Sunday, October 19, 2008

More thoughts on the six o'clock swill

A reader of this blog – a man whose opinions I respect – has gently chided me for my comments in an earlier post about the six o’clock swill. He questions whether I am old enough to have personally experienced it (well, no) and suggests that “the canards about the ‘6 o’clock swill’ have become accepted as fact in the Kiwi tribal memory”.

“For the life of me,” he writes, “I cannot recall seeing anyone the worse for drink in the 6 o’clock days other than on celebratory days such as test matches. In fact, I lived within 200 metres of the Quinn's Post pub [in Upper Hutt] for 17 years and cannot remember seeing even one person ‘reeling’ in the street. In fact, given that the alcoholic strength of beer at that time was well below what it is today, it always surprised me that someone could manage to get drunk before becoming waterlogged.”

He agrees that the drinking conditions were uncivilised, with bare board floors, but adds: how many houses had carpet back then? He adds that it was hardly surprising that pub staff didn’t know how to provide service or keep the place clean, given that there was overfull employment [those were the days when, according to Kiwi folklore, the Minister of Labour could recite the names of everyone on the dole] and jobs were easy to get. “Who would want to be a skivvy in a pub?” he asks.

He goes on to observe that the problem of alcohol abuse is too complex for a simple single-factor solution (I agree) but suggests we could start by teaching the young the art of having consideration for other people.

I defer to my reader’s personal recollection of the six o’clock swill but should point out that Kiwi slang of the era provides us with telltale evidence of large-scale over-indulgence in that one hour of compressed drinking after work. The term “shicker express” was widely used for the first tram, bus or train running after the pubs closed – “shickered” being the common term in those days for what we would now call “trolleyed” or “off your face”. (My NZ Oxford Dictionary tells me the word comes from Yiddish.)

In any case, I don’t resile from my main point, which was that by requiring men (women weren’t allowed to serve, let alone drink, in public bars) to herd into bars that were barely better than cattle yards, and to compress their day’s alcohol consumption into one hour (in fact slightly less, allowing for the time it took to get from the workplace to the nearest pub), New Zealand’s licensing laws were not only grossly uncivilised (as my reader concedes) but encouraged a binge-drinking mentality that I suspect has become ingrained in our culture.

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