Tipsy at 30,000ft? It’s the British way

Whatever the sobriety or otherwise of the three MPs in the news last week, a tipple or two at high altitude is a national institution

Like every soldier, Ben Wallace knows that sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. As Owen Paterson’s inferno of sleaze engulfed the Tories, the defence secretary lit a little tealight of his own. It was put about that a couple of SNP MPs, David Linden and Drew Hendry, and Labour MP Charlotte Nichols got pissed on a ministerial trip to Gibraltar. Like anyone who has been accused of being smashed on a flight, they deny the allegations. Wallace said the alleged conduct risked “undermining respect for parliament”.

Rubbish. The only lapse of judgment is Wallace’s, in thinking anyone would care. If there is a cause that enjoys comprehensive cross-party, cross-demographic national support, it is drinking on the plane. Well, that and drinking at the airport. Not yet in the cab to the airport, although driverless cars may change that. But everyone knows that once you get through security, the complicated part of the trip is over.

You are in the hands of the authorities, and the chief authority in the departure lounge is JD Wetherspoon: the Beehive at Gatwick, the Windmill at Stansted: resonant names for the traveller.

Any time of the day or night, you can guarantee that these bastions will be standing room only. It is a myth that airport drinking is the preserve of stags and hens. Young and old, rich and poor, men and women, champagne in the lounge, bloody mary after take-off, sundry tinnies: there’s something for everyone. If it is good enough for Kate Moss, it’s good enough for you.

The hierarchy of travel experiences is directly related to booze. At the bottom of the table are Ryanair and EasyJet, where you have to pay for your drinks on the plane, or beforehand – for the nervous – in the form of a reassuring voucher. Then there is British Airways and other normal carriers, where drinks are included in the price of a ticket, correctly understood to be a marker of high civilisation.

The model Kate Moss, wearing dark sunglasses, a black leather jacket, a red blouse and black trousers.
Kate Moss was met by police after ‘disruptive behaviour’ on an easyJet flight from Turkey to the UK. Photograph: Beretta/Sims/REX/Shutterstock

In business class, the free drinks start at the airport in a private lounge, for a better sort of alcoholic. After that, the drinks continue, relentlessly, until you land in a confusion of body and soul from which it takes the whole holiday to recover. One shudders to think what the situation is like on private jets. In fact, practically the only way to signify that you are very important is not to get battered on the plane. Nothing is more suspicious than a British person quietly going to sleep.

Where does it come from? Unlike other behaviours, which on closer examination turn out to be universal, getting flight-pissed does seem to be curiously British. The Danes and Germans enjoy a pint as much as the next northern European, yet their airport bars are not chocker with multigenerational legions of battered travellers. Well, sometimes they are, but only if they’re Brits.

The British state of nature is to be drunk, which is why we invent little rules to convince ourselves otherwise, like waiting until the sun is “over the yardarm” – incidentally, an expression which most people take to mean some point in the afternoon but in fact refers to 11am.

I suspect that modern travel drinking began with the defence of the realm act 1914. The regulations were designed to curb our natural instincts to help with the war effort. By limiting pub opening times and weakening drinks, the new wartime rules traumatised the population for many generations to come.

In the same way that displaced peoples favour art and jewellery – wealth they can take with them when they are next invaded ≠ Brits know that the right to a pint might be seized at any moment, without warning.

In this light, drinking on a plane, where alcohol is freely available and you can be confident you won’t have to drive for a couple of hours, becomes less of a happy luxury and more of a moral imperative. Enjoy this Carling now, child, it could be your last.

Speaking of defence of the realm, the best drink I’ve ever had on a plane was a gin and tonic on an RAF flight, where guests are still trusted with heavy crystal tumblers and spirits are poured freely from large bottles.

If Ben Wallace is really worried about respect and parliament, perhaps he should start there.

He might also remember that another key part of the defence of the realm act was not spreading rumours about military matters. As everyone in the Windmill at Stansted knows: what goes on tour stays on tour.


Ed Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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