It was clear, even to a non-speaker, that the Danish coming out of this man’s mouth was not the cleanest - or the most lucid. He was slurring, and slurring badly: voice raised, sharing a joke with his two companions in the corner, waving his arms as they, similarly inebriated, looked on, laughing and agreeing. He was making a point. Partly to make it, and partly because he was incapable of holding on, he dropped his beer glass. The unexpected noise reverberated around like a gunshot. The ground where he was standing filled with sharp shards of glass, and around half a glass-full of Tuborg.
Impressive, I thought. It’s a Saturday morning, 9.30am, and you’re standing next to a fountain in a cold square in Copenhagen, with your mates, already absolutely blotto.
There are two things a visitor notices in Denmark’s capital, which is where I went last weekend.
First - the amount of drunk people around. At any time, whether the early morning, the afternoon or late at night, sozzled-looking men - they’re always men - in dirty-looking padded jackets walk unsteadily holding a can or glass of strong beer. They sit together in groups on benches, looking menacing, a newly-banned cigarette hanging from their mouths, empty cans scattered on the ground. Copenhagen, it seems, is somewhere to drink - and really drink. Drink till there’s no return.
The second thing you’ll notice is in bizarre juxtaposition to the hordes of drinkers. A special offer, scribbled enthusiastically on a promotional poster and bluetacked on a window of a cafe inside the central station in Copenhagen promises half-a-litre of beer for 55 kroners. Or, to put it another way, you too can buy 10% less than a pint for the remarkably cheap price of, er, £5.10. And that’s a special offer.
Proper beer - porters or ‘red ale’ rather than insipid lager, and in a more condusive atmosphere than a strip-lit cafe/bar in a railway station - comes at 60 or 65 kroners for the 10%-less-than-a-pint that the Europeans would have us drink. Halves come in at 30 kroners - or £2.80, the price I resent paying in an overly-expensive central London pub for over twice the amount of liquid. In a land of VAT at 25%, and doubtless extra duty on anything with alcohol in it, the prices are extraordinary.
Copenhagen is apparently the happiest place to live on earth, according to a survey by The Economist - a fact that was greeted by one of the Danish newspapers at the time as “great news, but why did everyone forget to tell us?”. Apparently, Danes and Swedes will argue for ages about which country has the highest suicide rate., yet it has virtually no unemployment. And people in Denmark drink more beer than virtually anyone else in the world - certainly more than the UK (up there close to the top of the drinkers’ list). My experience in Copenhagen tend to suggest that every Dane takes it upon theirselves to uphold the national drinking record.
Copenhagen, too, is one of the world’s most expensive cities. Don’t worry, London, you’re apparently more expensive still, all things considered. But it’s interesting to note that while the price of beer in bars is double that of beer in central London - and bottled beer is also twice the price in supermarkets, too - that doesn’t stop drunks from drinking it to excess, morning, noon and night. And it’s always beer - not schnapps, vodka, or other more fearsome drinks. Even cider manages to avoid being the drink of choice. Danish drunks have some standard.
Successive UK governments, of either side, claim that the price of alcohol acts as a deterrent to misuse. There’s concern at the low prices of beers in supermarkets, for example - where 500ml cans of ‘wife-beater’, the continentally-strong Stella Artois, can regularly sink below a pound. Put the price up, so the thinking goes, and you’ll have less people who can afford to drink themselves stupid. Never mind that this penalises the 99% who responsibly enjoy our national drink, a well-crafted beer, over a home-cooked meal. And never mind that, if Copenhagen is anything to go by, it doesn’t stop the problem ocurring anyway.