'I was ashamed, anguished, full of fear and self-loathing'

Will access to alcohol 24/7 turn us into a nation of
mature and moderate Continental-style drinkers? Or are
we just incorrigible bingers? When Alex Leith moved to
Spain, a round-the-clock bar nearly ruined his life 
Published: 20 November 2005 


At first I thought Papillon was a marvellous place. It
was a drinking den down an alleyway in the old centre
of Barcelona. It opened at 3am. To get in you had to
ring on a doorbell; eventually somebody would open the
big silver door to let you in. Inside there were no
windows, just red-brick walls arching into a domed
ceiling. There was a pool table and some tables and
chairs at the back, but most people stood in the area
around the bar and chatted, and drank. 

It was full of eccentrics: artists, musicians and
media types. Not many Catalan locals went to Papillon.
I met Galicians and Argentinians, French and Germans.
Most of all I met English-speaking people: Brits,
Irish, South Africans, Americans. It was open every
night of the week, and most nights it would get quite

I had been living in Barcelona for two years when I
discovered the place. I had moved to Catalonia in my
late thirties with a girlfriend, but she had gone, and
I found a wide circle of friends to fill in the
emptiness she left behind. I needed to find some
stability: oddly enough Papillon fitted the bill,
though I did flirt with a number of the other "afters"
bars that pepper the old part of Barcelona. After a
while I started getting to know the regulars. It took
on the role of an institution that I missed from my
own culture - the local.

Bar culture in Spain is rather different from in the
UK. We have the "public house": a place where you go
to spend the whole evening among friends. It is like a
pay-per-living-room. It suits our dissolute lifestyle
whereby children often live in different cities from
their parents, where 48 per cent of adults are single.

In Spain, bars are not generally like this. Spanish
people tend to stay in bars for shorter periods of
time, before going home to their families or, at the
weekend, on to another place. They might have a small
beer or two, and a quick bite to eat. They don't get
settled in, the way we do. They don't have their
favourite chairs. They don't put their own tankards
behind the bar. They don't generally go to places
knowing that their friends will - without having
arranged it beforehand - be there.

I started spending more and more time in Papillon.
There's plenty to do in Barcelona, and there are
plenty of people who have the time to do things with
you. I went out for meals, went to the cinema and
theatre, went to concerts, went drinking on the beach,
went to barbecues on rooftops, watched football on the
television in pubs. I lived the sort of culturally
fulfilling life that one can easily afford to live in
Barcelona, a perfectly sized and reasonably priced
city. But a problem started developing. Wherever I
went, whoever I went with, at the end of the night I
felt a tug towards Papillon. The habit had formed: I
felt unfulfilled if I didn't go there. Sometimes I
found myself killing time before it opened. I got to
know places to kill it in. I started staying in the
bar longer. When the big metal door was opened to let
me out, I would often be dazzled by bright sunlight.
Papillon stayed open until the last customer left.

There were some warning signs that my all-night
drinking habit was turning serious. One night I met
some people in Papillon, stayed there all night, left
at 11am, went to a day-time party with them, and
didn't get home until 6pm. When I was walking home I
thought it was 6am, and wondered why so many people
were around so early. Another time I woke at 2pm on a
park bench outside the post office. I had taken a
little rest as I stumbled home. I started up an
unfulfilling relationship with an unsuitable Papillon
regular, which left me feeling seedy and mean.

I started asking myself what I was doing. I wasn't
going to Papillon just for the chance to drink. I
could have done that at home at much less expense. I
was going there for the company. And I realised that
most everyone in Papillon was there for a reason. They
were there because, fundamentally, something was wrong
with their lives. There was the girl who had to look
after her disappeared sister's autistic baby with her
mother; the artist who had to work as a barmaid to
fund her vocation and felt the world was against her;
the guy who found it difficult to talk to girls, but
liked standing up against the bar in the hope that he
could break the trend. Then there was the guy who had
lost the love of his life and didn't want to go home
to the empty flat with all its ghosts. That was me.

I moved out of my flat and into a cheaper flat-share.
Work was drying up; I couldn't afford the rent any
more. My Papillon bills were taking up most of my
money. Two things happened in quick succession which
finally made me realise that I was involved in a
negative out-of-control spiral. One night I came out
of a blackout standing in Papillon, with blood all
over my face. I had lost half of one of my front
teeth, my bag and my watch. I have no idea what
happened to me or where it happened. I didn't go to
Papillon for a full week after that: I was ashamed to.
Another post-Papillon morning, I was woken by my
flatmate at 11am on the sofa in our communal living
room. I had pulled my trousers and pants down in my
sleep and wet the sofa. He had visitors staying who
had found me there. He asked me to leave. I didn't

The next day I was ashamed and anguished, full of fear
and self-loathing. I walked up and down the street,
chain-smoking cigarettes, wondering what to do,
crying. Twenty-four-hour drinking had taken over my
life, and ruined it. Papillon wouldn't be open for
another 12 hours. I booked a flight home to England.
It took me a week to sort out my affairs and leave. A
lot of people came to my leaving do: I had made a lot
of drinking friends in Barcelona. Of course, the
die-hards ended up in Papillon. I managed to catch my
flight, at two in the afternoon, by a whisker.

I suppose I should have sought advice and given up
drinking, but I didn't. I moved back to my home town
in Sussex, where the pubs shut at 11pm. I still go to
the pub quite often, but I no longer get steaming
drunk every night. When the last orders bell rings -
at 10 to 11! - I often feel disappointed, but I feel
no urge to carry on: there's nowhere to go, after all.
My drinking has become more moderate, containable.

It concerns me that the Government is granting 24-hour
licences to bars and pubs that request them. From this
week there will be all-night bars everywhere. I'm not
so worried about yobs roaming the streets drunk all
night, about people not getting to work on time, about
noise in the neighbourhood. I'm more worried because I
think that, like myself, Britain has a drink problem.
We just love a party, we vaunt our hangovers, we
applaud our sporting heroes when they go on 32-hour
victory binges. We just don't know when to stop. The
victims of a 24-hour drinking culture won't so much be
the people who are subjected to the behaviour of the
24-hour drunks. The worst victims will be the drinkers
themselves, sucked into that culture, and unable to
cope with it. 


Back To Islam Awareness Homepage

Latest News about Islam and Muslims

Contact IslamAwareness@gmail.com for further information