I’ll drink to my act of fes­tive char­ity

The Northern Advocate - - Opinion - Joe Ben­nett

Yes, sorry, we’re back with booze. But it’s not my fault. Blame the man on the ra­dio. “Al­co­hol,” and he might as well have stopped there. The choice of word al­ready tells you which way the geese are fly­ing. To him a bot­tle of shi­raz, the colour of oxy­genated blood and tast­ing of sun and pa­gan­ism, is a mere chem­i­cal, C H COOH, 2 5 there­fore just a drug. And drugs are sin­ful. End of story. The man on the ra­dio is a pu­ri­tan.

Some­one has to swat down the up­surge of pu­ri­tan tut­ting as Christ­mas ap­proaches and I am happy to do the job. I think of it as my act of Christ­mas char­ity.

I have quoted be­fore HL Mencken’s def­i­ni­tion of pu­ri­tanism but I don’t hes­i­tate to quote it again, for the truth de­mands rep­e­ti­tion. He was an icon­o­clas­tic Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist who got to the age of 76 on a diet of hard liquor and cheap cigars, and who was wrong about sev­eral things. But not about the pu­ri­tans. Pu­ri­tanism, he de­clared, is the haunt­ing fear that some­one some­where may be happy.

The roots of pu­ri­tanism are re­li­gious, of course. We are fallen crea­tures, drenched in sin, so hap­pi­ness is only to be found post mortem. There­fore any ap­pear­ance of hap­pi­ness pre­mortem must be some sort of base an­i­mal plea­sure to be con­demned as wicked­ness.

These days in the West, re­li­gion is wan­ing, but pu­ri­tanism per­sists, with our duty to God re­placed by our duty to live a long time. In­stead of seek­ing life eter­nal by pay­ing the priest, we now seek life ex­tended by pay­ing the per­sonal trainer. But this life’s the only one we’ve got so it makes sense we should try to en­joy it.

That Christ­mas should bring out the pu­ri­tans is no sur­prise, for it is the one sea­son whose of­fi­cial note is jol­lity. Christ­mas songs are happy songs and Saint Ni­cholas is fat be­cause the ori­gin of Christ­mas is the win­ter sol­stice, a feast and booze-up to mark the nadir of the year, a tonic for those be­sieged by the cold, and a beano that’s a good deal older than the re­li­gion that co-opted it but failed to change its na­ture. The spirit of Christ­mas is in­dul­gence.

But the man on the ra­dio sur­prised me. He didn’t lament the sin of booze in gen­eral. He lamented the sin of booze among the el­derly. Al­co­hol, he said, was felling our pen­sion­ers like pines. Drink­ing among the aged is a silent epi­demic. Some­thing needs to be done (oh lis­ten to the wring­ing of my hands). So many pre­ventable deaths.

Well now, any­one speak­ing of pre­ventable deaths needs a crash course in thought. Death is not pre­ventable. It is only post­pon­able. But it suits our pu­ri­tan friend to speak of pre­ventable deaths be­cause that casts him, im­plic­itly, as a saviour. And who can crit­i­cise a saviour? Well I can.

Let us suppose that the el­derly are fall­ing to the bot­tle by the thou­sand. Are they go­ing on crime ram­pages? Are they harm­ing oth­ers? Are they cost­ing the state? They are not. By dy­ing early they save the state mil­lions. So what ex­actly does it have to do with you or me or any­one else? Leave them be.

Are peo­ple never to be re­garded as au­ton­o­mous adults? Are we al­ways to be treated as tod­dlers in need of su­per­vi­sion by nanny, even af­ter we have lived our lives and raised our chil­dren, done what we were go­ing to do and sunk down into the comfy chair of re­tire­ment?

And that is not all. Im­plicit in the pu­ri­tan’s at­ti­tude is the as­sump­tion that the wages of virtue are bet­ter than the wages of sin. Well are they? Con­sider my sainted mother who has lived a life of ab­sten­tion and mod­er­a­tion. For most of her 80s, she was bored. She watched a lot of day­time tele­vi­sion. Then she had a stroke. For the past three years she has been de­mented, in­con­ti­nent, be­wil­dered, de­meaned, and she will be that way till fate stops toy­ing with her. Per­haps she should have drunk more.

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