Thursday, December 18, 2008

Good riddance to the Fitz

I rejoiced at the news, reported in today’s Dominion Post, that Palmerston North’s Fitz Tavern is to close. The Fitz, in its heyday a famous student pub, represents everything that is wrong with our drinking culture.

In today’s story, several Fitz regulars fondly recalled the pub’s supposed glory days. One of them, who took pride in the title “Legend of the Fitz”, told how, in 1981, he downed a five-ounce beer, a seven-ounce, a 12-ounce, a half-racecourse jug – whatever that is – and an imperial jug in 28.2 seconds.

“There was not even one drop [spilled], it was boom, boom, boom,” this giant of the binge-drinking culture bragged. No mention was made of the several million brain cells sacrificed in such rituals, evidence of which was arguably all too clear to the reader.

“For $20 you could get pissed and a burger on the way home,” this fellow continued, demonstrating that the boorish pisshead culture of the 1970s is still alive and well in a few dark corners of the provinces. What a guy.

As delighted as I am that the Fitz has closed its doors, I despair when I read this sort of stuff. It makes me wonder briefly whether we’ve learned a thing. (In fact we have, of course; it’s just that there are places where the message hasn’t penetrated.)

The Dom Post reported that plaques on the pub walls commemorated a student who demolished seven pies in a minute and “a fella who drank a crate in 58 minutes”. A former barman told of the days when the Fitz sold more than 1000 quarts an hour and 500 students would pack the bar after midday.

Almost as an afterthought, the story also mentioned the death of student William Cranswick, who died after being knocked unconscious in a game of bullrush at the Fitz following a drinking session in which he and three mates were buying bourbon and cokes in trays of 16. They had bought six such trays. William’s parents told the paper, not surprisingly, that they were pleased the pub was closing.

I found the admiring tone of the story disconcerting. To acknowledge that a minority of New Zealanders like to drink themselves insensible is one thing; to celebrate it as an example of hard-case Kiwi male culture is another.

Ironically, the story appeared only days after the Dom Post carried a front-page report and accompanying feature story on the medical and social costs of excessive drinking. Among other things, that report quoted drug and alcohol counsellor Roger Brooking as saying 10 percent of New Zealand drinkers get through nearly half of all alcohol consumed. These are precisely the sort of problem drinkers who patronise irresponsibly managed pubs like the Fitz.

Pubs that encourage excessive consumption, as the Fitz did, play into the hands of the New Puritans who think all drinking is wicked. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the solutions these activists tirelessly lobby for wouldn’t just target the pathetic minority who habitually drink to excess; they would very likely penalise all those who drink in moderation.

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