My memories of bush drinking as a youth in Ireland are of furtive sessions in patches of waste ground, huddling under trees or shrubs to escape the rain or wind (hence the term), and keeping the noise down in case residents or passers-by reported you to the gardaí. If you were lucky there was a fire and a dry stone to sit on. If you were inordinately lucky the weather was fine and you could take your ease in the long, brittle grass while the cider sated your thirst. Asking for a beach and waves and sunshine, though, was pushing it. Our tipple was usually cider, purchased in flagon format, and labelled as lunatic soup by an alarmist media stirring up concerns among parents that the young people of the nation were descending into a state of reckless, inebriated dissolution.
Our sessions, however, were generally harmless. There were no drugs beyond the Bulmers or Scrumpy Jack or Linden Village, no one kicked up a ruckus and no one got hurt bar the odd case of dehydration and a sore gullet from vomiting. We gave ourselves a good hour to sober up before going home and our alcoholic exploits usually went unnoticed by parents — unless you were careless enough to still be guzz-eyed (I prefer the term to shit-faced!) from the drink when you appeared home at the designated hour. However, as word spread at school on Monday of you bush drinking exploits at the weekend, this ascension to heroic status made up for whatever pain might have been imposed on you by either the cider or your parents.
I’m not sure about Ireland anymore, but bush drinking is alive and well in Spain, and if the phenomenon is only for the brave, hardy and foolhardy in Ireland (as well as those too young to consume on licensed premises), for a myriad of reasons it’s a very easy and pleasant option here. The most obvious advantage Iberian underage drinkers have compared to their Irish counterparts is the weather. In Madrid, where it only rains for a couple of days per month, you’re not going to have to don your sou’wester and oil skins if you feel like an open air libation. Similarly, with temperatures at night hitting the balmy from March to October, the only time you need to think of wearing winter woollies is, well, during winter. A fire is strictly for the visual effect, which nowadays can be provided by a decent camp fire app and batteried-up smartphone.
Beyond matters climatological, the Spanish teenage drinker is also fortunate on a number of fronts to do with price and availability of alcohol. Even for the sybarite like me, who only drinks craft beers and single malts, drink in Spain is cheap. If you’re not interested in quality and really want to make those greenbacks stretch, there’s a range of cheap (but nasty) alcoholic beverages that won’t set you back more than a few euro and are guaranteed to do the job in terms of lighting and stoking the fires of intoxication. A litre of Tetra Pak wine, the type of stuff that’s half way along the path to being vinegar or even acetone, and requires the holding of one’s nose to exclude its “bouquet”, will set you back no more than eighty-nine cents. Own brand or no brand vodka can be got for less than seven euro a litre, and you’d expect to pay a similar price for bottom-of-the- range whiskey or rum. Your litre of Spanish “lager” or “pilsner” (Mahou or San Miguel, for example, and don’t get me going on why I used quotation marks) will typically cost eighty cents. Bush drinkers in Spain favour cutting their liquor with cola, undoubtedly because of its ability to kill the taste and bite of their particular choice of poison. Normally I would consider mixing whiskey with Coke a mortal sin, the adulteration of one of nature’s purest boons, but these kids aren’t exactly splurging out on Midleton Dair Ghaelach, so they can be forgiven. Similarly the mixing of Coke and wine has to come under the category of pardonable sin, although adults, who should know better, find the mixture (Coke + wine = calimocho) agreeable enough for it to be on tap in most bars nowadays. (As an aside, alcopops, a staple of the younger drinker in Ireland and Britain, have not made it on to the Spanish market yet, probably because Spanish youths make their own. Thus, the Spanish word for bush drinking, botellón, meaning “big bottle”, and derived from the stash of two litre cola bottles [or other diluents] an outdoor underage drinking session requires.)
Madrid teenagers have no apparent difficulty getting their hands on alcohol. The legal age for drinking here is eighteen but it’s quite common to stumble across (or be stumbled into) by groups of young teenagers clearly necking something stronger than the real thing from their two-litre plastic bottles. Most people blame the Chinese. It is something of an urban myth and at the same time a truism (if this is possible) that underage drinkers obtain their hooch from ubiquitous Chinese-run corner shops. I wouldn’t have given the myth credence, butI observed the phenomenon myself. I have witnessed groups of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds swarm into a Chinese corner shop, purchase enough Coke, wine and rum to keep Shane MacGowan on the lash for a couple of days, and head off merrily, excuse me happily, to the park. No ID requested or presented, no questions asked, everything on the QT, but not so hush-hush (Spanish teenagers are LOUD, even when illicitly shopping for alcoholic beverages).
Now, I have no desire to come across as all self-righteous and holier-than-thou, because I did my fair share of bush drinking back in the day, but it shouldn’t be so easy to flout the law. I have an ambivalent feeling towards underage drinking. I think I’m mostly with the French — the why-not-let-them-have-a-couple-of-glasses-of-wine-when-they’re-sixteen-to-help-them-learn-what-it’s-all-about attitude. I don’t see the harm in a young lad or lass having a couple of beers at maybe sixteen or seventeen, and perhaps learning an early lesson in not doing the dog, in pacing yourself. But regular, gut-bustin’, puking, rawking, binge drinking? Cutting a slice down the middle of your liver with rum a hobo would turn his nose up at? I’m not pro this. Hence, my unease at the no problema handing over of booze to youngsters. In my time, we sometimes had to go to great lengths to get our hands on our flagons of Bulmers. Older brothers with valid IDs were in great demand. However, they always took their cut. Between this and never having much money, the ethanol ration at our fiestas rarely amounted to more than a couple of mouthfuls of scrumpy. I just worry about the teenagers I see doing botellón in the Parque del Norte: too much money and too easy access. And far too much booze.
There is a tolerance and acceptance of botellón in Spain. The attitude of Spanish adults — parents mostly — of my generation is somewhat like mine: “We all did it and we turned out fine, so where’s the problem?” What follows from this is the less covert nature of Spanish bush drinking. They don’t have to trek through the briars and buddleia of brownfield sites or bum-shuffle down the banks of a railway line to find some out-of-the-way spot to drink. They don’t need to fear the twitching curtains and squinting windows of the neighbours. In plain sight, they set themselves up in parks and plazas and drink the night away, in as loud and joyous a way as only Spanish teenagers can. In ninety-nine per cent of case they’ll be left in peace by local residents and nobody will call the police.
Botellón wasn’t even illegal until about ten years ago. It was never seen as a problem until the mobile phone and social media age, when youngsters started organising what are called macrofiestas. In plazas or abandoned industrial estates hundreds or sometimes thousands of young people would convene, summoned by instant messaging, and bush drink the night away. These events, which could obviously be quite disruptive for anyone living, or more correctly trying to sleep, in the vicinity, and left behind a scene redolent of the Walking Dead, provoked much concern among citizens and lawmakers alike. Little by little town halls and local authorities wrote by-laws into the statute books outlawing drinking outside of licensed premises. As of last year, national legislation — La Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana — classifies botellón as a minor offence bearing a maximum fine of up to six hundred euro, a not insubstantial sum of money for a teenager who can only afford to lavish a couple of euro on skanky red wine and own brand cola.
I personally haven’t heard of any teenager being fined for bush drinking, and from what I can see the new law isn’t putting a halt to the phenomenon — at least not in my neighbourhood. In the playgrounds and parks in my area, there is plenty of evidence on Saturday and Sunday mornings of botellón sessions having taken place the night before. Which brings me to my final point: littering. To arrive with your kids to a playground that is chock-a-block with the detritus of the night before’s bush drinking really gets the ire going. As I stated above, I kinda don’t mind the phenomenon of underage drinking, but they couldn’t they at least tidy up after themselves?