Judges Side With Publicans Shaft Of Welcome Wisdom How Much Is Not Enough?
by PHILIP WHITE - a version of this appeared in The Independent Weekly
When Nicholas Binns steered that bespoke East End drink emporium, The Exeter, he once refused a friend of mine more alcohol, for annoying other patrons with his eccentric conversation and behaviour. A hyper-intelligent gent of some years, my friend has a penchant for intriguing and unusual conversation, which he is quite capable of conducting when there are no listeners. He took his orders well, and strolled purposefully to the Crown and Anchor, just up the lane, where he drank until closing. Then he drank all night, completing a full twenty-four hour shift, before confidently re-entering The Exeter, where he ordered a malt whisky with a Coopers Stout chaser, which was promptly served to him. He had, he explained, drunk off the full head of steam which has caused the earlier, er, inconvenience. There would be no more trouble.
Publican Binns was never one for deciding how much anybody should drink. He refused to serve customers only when their behaviour irritated or concerned others, quite fairly including himself and his staff. Peace in the tills; peace in the valley. Upon his retirement, Binns was celebrated by Pat Conlon in the parliamentary grievance debate, and called “a river to his people” in a reverent piece by the great John McGrath.
I thought this line was taken from the lubricious character played by Ustinov in Spartacus, but it’s Roman in another way.
The Exeter is named after Exeter Hall in London, where the South Australian Company was set up. This hall was the home to the anti-slavery movement and housed hearty meetings of temperance activists, Protestants, and remarkable musical performances. Exeter, on the Exe River, takes its name from isca, the Roman mispronunciation and spelling of the Gaelic and Erse uisge, which means flowing water. And whisky.
In their 10 November ruling that publicans have no general duty of care to protect patrons from the consequences of drunkenness, High Court justices French, Gummow, Hayne, Heydon and Crennan have struck a Christlike blow at generations of interferist wowsers who struggle to control humankind’s eternal propensity to self-medicate. Our drug policy is written by drug companies and people who don’t take drugs; our liquor laws are written by boozemongers and wowsers. No humans.
“Expressions like 'intoxication', 'inebriation' and 'drunkenness' are difficult to both define and to apply”, asserted justices Gummow, Heydon and Crennan. “The fact that legislation compels publicans not to serve customers who are apparently drunk does not make the introduction of a civil duty of care defined by reference to those expressions any more workable or attractive ... It is difficult for an observer to assess whether a drinker has reached the point denoted by those expressions. Some people do so faster than others. Some show the signs of intoxication earlier than others. In some the signs of intoxication are not readily apparent. With some there is the risk of confusing excitement, liveliness and high spirits with inebriation. With others, silence conceals an almost complete incapacity to speak or move.”
This is some of the most exquisite sense I have heard from above for a long, long time. The ruling is a beautifully-written analysis of a terrible event, and a sparse, crisp piece of logic it is. Look it up.
Of course the inebriated should take some responsibility for their state. My friend in The Ex realised this, and, having been confronted by a good publican, dealt with it in his own way. He broke no law.
Being a thirsty type who found it impossible to drive slowly, I removed my driver’s license from myself twenty years ago. Just sat there and watched it expire, before anything terrible happened, and somebody else had to take it away from me. This has made life difficult, and could be a cop out, as I cast the responsibility upon others. But other motorists should be relieved that I have become an expert at public transport systems, hyper-aware of how many empty cars travel in every direction at almost any time of the day or night.
Which is not to say I can wash my hands of transport accidents. I was recently hit by an unmanned car parked outside a pub. I was on foot. It was stationary. Having expertly rolled off its bonnet and presented myself at the bar for a very strong drink, I was refused by a polite young fellow who suggested I might like to try a glass of water, which he presented.
After a conciliatory pint on the veranda, I digested the responsibility for my prang, and withdrew from society.
I suspect the justices of our High Court are reasonably appreciative of the notion that publicans should be rivers to their people. That is the nature of public houses. Which our Lord understood when they said of him “Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.”