Sunday 27 April 2008


Sydney's discussion of "alcohol" driven violence lacks depth - and research!

Sure Sydney has a problem with violence in pubs and clubs. But I think alcohol's getting a bad wrap and our culture of violence is getting off way too lightly.

The logic of the discussion seems to be that alcohol causes violence. Take away the alcohol and close down the bars and violence will go, or so the argument seems to run.

I've spent a shameful amount of the past twenty five years in pubs and bars around the world and many of Sydney's bars and pubs really do have an undertone of violence that is markedly worse than many other parts of the world.

So does alcohol affect Sydneysiders differently to drinkers in other parts of the world?

In the interests of research for this piece, I took myself up to nearby Newtown last Friday night - Anzac Day - for a look. I reasoned that Anzac Day would be an especially good day to conduct my research since even greater than normal amounts of alcohol are consumed on this important national day.

The first violence I noted occurred as soon as I walked in the door. Ok, it was implied violence but it was nasty. The bouncers did their welcoming work with all the grace of Stalinist gulag wardens. Good start I thought. I already feel like a victim of violence before my first drink - and that was from the staff.

Happily, things got better from there. Despite very high lubrication levels, the atmosphere in the bar was festive - helped along by a good band that had the room in its hands.

Around midnight, an incident. Young exuberant girlfriend of young wasted but harmless boyfriend climbs on his shoulders to watch the band. Not an unusual event in a packed bar of dancing revellers on Anzac Day.

Gulag warden immediately frothed. Fangs appeared.

He rushed at the couple with great enthusiasm and then strangely grabbed the boyfriend and ejected him without warning or discussion. Girlfriend was free to stay. Perhaps disappointingly for Mr Gulag, she was disinclined.

Within 20 minutes in another show of Anzac Day fervour, an older woman hurled herself at her boyfriend. She landed safely in his arms. No harm.

With the same ferocity as first time, same warden rushed to the scene and at once applied his large heavy hand to the removal of the man without warning or discussion. In deference to judicial consistency, this man's girlfriend was also permitted to stay - even though she was sole offender.

The women did well that night but the atmosphere of the evening was damaged by the mindless intervention of the security guard. A warning might have been appropriate and given the fun, festive vibe, would certainly have sufficed. Zero tolerance gone mad. And two blameless men are thrust out onto the street angry at the treatment meted out to them.

I doubt that either of these men would have carried their anger for long. It was likely from their manner through the night and from their reaction to the nasty bouncer intervention that they had never been thrown out of a pub before. Appalled as they were, they retained their good nature despite the absurdity of their ejection.

The situation could easily have had a different outcome.

A patron more inclined to violence might have vented anger at the bouncer's lack of judgment - perhaps resulting in a brawl in the bar. Or, perhaps worse, the ejected patrons might carry their anger elsewhere, ready to explode at the slightest provocation in another venue.

These were the only moments of violence I encountered that night - and they were bouncer driven.

The Sydney bouncer culture is largely one of aggression and violence and it gets many patrons off on a bad footing. The more easily provoked will carry this through their night.

It's time bouncers were taught judgment and to, as the saying goes "go quietly and carry a big stick". At the moment, they're the worst of any city I know.

Of course there is much more to the problem than bouncers..... there are the venues themselves.

Sydney's bar and club scene has become a wasteland of mostly uninteresting venues and unimaginative entertainment. The proliferation of poker machines has taken any creativity out of the industry that might once have existed.

I just returned from London - another city with plenty of pub violence. What was nice about London however was that while there has been a surge in industrial scale drinking venues like those found here in Sydney, it is still possible to find old style pubs packed to the rafters with young patrons simply sitting around drinking and talking. Even here in Newtown, these are becoming harder to come by as the template style slick bar replaces the old pub.

The overdue decision to license smaller venues should give Sydneysiders better options for nights out and decrease the ubiquitous alcohol factories that are so often at the centre of the violence.

Even more than bouncers running amok and unimaginative industrial scale drinking outlets, the violence in our pubs and clubs should prompt a good think about dysfunctional manhood in our culture. That would mean asking hard questions about all violence - not just that "driven" by alcohol.

It's hard to know whether these problems really are worse than ever before - but in any case, the perpetrators and victims are invariably men - although women are constant victims of harassment in pubs and bars as well. It would be interesting to see whether there is a correlation between harassment of women and violence across venues.

I didn't expect I'd ever find myself in agreement with an Australian Hotels Association President but here I am. Newly elected Scott Leach argued in yesterday's Herald, "Much of the problem lay with generation Y, and there should be more focus on personal responsibility.

"I think there's a feeling out there amongst a lot of people that community values have dropped, and there's absolutely no fear of police or respect for police, and I think police would support that," he said.

Not sure whether I buy the detail of his argument but I certainly agree that there is a need to look at the culture of violence and not get too simplistically focused on alcohol in isolation.

And I still want to be able to have a late night drink in peace - hopefully in more interesting venues than are currently on offer.

Let's take a good look at violence and binge drinking. But let's not confuse them.

I want my beer and drink it too!

1 comment:

  1. M Bowyer = modern day Marie Antoniette? ;-)