-- By day, the center of Newcastle bustles with shoppers, their faces and dress a reflection of the ethnic diversity that is helping to breathe new life into this old smokestack city.
By early evening, the city is transformed. Young revelers take over the streets. Dance music pours out of clubs with names such as Kiss, Whistle, Liquid, Cage and Pop, and the night floats along, a heady froth of alcohol-induced exuberance.
"There's two types of nightlife in England," said Mark Dosh, a 25-year-old window washer from nearby Sunderland. "You can stay home and watch telly, or you can go out and get drunk."
Britain has always been a hard-drinking society, but in the past decade or so, the economics and demographics of drinking have undergone a dramatic transformation.
"In the post-industrial economy, large tracts of our city centers have been handed over to the control of the alcoholic drinks industry," said Dick Hobbs, a professor of criminology at the University of Durham. "We've created these boozing zones. We don't manufacture anything anymore, but we do serve a lot of drinks."
By midnight in Newcastle, it's getting ugly. On the sidewalk outside one club, a woman in her twenties is sitting on the sidewalk, legs splayed, with her skirt hiked up around her hips. Four female friends are trying to help her up, but they are having trouble staying on their own feet.
About 10 men, also in their twenties, stumble down the middle of the street, shouting lewd propositions to passing women. One man flings a beer bottle against the front of a building.
Outside the train station, two intoxicated men argue with a taxi driver. The driver will not let them get into the taxi with their beer cans. He fears they will vomit in his car.
Newcastle takes a certain grim pride in its rowdy nightlife, but the scene is similar in other British towns and cities.
"The pattern for British cities is intense shopping during the day, intense drinking at night," said Paul Rubinstein, director of arts and culture for the Newcastle City Council.
A stunning new concert hall has put Newcastle on the European cultural map, and Rubinstein is quick to credit the city's busy nightlife for helping to revive the downtown economy. But now there are concerns that the drinking and partying are getting out of hand.
"It's becoming very noninclusive. If you are not under age 25 and intent on being part of the drinking culture, you might feel a bit threatened," Rubinstein said. "You don't see many families or minorities on the streets after 8 p.m."
In most European countries, per-capita alcohol consumption is in decline. In Britain, it is rising sharply, especially among young people, who tend to binge drink.
"You used to learn the protocols of using alcohol in the local pub where there were people of all different ages," Hobbs said. "Now kids learn to drink from other kids in these giant kids' bars, and there is no behavior that is too crass for these venues."
Binge drinking, often defined as consuming five or more standard-size drinks in one session, has become the norm for many young people. According to a recent study of 15- and 16-year-olds in Britain, 29 percent of the girls and 26 percent of the boys had engaged in binge drinking at least three times in the previous month.
The link between alcohol and anti-social behavior in Britain is striking. According to recent government statistics, 78 percent of assaults and 88 percent of property-damage crimes are directly related to alcohol. The estimated cost of alcohol-related crime is $14.3 billion a year.
A 2003 government study indicated that about 40 percent of all emergency room admissions to British hospitals are alcohol-related. The figure is 70 percent after midnight.
The study also calculated that Britain's economy loses 17 million working days to hangovers at an annual cost to employers of $12.5 billion. For blue- and white-collar Britain, showing up for work with a massive hangover does not carry the social stigma that it does in many societies.
Drinking is big business in Britain. The pub and club industry, which employs about half a million people, turns over annual revenue of $45 billion, 3 percent of the national GDP.
The industry promotes itself aggressively to the youth market in a manner that experts have said encourages binge drinking. In Newcastle, where 336 pubs and clubs in the city center draw as many as 75,000 visitors on a busy night, the police chief of Northumbria, Mike Craik, has launched a campaign to identify troublemakers and arrest them before the trouble begins.
Billboards around the city warn: "Get violent, get drunk, get disorderly -- get locked up." Closed-circuit television cameras on the streets and inside drinking venues help police keep an eye on things.
"As soon as you become offensive, we will be there and we will arrest you before somebody gets in a fight," Craik said. "Two arrests get you banned from the city center."
Before the campaign, Northumbria police arrested an average of about 600 people a month for alcohol-related offenses. In the first month of the campaign, the number doubled.
Craik said that the culture of drinking and violence required the same kind of sophisticated and aggressive crime-fighting techniques that were used to combat soccer hooligans a decade ago.
"I will not solve this problem with a four-month campaign," he said. "I've got to get into the heads of these people and . . . change the culture of drinking and anti-social behavior."
Later this year, Britain will retire its Victorian-era licensing law that requires pubs to close by 11 p.m. This will usher in a new era of round-the-clock drinking.
The government blames the old law for pressuring people to squeeze in too much drinking before last call. It argues that 24-hour licensing will help relieve that problem by encouraging people to spread out their consumption and imbibe in a manner more like that practiced in continental Europe.
Not surprisingly, the alcoholic beverage industry considers this an excellent idea. Medical and law enforcement experts do not.
"The entire research community is opposed to 24-hour licensing, but the government has ignored every bit of evidence in its drive to bring its market-oriented policies to bear," Prof. Hobbs said.
"Why? Because it creates jobs, it creates wealth, it creates tax," he said. "But it's going to be many, many years before we drink in the same way as mainland Europe."
Hobbs, echoing an earlier Hobbes, commented that the English took their drink the same way they played soccer: "Crude, nasty, harsh and violent."