Tattooed feral boys, drunk and awash with testosterone, terrorising the city centre. Teenage girls throwing up in the street, then passing out in the gutter. Air reeking of obscenities and urine. Boys cheering as girls punch each other in the face. Smell of decaying civilisation and rotting civility – or is it vomit? – filling your nostrils.
The picture is all too familiar, but where was it drawn? Cardiff or Sheffield on a Friday night? Well, you’re half right. It is Friday night all right. But it isn’t Cardiff. It’s Bordeaux. We can no longer claim exclusive rights to teenage binge drinking; the French are catching up fast.
The CHU, Bordeaux hospital trust, has harrowing stories to tell. Every Friday and Saturday night, its casualty departments are filled to bursting with middle-class boys and girls suffering from acute alcoholic intoxication or drunkenness-related injuries. On average, two girls are treated for alcohol-induced coma every weekend.
The pattern is slightly different from the one we know and love. Our youngsters may tank up before going out, but they do their terminal drinking in pubs, taking advantage of deals like ‘all you can drink for £20’ or ‘each shot £1’. The French adolescents get smashed at home, playing drinking games. For Bordeaux girls, their beverage à la mode is Desperado, a volatile mix of beer and tequila. Who can drink the most? A quick competition, the proud winner is picked up by an ambulance, the runners-up go out to apply a few finishing touches and then to catch up with their copine at the hospital – unless they first get lucky on a park bench with foul-smelling males.
Good to see that the French have learned something from us. Not our legal system, which, for all the fine work done by our successive governments, is still superior to theirs. Not our politics – ditto, though that’s not saying much. Not our labour laws – ditto. Not our sense of fair play, badly eroded but still vestigially observable.
No, what they learned is barely post-pubescent Lolitas drinking themselves rigid and then falling into bed with multiple strangers. And they’ve learned to appreciate the aesthetic refinement to be found at piercing and tattooing parlours, almost nonexistent in the provinces 10 years ago and now doing brisk recession-defying business everywhere. Lord of the Flies all over again: it’s children’s time, and there are no rules.
The French have also learned from us how to explain this beastliness, the trick we ourselves learned from the Americans. Our youngsters have become little savages not because our anomic, materialist, ignorant adults have created a Walpurgisnacht in their own image – no, the real reasons are deeply psychological, in fact too deep for us to understand.
‘It’s an act of rupture from reality, of discontinuing the state of suffering,’ says Dr Xavier Pommereau, a CHU psychiatrist in Bordeaux. Of course it is. The little barbarians act that way because they suffer. And they suffer because they act that way. A young Cardiff nurse explained in similar fashion her typical Friday-night routine of doing a bottle of vodka first and a few nameless boys second. Mercifully, however, she eschewed the psychobabble: ‘I do it,’ she said, ‘because my life is shit.’ You can figure out for yourself the complex interplay of cause and effect.
The French have learned binge drinking form us, we’ve learned political correctness from the Americans. Just before leaving New York for London some 25 years ago, I talked to my friend’s sister at a party. An earnest girl in her early 30s, she worked at one of those do-good UN agencies that do no good. The conversation veered towards racial issues, with the UN person citing the heavily ethnic population of American prisons as proof of the country’s unwavering commitment to racial discrimination.
‘That,’ I allowed, a fish trying to avoid the hook, ‘is one possible explanation.’ The girl wouldn’t let me get away quite so easily. ‘What other explanation can there be?’ she reeled me in. ‘That they commit more crimes.’ That was the end of the conversation. My friend’s sister didn’t speak another word to me at the party, and hasn’t since then. I was an infidel to her religious fanatic.
Arriving in London after 15 years of that madness, I felt like a fish that had wriggled off the hook. People’s minds hadn’t yet been numbed by meaningless, semiotic mantras – it was still possible to presume that one’s interlocutor was a sentient, thinking adult rather than a child who does an impression of Pavlov’s dog with its reflexive responses to external stimuli.
That, however, didn’t last. I thought I had escaped the loony bin, but it had caught up with me: in a few years the British learned how to insist that a man chairing a meeting is actually a piece of furniture. They didn’t learn the Americans’ affable equanimity, their respect for hard work and the success it delivers, their intuitive distrust of big government. They learned none of the good things, just the rotten ones: verbs made out of nouns, baseball caps worn backwards – and PC jargon.
Call me a pessimist, but it’s hard not to conclude that, as the West becomes one giant melting pot, the resulting alloy rejects everything worth keeping. Only the beastliness remains.