Great Britain and I am an alcoholic."