Propaganda is, of course, not a new development and has been around as long as there have been people to manipulate and public opinion to shape. And while propaganda the word has taken on derogatory connotations, the concept itself is largely neutral, though personally I tend to be skeptical of propaganda’s higher purposes. I’d say as a general rule if we agree with the position being pushed by propaganda than we tend to view it as benign whereas if we disagree with it then we similarly view it as being dangerous.
I bring this up because the Society of Independent Brewers, a trade organization in England that appears to be similar to the Brewers Association here and represents over 400 small brewers, is reviving and updating some very old propaganda by English painter William Hogarth. Hogarth was a painter, printer, satirist and above all social critic during his lifetime, which was from 1697 until 1764. He has also been credited with pioneering sequential art, paving the way for comic strips. In 1751, he created two contrasting works of art, Beer Street and Gin Lane.
Beer, happy product of our Isle
Gin, cursed fiend! with fury fraught,
The poems below each print appeared on the originals and were written by Reverend James Townley. Click on Beer Street (on left) or Gin Lane (on right) to see larger, more detailed versions of each print.
Essentially the pair of prints were intended to make the case that beer is a reasonable, healthier alternative to hard alcohol, in this case gin, which had become very popular at that time. The poems are classic examples of propaganda, appealing to jingoism and emotional but ultimately irrational arguments. Much as I’d like it to be, beer isn’t the answer to all of life’s problems any more than gin is the cause of them. But according to the basic accounts of that time period, by 1750 something like one-quarter of all homes in one area of London’s West End known as St. Giles Circus were gin houses. Imagine any neighborhood where every fourth place was a bar or brewery. That would probably seem like a huge problem, then or now.
Beer Street and Gin Lane are two prints issued in 1751 by English artist William Hogarth in support of what would become the Gin Act. Designed to be viewed alongside each other, they depict the evils of the consumption of gin as a contrast to the merits of drinking beer. At almost the same time, Hogarth’s friend Henry Fielding published: An Inquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers which dealt with the same subject. Issued with The Four Stages of Cruelty, the prints continued a movement which Hogarth had started in Industry and Idleness, away from depicting the laughable foibles of fashionable society (as he had done with Marriage à-la-mode) and towards a more cutting satire on the problems of poverty and crime.
On the simplest level, Hogarth portrays the inhabitants of Beer Street as happy and healthy, nourished by the native English ale, and those who live in Gin Lane as destroyed by their addiction to the foreign spirit of gin; but, as with so many of Hogarth’s works, closer inspection uncovers other targets of his satire, and reveals that the poverty of Gin Lane and the prosperity of Beer Street are more intimately connected than they at first appear. Gin Lane shows shocking scenes of infanticide, starvation, madness, decay and suicide, while Beer Street depicts industry, health, bonhomie and thriving commerce, but there are contrasts and subtle details that allude to the prosperity of Beer Street as the cause of the misery found in Gin Lane.
Pub, happy product of our Isle
And sullen Youth, in Girls and Pool
I-Diess kids can learn the Art
The couch-potato cheers the game
Fiendish Vodka, eight quid the Bottle
In Alcopops our Children find
The poems below each of the modern prints appear to echo the spirit of the originals though I haven’t seen any information about who wrote them, though a Peter Amor is credited for something at the bottom right-hand corner of each. And I must confess I don’t know what some of idiomatic words mean, such as I-Diess kids, ASBOs or CSO’s. Click on Pub Street (on left) or Binge Lane (on right) to see larger, more detailed versions of each print.
The idea with the new contrasting prints is to contrast and encourage people drinking in pubs (something SIBA has a pecuniary interest in, of course) with being drunk on the street and buying cheap bargain beer at grocery stores. They also hope the updated works will help raise awareness of the problems with binge drinking that have been in the news of late in Britain. The new prints are by UK artist Enoch Sweetman. As the BBC put it, “[i]n Pub Street, people are seen as relaxed and happy” whereas “Binge Lane shows youths fighting and drunken schoolgirls.”
Both are finely detailed and there’s a lot to look at that’s not immediately apparent at first. There are many little events going on throughout each illustration, which makes it fun to keep looking at it as you keep discovering new stories and symbolism.
SIBA’s own press release spins it like this:
In the new pictures, Gin Lane is renamed Binge Lane, a scene of violence, unconsciousness and under-age drinking in the midst of shops selling cheap beer, alcopops and Vin de Toilette.
Beer Street becomes Pub Street, a peaceful environment of real ale, good food, bar games and live entertainment, according to one of the pub signs in the picture.
Rhymes beneath Hogarth’s originals speak of gin as a “cursed fiend, with fury fraught”, which “cherishes with hellish care theft, murder, perjury”. But beer is praised as a “happy produce of our isle”, which “warms each English generous breast with liberty and love”. SIBA chairman Peter Amor says: “The gin of the 18th century may have been replaced by a whole trolley of cheap drinks, but the message is the same.
“The pub is practically the only place where you can drink draught beer and people’s behaviour there is subject to strict controls by the licensee and by the presence of mature, well behaved regular customers who wouldn’t stand for any kind of trouble. “The real source of the problems that are being sensationally highlighted by the media at the moment is cheap liquor sold in bulk and, in a minority of supermarkets and off-licences, without much regard to the age of the people buying it.
“In the circumstances, it is totally unfair to lump pubs in with the real perpetrators of the problem.” SIBA’s campaign will include lobbying MPs and peers, to make them aware that pubs are not in the main the culprits of the current perceived rash of binge drinking, and working with other trade and consumer organisations with interests in the brewing and licensing sectors to form a broad alliance in support of the positive aspects of the British pub.
So what I take away from all of this is that what SIBA’s trying to do is preemptively head off the neo-prohibitionists who have been getting horror stories of binge drinking into the news with increasing effectiveness. If memory serves (and I’m sure the historians out there will confirm or refute it for me, —Bob? —Maureen?) our own brewers did the same thing prior to Prohibition trying to distance themselves from the social problems associated with whiskey and other hard liquor and portray beer as a healthful alternative. But it was too little, too late, and the prohibitionists continued to paint all alcohol with the same broad brush. The cynic in me thinks this won’t be terribly effective either, especially since, unlike in Hogarth’s time, there are many more diversions available that will make it more difficult for two black and white cartoon prints to have much of an impact.
In the updated version they seem to splitting the hairs even finer, trying to distinguish good drinking behavior from bad, and distinguishing it by where it’s taking place. A worthy endeavor, to be sure, but one which the average neo-prohibitionist seems predestined to not consider for even one nanosecond. But perhaps I’m mis-reading their intentions, which they state are to separate good pub drinking from bad binge drinking. That may be a tough sell. Some people can drink in their home without incident and I suspect that at least from time to time a binge drinker may go on a bender in a pub. In the end, I’m not sure it’s only the location where someone drinks that determines his or her behavior. It may be a factor, of course, but it doesn’t seem as black and white as Pub Street and Binge Lane pictures it.