When I was much younger, one of my favourite TV shows was the Rowan Atkinson comedy Black Adder, and of the various series, the second, set in Elizabethan England, was perhaps the funniest. In one episode his puritanical aunt and her husband came to dinner, and in this classic comedy of errors Black Adder is trying to flit between a sombre meal with the puritans and a drunken party in a neighbouring room. Watching it back again, it is still very funny, in a sort of regression-to-adolescence sort of way.
Puritans aren’t much fun (as depicted in Black Adder, at least: I recognise that it’s simplistic and inaccurate to characterise the puritan movement as simply very strict people who hated pleasure, but please cut me some slack here). It’s a strange mentality that links holiness with the absence of fun. There’s nothing virtuous about the denial of pleasure for its own sake. Of course, there’s something to be said for standing firm in the face of suffering, and growing through the process, but it’s a fool who wishes suffering upon themselves. We will find enough of that in our lifetime without seeking it out.
And, of course, there are times when it is right to deny ourselves. Deferring gratification is a vital life skill if we want to attain anything worthwhile in life. And some things are genuinely bad for us, or may be hurtful for other people: for this reason, we should choose to avoid them. But it is actively wrong (perhaps even evil) to deny ourselves pleasure for no good reason and then to set about denying others similar pleasure. But we seem to tolerate such puritanism.
And this is exactly what the anti-alcohol lobby are doing at the moment. I think we shouldn’t just let them, but instead we should be cross about it and fight back. The public health experts have more-or-less beaten tobacco, and now they have turned their sights on booze. They mean well. They want to alleviate suffering and disease. Alcohol abuse is a grave social evil. But the answer to mis-use is not dis-use but correct use. Lined up in the public health cross-hairs though, all alcohol use is targeted as harmful. By jiggling around large epidemiological studies and creating meta analyses, they have decided that the previous strong association between moderate drinking and increased life span is, in fact, an artefact. The well studied mechanisms showing a cardioprotective effect of alcohol consumption are being swept under the carpet as new evidence of alcohol’s harm is being marshalled to counter its benefits.
But this isn’t really the issue. Drinking can be a very positive thing. When I walk through London on Friday night and watch the crowds spilling onto the pavement outside pubs, I don’t see a grave social ill unfolding before my eyes: I see people relaxing in each others’ company and socializing in a way that they wouldn’t in a coffee shop. Alcohol, used well, is an incredible social glue. In my own circle of friends, there are few things more rewarding or enjoyable that sitting down in a restaurant, sharing a bottle of wine with friends, and the effect of the alcohol opening us up to each other. It’s tremendously life-affirming.
And wine, especially, is incredibly culturally and socially rich. It has the power to bring people together. It is a celebration of place, and farming, and craft – a connection between the present and the past. The act of winegrowing is also looking to the future, to the next vintage, to a point further in time when the wine will be consumed.
Public Health officials shouldn’t be trying to stop people drinking. They should be encouraging good, beneficial use of alcohol. There are many deaths on the roads, but these have been reduced – not by targeting driving and getting people to stop, but by encouraging safer driving. Obesity is a public health issue, but it would be ludicrous to try to restrict the types of food that are sold (although this is probably in some sort of planning stage), rather than actually encouraging people to eat more healthily.
The promulgation of the message ‘no safe level of drinking’ is part of an organized public health strategy. Next will come increased taxation, minimum unit pricing (something I actually approve of), and then banning marketing/advertising of alcohol. Wine will get caught up in this, and if we don’t have a voice, and complain, then we’ll be powerless to stop the later stages of this plan. We should resist those whose souls are essentially puritan in nature, denying themselves pleasure and also denying pleasure to others.