Monday, 2 June 2008

Last round on the underground

Having lived in the UK for awhile now, I've become pretty accustomed to scenes of mass public drunkenness. But nothing compares to the insanity of Saturday night's tube drinking party, when an estimated 50,000 people descended on London's circle line underground stations and trains to hold a booze fest the night before the new London mayor's public transport drinking ban was to go into effect.

The chaos and destruction that followed shouldn't have been surprising to anyone familiar with British drinking culture. But the complete ineptitude with which the new mayor handled the drinking ban roll-out may be just a preview of the new London.

'Last round on the underground' parties started cropping up soon after Conservative former news personality Boris Johnson defeated Socialist/Labour mayor Ken Livingstone in the May 1 election. Though Johnson had made his promise to ban drinking on the tube several times during the campaign (it was, for instance, mentioned in every debate I watched) it seems that few people were paying attention, because when his first big announcement after elected was that the drinking ban would start on June 1, the public seemed to react with total shock.

But even for people who were paying attention throughout the campaign, the announcement was quite surprising anyway because of its timing and lack of practical consultation. Johnson hastily announced the plan without consulting the actual transit companies that would have to enforce it. He allocated no extra resources toward enforcing the ban, and London underground immediately said the ban was unenforceable in its current state. Even more ridiculously, Johnson had decreed that the ban would start on June 1, but because any law that would make it a criminal or finable offense can't go into effect for a year, in the mean time all transit workers can do if they see someone drinking on the tube is ask them to leave. And just to add to the absurdity, the day scheduled for the first day of the ban would fall on a Sunday, virtually guaranteeing that the night before would see mayhem as people organized to drink on the tube for the last time.

I received Facebook invites to several parties on the tube, such as this one, which racked up almost 20,000 attendees. Some people just wanted to do it as a joke, but others saw it as a real form of protest against what was perceived as a Draconian infringement on civil liberties. Now it's hard to make the case that people should have an inalienable right to drink alcohol wherever they please, but at the same time most everyone could see that this was an imaginary solution to an imaginary problem. In my two years of living here I've never seen anyone who was actively drinking on the tube or bus causing trouble. The people causing problems on public transport are most likely already drunk when they get on. So if, as Johnson insists, he is seeking to improve the quality and safety of people's public transport journeys, it's hard to see how the drinking ban will have a material effect. People will still be drunk on the tube and buses, they just won't have a drink in their hand.

Of course, even though I knew that Saturday night was bound to be a disaster, I couldn't resist heading down to the circle line to witness it all. My friends and I got to the circle line quite a bit earlier than 9pm, when all the big parties were scheduled to start, anticipating that it would get worse as the night went on. Our prediction was definitely born out by the night's events. When we started, things were pretty tame. People were drinking but were well-behaved. Many people had come in various costumes, bringing signs, party hats, streamers, balloons, etc. It was quite a jovial and festive atmosphere. But as the evening went on, each stop on the circle line seemed to bring in a steadily degenerating batch of troublemakers. Before long people started rattling the windows, tearing down posters, and vomiting everywhere. Ah, nothing says London like public vomiting.

So we high-tailed it out of there around that point and moved on to more normal Saturday night activities. By the end of the night, 50 London transport staff had been assaulted, 17 people were arrested, six underground stations were closed and several trains were damaged and had to be taken out of service. The chaos was so bad that the circle line remained stricken Sunday morning, and the underground stations looked like a riot had occurred. And in some ways one had. Transit workers said they were "completely overwhelmed," with the level of chaos exceeding even what the underground experiences on New Years Eve. And of course none of the safeguards and preparations that the network makes for New Years Eve were in place for this evening.

On Sunday, union leaders demanded that Boris Johnson apologise to London underground staff, saying that his complete lack on consultation and pre planning had directly led to the chaos. Bob Crow, the general secretary for the union, said, "Johnson should apologise personally to all those who were assaulted and abused last night thanks to a half-baked gimmick designed solely as a publicity stunt and without a moment's thought for the people told to implement it. We warned that it could put our members at greater risk of assault, but there is no comfort in being proved right when Tube workers have been injured and abused."

Of course they are unlikely to get such an apology from Johnson, because to do so would put the blame for Saturday night at his doorstep. Instead, the mayor's office will certainly want to use the event as evidence to prove their point: that the mixture of alcohol and public transport creates mayhem and injury that makes people less safe.

Even though that line of reasoning gets into a chicken-or-the-egg argument (people wouldn't ordinarily spend hours going round and round on the circle line drinking – it's the new rule that made them do it) he's of course right that alcohol does lead to antisocial behaviour and that in turn leads to crime. The UK is well known for its astounding level of public drunkenness and binge drinking, and people are growing increasingly concerned about it. However, restrictions on the public consumption of alcohol are rare in Europe (the only cities I know of where you can't drink on the public transport are Madrid and Dublin), and you don't see drunkards vomiting all over the metro systems on the continent. Of course the continent has a very different style of drinking than the UK. Banning drinking on the trains isn't likely to do anything to mitigate British binge drinking, which is thoroughly engrained into the culture. It will likely just inconvenience law-abiding citizens who just want to enjoy a beer on their long bus or train trip.

One of the more unfortunate by-products of this whole thing is that the guy who organized one of the largest of these planned Facebook parties (pretty much by accident) is being absolutely crucified by the Daily Mail. Out on the street just now I passed a newsstand with the headline "Tube booze party planner is city banker" in huge letters on the sign (these tabloid headlines here really give me a chuckle). This guy who organized the party on Facebook is apparently a 27-year old who works for RBS and now is likely to lose his job. If you look at the page, you can see that at first he was thinking he would maybe get around 50 people to sign up. But it was just his bad luck that his ended up being the party that everybody signed up for (even though the originally intent of his was to have a classy shindig where everyone wore tuxedos and proved that you can be civilized and drink on the tube). Obviously I sympathize with the guy, but at the same time, didn't he realize how ill-advised it was to have his name as the organizer of a 10,000-strong tube boozefest that he had no control over?

In any event, it was an interesting thing to be a part of!


Peter said...

We had our party on the District line and it was much calmer, although got crazy when we merged with the circle and people got on because they were confused!

Anonymous said...

The media coverage of all of this has been laughable, they completely don't get it. This was a protest against Boris. Most young people hate him and can see right through his BS. The media has played it off like it was a bunch of yobs using any excuse for a party. Yes the yobs showed up, but it was usually repsonsible people with jobs who organized this because they hate Boris.

Anonymous said...

Screw boris!