Sunday, November 2, 2008

More thoughts on the six o'clock swill

Followers of this blog may recall that my recent comments about the six o’clock swill were challenged by a reader whose personal recollection was that it wasn’t as bad as it’s often painted. Now an old friend (well, old in the sense that I’ve known her for a long time) has emailed me to say, in effect, oh yes, it was.

This friend grew up in a Taranaki farming town and vividly recalls her father and his friends “swaying their way home, or to their cars, trucks, tractors, invariably with a jar or two under their arms. Absolutely horrible. It’s something I try to forget and never laugh about.”

Wives and kids would milk the cows while husbands/fathers got plastered, she recalls. Two of her siblings became alcoholics and one died at 43. “What we witnessed as children did not help either of them,” she writes.

“The only good memories I had of the 6 o’clock swill was going along the street beside the hotel and finding money that the drunks dropped on their way home. I actually found a lot of money and strangely enough I still dream of walking along that street and finding money! How weird is that?”

I have no such recollections myself, since my father was content with a glass of sherry before dinner while he read the paper. The only time I recall him drinking in a pub was on rare occasions when we were travelling, usually in the summer holidays. On a hot day he would sometimes stop at a country pub and have a single cold beer while we kids enjoyed a glass of raspberry or somesuch outside.

My own childhood memories of the six o’clock swill are of walking past the public bar of the Tavistock Hotel (“the Tavvy”) in my home town and being assailed, almost literally, by the hubbub of noisy conversation, accompanied by a fug of cigarette smoke and the nauseating stench of stale beer, emanating from the gap at the top of the frosted windows. Even then it struck me, in a vague sort of way, as uncivilised – an impression reinforced by the sensation that the rowdy men behind the opaque glass, while plainly enjoying themselves, were indulging in something so unspeakable that women and children weren’t allowed to see it.

I will take a lot of convincing that this bizarrely ambivalent attitude toward alcohol, a direct legacy of the temperance movement, hasn’t impeded the development of a more mature attitude toward drinking, which is why I have grave misgivings about those who are determined to wind back the clock.

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