Boozy Bristol after dark

by John Darvall

It’s the Wild West out there on the streets of Bristol at night, especially at the weekend. Lawless, drunken, riddled with drugs, sex, all fueled by cheap booze and falling morality. It is the beginning of the end and every town is like it.

No. This is just plain wrong. I was wrong, the Sodom and Gomorrah image we are being sold is wrong. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, so said Franklin D Roosevelt and he would say the same about the streets of Bristol on a Saturday night, had he seen what I saw.

The reason I went out was to test the assertion that Bristol city centre is full of young, drunk, drugged people who are badly behaved and off their heads on drink. Alcohol costs the city millions in management and health issues; it causes many social problems and leads to crime and general lawlessness. Yes this may happen, but it is not the whole story. The late night economy in Bristol, with bars open until 5am and clubs closing at 6am is a result of changing attitudes, culture and laws. Bristol is responding to this and doing rather well because of it too.

The Habourside was my first port of call, a mixture of bars and restaurants all offering a differing propositions for the young and the not so young. I went into two of the bars and they were busy, happy places and both were a mixture of all ages. The door staff outside a bar on Park Street I spoke to earlier had told me that Habourside is where the Saturday nights out start, or on Corn Street. What I saw was a lot of people having a very good time, some quite loudly. And I saw a lot of young women, in groups, in black dresses moving, well more teetering on infeasible shoes from bar to bar. Then it changed.

As the night headed towards the witching hour the gender balance changed. It was men in a the majority, young men in their 20’ and early 30’s, loud and boisterous but I would venture no more loud than I was when I was that age, or Mods were in the 60’s or 80’s, or Teddy boys were in the 50’s. Twas ever thus? The bars were now full and ques forming inside and out, good-natured and patient.

Then it was off to College Green and Park Street, now much busier than when I walked down it earlier in the evening. Outside the bars young men and women were smoking and the sweet smell of cannabis that had intermittently wafted around me all night returned again. I spoke to a young girl who was celebrating her 19th birthday with two friends. She was out to get ‘wasted’. That was her answer to my question about how she would judge her night to be a good night. She was not alone. Another group said the same, so did a stag party in fancy dress outside The Hippodrome. They were walking by as theatre-goers left a performance by the French Ballet. Both were having their own versions of a good night. There was and is room for all.

As I walked up Park Street there were many young women dressed for the summer on a cold November night mixing with men in Christmas jumpers, stag and hen parties all queuing to get in to the bar or club they would stay in until they could drink no more. They jostled with each other and the on coming traffic. The more sober supported those who had peaked too soon. Many had peaked to soon or were about to start the final ascent of Mount Booze. By now every bar or club had long, good-natured ques and pavements were a mix of the happy, the merry and the drunk with small, trickling steaming streams emanating from dark shop doorways trickling down towards College Green.

Was it intimidating? No. Was it a night out I could enjoy? Yes. Did I feel safe? Yes. There was police visible on foot and horseback, every bar had door personnel, and the crowds were out for a good time and were mostly having one.

Here are my concerns.

Speaking to a group of young men and then a group of young girls standing in a long queue outside a club on Clifton Triangle it was the money they spent to have a good time. One young man spent half his weekly wage on each Saturday night out, the same for another young woman. Neither was ‘foolish’ or ‘feckless’ or a front-page image for a black top tabloid paper. Nights out in Bristol are what they live for. Drinking was part of that, before they went out and while they were out.

Bristol has seen a 42% increase in hospital admissions attributable to alcohol in the last 6 years so something is clearly wrong, but it’s not just the city centre’s fault.

We all have a problem with alcohol and this week on BBC Radio Bristol I’m going to try to make sense of why.

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