This was shared recently on Soberistas and I was so struck that I thought I’d share it here too. On October 23, 2014 Reportage photographer Peter Dench released latest book, entitled A&E (Alcohol & England), which is a retrospective of his work documenting British drinking habits, shot across his career.
Documenting alcohol and England, I witnessed reckless drinking and homes being wrecked; telephone boxes smashed up and the faces of young men smashed in. I met Mark waiting for treatment in a Plymouth A&E department, claiming to have been punched and kicked in the face by a gang of drunken lads who had jumped out of a passing car. In east London, I sat on a sofa with a cup of tea in the home of Chris, whose nose had been surgically reconstructed to repair massive damage after being bitten off in a drunken brawl.
I travelled in the back of an ambulance with a man soaked in urine who had been beaten unconscious in a pub fight; in a Bristol hospital I watched a man die on the operating table after a suspected drink-driving accident. I photographed Humberside Police make alcohol-related arrests in the pouring rain and officers from the Hampshire Constabulary mop up the aftermath of drunken behaviour on a warm summer’s evening. At Alex 1, the inpatient alcohol treatment unit in the grounds of Bethlem Royal Hospital, I watched Pete become increasingly uncomfortable as he viewed pub scenes in a TV soap opera play out on screen.
Drinking in 21st-century England has changed. As a generation turns away from the brightly coloured, sugary alcopops of its youth, fruit-flavoured ciders and real ales, deep in character, are developed to appease changing taste buds. Smoking inside pubs and clubs has been banned, round-the-clock licensing has been introduced and, as the English increasingly drink more cheaply at home, the local tavern has waned as the focal point for the drinking community. There are alcohol-free zones and everlasting happy hours, buses run by volunteers to attend to the inebriated, Pound Pubs, proposed drunk tanks and sobriety bracelets to tackle disorder.
England’s relationship with alcohol is entrenched, uneasy, unhealthy and ruptured by conflict and contradiction; news outlets consistently highlight the problems of consuming too much alcohol while drinks companies sponsor our national sports teams and the names of alcohol brands are emblazoned across the chests of our sporting heroes. Millions of pounds are spent by the drinks industry to lure the English with attractive liquors served in desirable venues; billions of pounds are payed out by the National Health Service to treat the consequences of alcohol abuse. A significant percentage of England’s workforce is employed in the drinks industry and the government profits handsomely from the sale of alcohol in duties and VAT.
My own adventures with alcohol have taken me far beyond the White Cliffs of Dover. I’ve sipped gin with the Queen while gazing out across the Indian Ocean and quaffed champagne with a Maharaja on his palace lawn, staring up at the star-bright Rajasthani night sky. I’ve been assigned my very own personal barmaid to serve me beer on a billionaire’s private jet and once, when I had to work briefly as a barman, I was paid in booze. I’ve raised toasts at funerals to dear friends departed and at weddings to barely known newlyweds. I drank a bottle of Primus beer with a mass murderer in Rwanda and knocked back clear pear brandy with a pop star in south-west France. I’ve supped with strippers and swingers and sipped fine wines at a Sotheby’s organised tasting. I’ve decanted a £1,000 bottle of wine into a glass antler at Château Lafite Rothschild to drink in the company of its chatelain and chucked back more £1 cans of cider in the park with my wife than I care to remember. I’ve imbibed in Muslim countries, Christian countries and Communist countries; in countries at war and countries at peace.
Having photographed alcohol and England for over a decade, undergone the process of putting together this book and bid goodbye to the rejuvenating body of my youth, I think it may be time to call last orders on my own lifelong session. To everyone who has poured me, bought me or shared with me a drink, allowed me into their lives and the access to document it: thank you.”