Why do people take the ferry to France to buy cheap drink? Obviously, it’s to save money – though not even the Yuletide change that the day-trippers trousered the day I accompanied them explained the glow in their cheeks, or the roistering of our homeward journey across the English main. Less obviously, but only just, the booze-cruises are also about over-indulgence, greed, and in some cases outright criminality. As much as 40 per cent of the beer driven into Britain in returning mini-vans is sold on illegally, according to a study by the admittedly parti pris brewers Whitbread.

The Channel is the frontline of Britain’s current battle over Europe, in more senses than one. There’s a Briton behind the counter of most of the cut-price liquor malls and marts in Calais, concerns such as Champagne Charlies (sic) and EastEnders (prop. Dave West). EastEnders knocks out pallets of beer at savagely reduced prices from two or three premises. Dave’s vague about the precise number, but they’re located a can-of-Stone’s throw from the ferry terminal.

By nature and occupation, men like Dave are Eurosceptics. You can see why journalists taking a holiday from Bill Cash MP have wanted to play up the Frog-baiter and allround Continental-botherer in Dave, the most celebrated back-street vintner in Northern France. It’s fair to say that he is proud of his roots. A naive cartoon on his wall shows Dave’s head mounted on a bulldog’s body. And he blithely conducts his business in sterling, indifferent to the native coin. He fears closer integration with our European partners, along the lines of the harmonisation of alcohol duty – something Kenneth Clarke alluded to when making his Budget speech at the first time of asking. Bang would go Dave’s percentage on ESP lager, and the matchlessly marqued Wappenbrau, which he sells for as little as £3.70 for a case of 24 bottles. He is shifting 180,000 pints of beer a week, and motoring backwards and forwards between his franchises and outlets in an elegant, if regrettably German, saloon.

In the shadow of a power-generating plant, Britons are stocking up at one of Dave’s warehouses, to the seasonal accompaniment of a roaring brazier. Ask these people to name the boldest champion of their interests in Europe and they won’t mention anyone with patrician vowels or a bespoke Tory constituency. The Little Englander derring-do of men like Dave does more to stir the passions than MPs who sit on their hands in a vote on funding for Brussels. The other wing of the Conservative Party – which was in government at the time of going to press – is even less popular. It’s worth pausing a moment to remark on how odd this would seem to the proverbial Channel-hopping Martian. In the struggle which has divided our legislators, drinkers ought by rights to be on the side of the Europhiles. I write before the Chancellor’s second mini-Budget, but if he reaches agreement with his fellow finance ministers, the tax we pay on alcohol will come down. (This new entente cordiale could hardly mean levies going up over there, since the British are almost alone in racking up duty). In the long run, No 11 could save tipplers even more money than the cash-and-carries of Calais.

This argument cut no ice at all with the passengers on a typical crossing. They rested just long enough from picking the ship’s shelves clean of Silk Cut and Teacher’s to curse the Chancellor for making them do it. A woman complained that she would rather be shopping at home, where her money could support British jobs and businesses. ‘Where I come from, a coachload went over to France the other week, and what they bought there cost the government £600 in lost revenue,’ a Kent man added vengefully.

True, the booze-cruisers can justifiably protest that Mr Clarke’s pledge to talk to his European oppos comes too late to knock anything off this year’s festive noggin (with the exception of the toff-gratifying levy reduction on champagne). But I don’t believe the sluggishness of the Treasury is the only reason they’ve taken ship. And I’m not wholly convinced by Dave West’s argument that British brewers are responsible. Dave told the Evening Standard that one popular brand of lager retailed at £20 a case in Britain, even though the cost to the manufacturers was a tenth of that. ‘The VAT only brings it up to £9.98,’ he said. ‘There’s a tenner margin there. Wouldn’t you think the brewers could afford to reduce the price by themselves?’

My hunch is that Dave, in crediting the popularity of awayday grog-shopping to the rapaciousness of brewers, underestimates the atavistic appeal of operations like his. Together with his band of brothers – who don’t so much run off-licences as off-off-licences – Dave re-awakens folk memories of a legendary figure. Though spotless in all his business dealings – and he has helpers who look as though they could emphatically impress this upon you, if necessary – Dave recalls the kind of ‘gentleman’ who supplied Englishmen with their liquor and baccy despite the interventions of killjoy excise men and swarthy wine merchants. Watch the wall, my darling, while the Heineken goes by.

It thrills a certain stripe of Dave’s countrynmen to the marrow just to be associated with characters like him. Of course, I may have been particularly susceptible to the weevilly charm of his world, thanks to the atmospheric coming I’d had of it. I’d set out for a Calais the previous night by boat train – the very phrase is enough to agitate the brine in the blood of old Albion. And the 9.41 to Dover proved to be a stopping service, stations with names like Sole Street appearing evocatively at the carriage window. Filling out a card at the hotel reception, I saw the word ‘passport’ and realised that I’d left mine at home. It seemed that if I was determined to see Calais, the only way I was going to do it was by becoming a stowaway.

On Dover quayside next morning, beneath the town’s chalkily poignant landmarks, I failed to find the empty barrel in which I’d hoped to be carried aboard the ferry. And there was no sign of the overlooked hooped jersey and canvas britches in which I’d is planned to go unnoticed among the crew. Running away to sea entailed nothing more gamily romantic than driving up a ramp. In common with the vehicles of the other booze-cruisers, ours was shown to its marks on the car-deck without going through a single check. A giant hoarding in the dock was flashing up an advertisement for Beers Are Us, Calais.

The ferry operators, perhaps nettled by frequent taunts that they manage gin palaces, have opted to go up-market – as if to say ‘Palaces? We’ll show you palaces.’ The new-look ferries, if not quite palatial, are nevertheless a far cry from the noisome tubs on which I remember wallowing to France for family holidays. Although, as I say, at no time are you likely to mistake the fittings and fixtures for those of the Windsors’, neither do you feel that you’re on anything so prosaic as a cross-Channel ferry. The feel is of a sleek hotel for middle managers, overrun by children and the elderly as if at a weekend wedding. Alternatively, you could be in the hushed and pressurised confines of an aircraft. On the ferry I caught, there was a club class compartment. It boasted stewarded beverages, and a ship-to-shore cellphone, the connections faltering tantalisingly as we slipped out of electronic hailing-distance of Blighty. The only parts of the ferry both accessible to passengers and recognisably maritime were the toilets. There’s still a kind of gunwale between the floor and the bottom of the doors, insurance against the outside chance of patrons unexpectedly taking a reeking slipper-bath in poor weather.

Because I was afraid that I might be required to show my ID in the duty-free shops, I somehow went the entire journey without succumbing to the temptation of a litre of bargain-basement Malibu. The restraint this involved was especially heroic, since the peer pressure is on to shop for the entire duration of the return journey. Under a concession wangled by the ferry lines, nervously eyeing the competition from the Channel tunnel, passengers can claim their tax-exempt ration twice – going out and coming back. And given a round trip of scarcely two-and-a-half hours in calm conditions, you have your work cut out to bag what is rightfully yours.

At Calais port, we were allowed off the ferry again without checking. In the nearby Mammouth superstore, however, I thought the jig was up for me as the stowaway shopper, the mysterious highwayman of the hypermarket. I was trolleying Muscadet and a potable Bordeaux when I realised that my fellow Brits were only negotiating the checkouts on production of HMG’s crest. (I’m still not clear why this should have been. Perhaps greater Calais really is the free-trade area that it resembles, a theme park to wipe the floor with poor old EuroDisney down the road.) Happily, one of my colleagues came to my rescue by agreeing to put my items on his bill.

It was possible to be overcome by a kind of hysteria of consumption in Mammouth, regardless of whether or not you would normally consider yourself to be much of a shopper. For long moments of our nine-hour shore leave, two of us deliberated over Dijon mustard – how many cubic feet of it to lay in for the holidays; which label to trust; even, smooth or crunchy – before it occurred to us that neither of us particularly cared for the stuff. When I examined my purchases in the car park, I was curious to find that they included a stick of fig-roll.

Between three of us, and strictly outside office hours, we were able to fill a Volvo estate. We compared what we had bought with the model Customs and Excise waybill, and discovered that our haul represented no more than a drop in the Channel. Since January 1993, it has been legal to bring home ten litres of spirits from France, as well as 90 litres of table wine, 110 litres of beer, and 20 litres of fortified wines – ports and sherries, and perries, that stuff nobody has ever been known to drink. Nor is that the end of it, for the above tariff only has advisory status. You can bring in more, to an unspecified volume, if you can prove that it’s solely for your personal use.

You might think, then, that it must be easy to smuggle. The Calais traders even fetch your favourite brands over from Britain, so that you can pick them up more cheaply than you can on the high street and then take them back to Britain with you. Customs and Excise are laying off inspectors, so it will become easier to evade detection, according to their union leaders. Mr Clarke complained about smuggling in his speech. But the truth is that it’s now quite hard to smuggle. The rules are so flexible that contrabandists have got their work cut out to break them. You’ve really got to push yourself to make it as a smuggler, to be recognised as a smuggler in the eyes of the law. We met the landlord of a pub in Essex, who would probably count as one, and several taciturn men with bandy Transits. But convicted smugglers are rare. In May, three men were jailed for up to nine months at Cardiff Crown Court for their part in a racket which deprived the Exchequer of £70,000 in duty. And three Wolverhampton men were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for failing to hand over £73,000 payable on their hookey hootch. This month, Customs officers pulled off their biggest coup to date, breaking up an alleged smuggling ring of at least 28 people linked to millions of pounds in outstanding revenue. Some of the men who were arrested were unemployed miners. Yet the reality is that most of us are no more likely to smuggle than we ever were. It’s just easier to feel like a smuggler these days.

As the lights of Kent at last hove into view at the end of our homeward crossing, a few lines from the endpapers of J. Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet, the blockbuster of bootlegging, rose unbidden to my salt-caked lips, so I laid down my packet of peanuts and recited them:

Says the Cap’n to the Crew,
‘We have slipped the Revenue,
     I can see the cliffs of Dover on the lee;
Tip the signal to the Swan,
And anchor broadside on,
   And out with the kegs of Eau-de-Vie,’
                   Says the Cap’n:
‘Out with the kegs of Eau-de-Vie.’

Back on dry land, the immigration officer counted two passports and observed: ‘But there are three of you.’

‘He’s been a naughty boy,’ said the cameraman.

‘Oh?’ said the officer. She looked at me.

‘Forgotten his passport.’

‘Do you have a driving licence?’ she asked me.

‘Not on me, I’m afraid. Is a press card any good?’

‘I just wanted to hear your voice,’ she said. ‘Make sure you sounded British.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences