This past weekend in Petaluma, north of San Francisco, the wife and kids and I encountered the monument above, erected by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, as it says, in 1891. Sprouting from the top of the granite block (not easily seen here) is a water fountain. Drink if thirsty, the grim message goes, but only water – forever.
That was a hell narrowly avoided, wasn’t it? Personally, I find that such relics of militant sobriety inspire me with a boundless gratitude and admiration for our irreformable human nature. And a sick, sick craving for a gin and tonic.
H.L. Mencken, in the fourth series of his Prejudices (1924), reminds us that “all the great villainies of history have been perpetrated by sober men, and chiefly by teetotalers.” Conversely, he says, all pleasant and ennobling products of human culture have their origin in booze. What we need in order to be better persons, generally, is more alcohol rather than less. If we want to love our neighbor, lead happy lives, and be peaceful and decent citizens, then we ought to live (he says) in a middling state of perpetual tipsiness:
I am well aware that getting the whole human race stewed and keeping it stewed, year in and year out, would present formidable technical difficulties… On the one hand there would be the constant danger that large minorities might occasionally become cold sober, and so start wars, theological disputes, moral reforms, and other such unpleasantnesses. On the other hand, there would be danger that other minorities might proceed to actual intoxication, and so annoy us all with their fatuous bawling or maudlin tears. But such technical obstacles, of course, are by no means insurmountable. Perhaps they might be got around by abandoning the administration of alcohol per ora and distributing it instead by impregnating the air with it. I throw out the suggestion and pass on.
Reading this again last night a cartoon light bulb flashed in my head and I thought of a passage marked in my copy of Flann O’Brien’s The Best of Myles. I don’t know if it’s a case of great minds thinking alike or if O’Brien (writing somewhat later) took inspiration from Mencken. In any case, O’Brien’s ‘Myles na gCopaleen Research Bureau’ turns out a truly novel method of imbibing:
It is provisionally called ‘Trink’ and looks for all the world like the ordinary black ink you can buy for twopence. ‘Trink’, however, is a very special job. When put on paper and dried it emits a subtle alcoholic vapour which will hang over the document in an invisible odorless cloud for several days. A person perusing such a document is surrounded by this cloud. The vapour is drawn in with the breath, condenses in the mucous tract, gradually finds its way to the stomach and is absorbed in the blood. Intoxication ensues, mild or acute, according to how much reading is done…
We are not yet at the stage when we can risk printing the Irish Times with it, but the other day we decided to use it for one or two posters intended for the country. The results, noted by our own plain-clothes narks who were on the spot, were quite satisfactory. A few people on their way to work in a certain town paused for a moment to spell out the placard (our educational system is weak remember) and to reflect for a moment on the news. The news was bad, as usual, but the parties taking it in experienced a strange feeling of elation and well-being. They went on their way rejoicing and one of them, a staid school master, went into his class and straightway led them in a raucous rendering of ‘Alexander’s Rag-time Band’, bashing out the time on his desk with a pointer.
That’s a long quote, I know, but really I couldn’t help it. Intoxication, “mild or acute, according to how much reading is done” pretty well sums up my own response to O’Brien, and Mencken too. No doubt my copies were printed in Trink.