‘Every alcohol substitute I’ve ever tasted has the flavour roughly of fake grass blended with lemon pips’
Before I could start writing this column, I had to watch the last episode of the BBC’s Fleabag. No, that isn’t (just) pathetic writerly procrastination. The whole point of digital catch-up TV and iPlayer is that the busy, thrusting young modern sort is no longer tied to the sofa to watch their favourite programme at a given time. Not tied, at least, so long as they don’t mind knowing the ending. Less than 24 hours after the finale of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliant comedy had aired on television, social media was so full of spoilers — stills of key scenes, the most moving quotations, takes on the motivations of the hot priest played by Andrew Scott — that I was worried I would have absorbed through Twitter osmosis every moment of the 22-minute episode without having watched a millisecond of the thing.
But that’s nothing compared to the massive spoiler alert of cinema trailers. In the run-up to a screening of Ralph Fiennes’s The White Crow, I watched trailers that entirely negated the need to see the films. All the funniest jokes, unexpected plot twists, stunning visuals and heart-rending smooches had been squeezed into four-minute mini-movies, complete with happy-ever-afters. Even TV programmes now have multiple YouTube teasers that are short productions in themselves, so that we can assure ourselves that a half-hour comedy is worth our precious viewing time.
Before booking a cinema ticket, I find myself reading multiple reviews and canvassing peers’ opinions, as though researching the purchase of a new washing-machine or car or life partner — not a 100-minute film that I can walk out of. Besides, having already seen the best bits, why waste an evening with the rest of a film or TV show? Perhaps there’s something comforting in knowing already what’s to come, a relaxing form of dramatic irony that prevents unpleasant shocks. Given what’s going on in the real world, maybe we’re all tired of the unexpected. Right now, no surprise is a good surprise.
I tell you what would be a nice surprise: if alcohol substitutes tasted anything but awful. I’m not talking about fruit juice or soda water but the new wave of chicly-packaged booze-free booze, liquids that mimic vodka, gin or whisky without the drunken side-effects. At a recent tasting of a cool new brand of non-alcoholic aperitifs, I learned that a third of young people now describe themselves as abstainers. A third! The implication was that cocktail menus should therefore reflect that drinking stat, with a third of libations made with alcohol-free substitutes, like “marti-nos” and “negro-nos”. Quite besides the clearly problematic name of that last is the fact that every alcohol substitute I’ve ever tasted has the flavour roughly of fake grass blended with lemon pips. Without the gentle softener of alcohol, sweetness becomes tooth-scouring, bitterness acrid, botanicals poisonous. At this particular tasting, the nicest thing anyone could say of the gin substitute was that it smelt like expensive bodywash. I’d rather have a glass of real bubbly, thanks. Then I realise there’s a healthy compromise. The most palatable of the bunch, a molasses-thick rum-substitute reminiscent of melted cola bottle sweets, would obviously taste grand with a slug of real rum. Lower in alcohol overall, without being actively unpleasant to consume. That’s the spirit.
Is all this cosseting and orange squash-drinking part of an increasing desire for infantilisation? At a talk hosted by the new “slow news” media platform Tortoise, entitled “Snowflakes and Gammon: what the generations get wrong about each other”, a lot of chat was split self-defensively between the millennials and the Generation Xers in the room. One such Xer made a particularly interesting point about “elongated adolescence”. The idea is that today’s youth are increasingly putting off the major milestones that traditionally defined adulthood: getting a job (by extending education with postgraduate degrees and gap years), marriage (the average woman now gets married aged 32, nearly eight years later than she did in 1973) and even having sex (one in 10 heterosexual Japanese men are still virgins at 40). Adulthood is now defined as starting at 24 years old, compared to 18 for Gen Xers and 16 for the “Silent Generation” who came of age during the Second World War. Which comes as news to this 25-year-old who’s been working for four years and is getting married this summer at the ripe old age of 26. It’s almost, as one precocious 13-year-old in the room sagely suggested, as though the media creates these categorical divisions between the generations for easy news content. Hmm . . .