My Discovery of England by Stephen Leacock
VIII.--Is Prohibition Coming to England?
IN the United States and Canada the principal topic of polite conversation is now prohibition. At every dinner party the serving of the cocktails immediately introduces the subject: the rest of the dinner is enlivened throughout with the discussion of rum-runners, bootleggers, storage of liquor and the State constitution of New Jersey. Under this influence all social and conversational values are shifted and rearranged. A "scholarly" man no longer means a man who can talk well on literary subjects but a man who understands the eighteenth amendment and can explain the legal difference between implementing statutes such as the Volstead Act and the underlying state legislation. A "scientist" (invaluable in these conversations) is a man who can make clear the distinction between alcoholic percentages by bulk and by weight. And a "brilliant engineer" means a man who explains how to make homebrewed beer with a kick in it. Similarly, a "raconteur" means a man who has a fund of amusing stories about "bootleggers" and an "interesting traveller" means a man who has been to Havana and can explain how wet it is. Indeed, the whole conception of travel and of interest in foreign countries is now altered: as soon as any one mentions that he has been in a foreign country, all the company ask in one breath, "Is it dry?" The question "How is Samoa?" or "How is Turkey?" or "How is British Columbia?" no Ionger refers to the climate or natural resources: it means "Is the place dry?" When such a question is asked and the answer is "It's wet," there is a deep groan all around the table.
I understand that when the recent disarmament conference met at Washington just as the members were going to sit down at the table Monsieur Briand said to President Harding, "How dry is the United States, anyway?" And the whole assembly talked about it for half an hour. That was why the first newspaper bulletins merely said, "Conference exchanges credentials."
As a discoverer of England I therefore made it one of my chief cares to try to obtain accurate information of this topic. I was well aware that immediately on my return to Canada the first question I would be asked would be "Is England going dry?" I realised that in any report I might make to the National Geographical Society or to the Political Science Association, the members of these bodies, being scholars, would want accurate information about the price of whiskey, the percentage of alcohol, and the hours of opening and closing the saloons.
My first impression on the subject was, I must say, one of severe moral shock. Landing in England after spending the summer in Ontario, it seemed a terrible thing to see people openly drinking on an English train. On an Ontario train, as everybody knows, there is no way of taking a drink except by climbing up on the roof, lying flat on one's stomach, and taking a suck out of a flask. But in England in any dining car one actually sees a waiter approach a person dining and say, "Beer, sir, or wine?" This is done in broad daylight with no apparent sense of criminality or moral shame. Appalling though it sounds, bottled ale is openly sold on the trains at twenty-five cents a bottle and dry sherry at eighteen cents a glass.
When I first saw this I expected to see the waiter arrested on the spot. I looked around to see if there were any "spotters," detectives, or secret service men on the train. I anticipated that the train conductor would appear and throw the waiter off the car. But then I realised that I was in England and that in the British Isles they still tolerate the consumption of alcohol. Indeed, I doubt if they are even aware that they are "consuming alcohol." Their impression is that they are drinking beer.
At the beginning of my discussion I will therefore preface a few exact facts and statistics for the use of geographical societies, learned bodies and government commissions. The quantity of beer consumed in England in a given period is about 200,000,000 gallons. The life of a bottle of Scotch whiskey is seven seconds. The number of public houses, or "pubs," in the English countryside is one to every half mile. The percentage of the working classes drinking beer is 125: the percentage of the class without work drinking beer is 200.
Statistics like these do not, however, give a final answer to the question, "Is prohibition coming to England?" They merely show that it is not there now. The question itself will be answered in as many different ways as there are different kinds of people. Any prohibitionist will tell you that the coming of prohibition to England is as certain as the coming eclipse of the sun. But this is always so. It is in human nature that people are impressed by the cause they work in. I once knew a minister of the Scotch Church who took a voyage round the world: he said that the thing that impressed him most was the growth of presbyterianism in Japan. No doubt it did. When the Orillia lacrosse team took their trip to Australia, they said on their return that lacrosse was spreading all over the world. In the same way there is said to be a spread all over the world of Christian Science, proportional representation, militarism, peace sentiment, barbarism, altruism, psychoanalysis and death from wood alcohol. They are what are called world movements.
My own judgment in regard to prohibition in the British Isles is this: In Scotland, prohibition is not coming: if anything, it is going. In Ireland, prohibition will only be introduced when they have run out of other forms of trouble. But in England I think that prohibition could easily come unless the English people realise where they are drifting and turn back. They are in the early stage of the movement already.
Turning first to Scotland, there is no fear, I say, that prohibition will be adopted there: and this from the simple reason that the Scotch do not drink. I have elsewhere alluded to the extraordinary misapprehension that exists in regard to the Scotch people and their sense of humour. I find a similar popular error in regard to the use of whiskey by the Scotch. Because they manufacture the best whiskey in the world, the Scotch, in popular fancy, are often thought to be addicted to the drinking of it. This is purely a delusion. During the whole of two or three pleasant weeks spent in lecturing in Scotland, I never on any occasion saw whiskey made use of as a beverage. I have seen people take it, of course, as a medicine, or as a precaution, or as a wise offset against a rather treacherous climate; but as a beverage, never.
The manner and circumstance of their offering whiskey to a stranger amply illustrates their point of view towards it. Thus at my first lecture in Glasgow where I was to appear before a large and fashionable audience, the chairman said to me in the committee room that he was afraid that there might be a draft on the platform. Here was a serious matter. For a lecturer who has to earn his living by his occupation, a draft on the platform is not a thing to be disregarded. It might kill him. Nor is it altogether safe for the chairman himself, a man already in middle life, to be exposed to a current of cold air. In this case, therefore, the chairman suggested that he thought it might be "prudent"--that was his word, "prudent"--if I should take a small drop of whiskey before encountering the draft. In return I told him that I could not think of his accompanying me to the platform unless he would let me insist on his taking a very reasonable precaution. Whiskey taken on these terms not only seems like a duty but it tastes better.
In the same way I find that in Scotland it is very often necessary to take something to drink on purely meteorological grounds. The weather simply cannot be trusted. A man might find that on "going out into the weather" he is overwhelmed by a heavy fog or an avalanche of snow or a driving storm of rain. In such a case a mere drop of whiskey might save his life. It would be folly not to take it. Again,--"coming in out of the weather" is a thing not to be trifled with. A person coming in unprepared and unprotected might be seized with angina pectoris or appendicitis and die upon the spot. No reasonable person would refuse the simple precaution of taking a small drop immediately after his entry.
I find that, classified altogether, there are seventeen reasons advanced in Scotland for taking whiskey. They run as follows: Reason one, because it is raining; Two, because it is not raining; Three, because you are just going out into the weather; Four, because you have just come in from the weather; Five; no, I forget the ones that come after that. But I remember that reason number seventeen is "because it canna do ye any harm." On the whole, reason seventeen is the best.
Put in other words this means that the Scotch make use of whiskey with dignity and without shame: and they never call it alcohol.
In England the case is different. Already the English are showing the first signs that indicate the possible approach of prohibition. Already all over England there are weird regulations about the closing hours of the public houses. They open and close according to the varying regulations of the municipality. In some places they open at six in the morning, close down for an hour from nine till ten, open then till noon, shut for ten minutes, and so on; in some places they are open in the morning and closed in the evening; in other places they are open in the evening and closed in the morning. The ancient idea was that a wayside public house was a place of sustenance and comfort, a human need that might be wanted any hour. It was in the same class with the life boat or the emergency ambulance. Under the old common law the innkeeper must supply meat and drink at any hour. If he was asleep the traveller might wake him. And in those days meat and drink were regarded in the same light. Note how great the change is. In modern life in England there is nothing that you dare wake up a man for except gasoline. The mere fact that you need a drink is no longer held to entitle you to break his rest.
In London especially one feels the full force of the "closing" regulations. The bars open and shut at intervals like daisies blinking at the sun. And like the flowers at evening they close their petals with the darkness. In London they have already adopted the deadly phrases of the prohibitionist, such as "alcohol" and "liquor traffic" and so on: and already the "sale of spirits" stops absolutely at about eleven o'clock at night.
This means that after theatre hours London is a "city of dreadful night." The people from the theatre scuttle to their homes. The lights are extinguished in the windows. The streets darken. Only a belated taxi still moves. At midnight the place is deserted. At 1 A.M., the lingering footfalls echo in the empty street. Here and there a restaurant in a fashionable street makes a poor pretence of keeping open for after theatre suppers. Odd people, the shivering wrecks of theatre parties, are huddled here and there. A gloomy waiter lays a sardine on the table. The guests charge their glasses with Perrier Water, Lithia Water, Citrate of Magnesia, or Bromo Seltzer. They eat the sardine and vanish into the night. Not even Oshkosh, Wisconsin, or Middlebury, Vermont, is quieter than is the night life of London. It may no doubt seem a wise thing to go to bed early.
But it is a terrible thing to go to bed early by Act of Parliament.
All of which means that the people of England are not facing the prohibition question fairly and squarely. If they see no harm in "consuming alcohol" they ought to say so and let their code of regulations reflect the fact. But the "closing" and "regulating" and "squeezing" of the "liquor traffic", without any outspoken protest, means letting the whole case go by default. Under these circumstances an organised and active minority can always win and impose its will upon the crowd.
When I was in England I amused myself one day by writing an imaginary picture of what England will be like when the last stage is reached and London goes the way of New York and Chicago. I cast it in the form of a letter from an American prohibitionist in which he describes the final triumph of prohibition in England. With the permission of the reader I reproduce it here: