Photo by Jack Taylor / AFP

Prohibition by other means

Do rising alcohol prices indicate the good times really are over — or could they harbour our freedom?

Artillery Row

Pints hitting six quid made headlines in the UK recently but if you think that’s bad, pity imbibers in the US. Indulging in a few bevvies there increasingly feels like a decadent pursuit.

Up in the northeast, around New York, Washington, D.C. and Boston, where I began my return to the US after 18 months of the US travel ban — and where I expect many Brits will be arriving following the recent US government announcement to lift the ban on 8 November — a pint costs on average $9, about £7 going off recent exchange rates. And remember: a US pint is smaller than the noble British imperial pint of 20 imperial fluid ounces.

As a result, my plan to hit the bars and meet locals to gauge the mood music after my prolonged absence, proved an expensive strategy. Cocktail prices were even more outlandish, about $15 for a very average cocktail (read weak, with little of the good stuff you’re paying for). I make a good cocktail — who doesn’t after those lockdowns — so I can taste the difference. Hence the $20-priced “Between the Sheets” cocktail in New York will scar me for some time.

When heading out for a burger and a few beers in the US increasingly feels like a luxury, and is priced accordingly: in Washington, $45 for a burger and three half pints washed down with 20 per cent service charge included — something is really off. It’s like Prohibition by other means. Admittedly, given the scale of America, there is large variation. I recently savoured $5 pints — about £3.60 — down in Texas, so there is hope.

Concerns linger about what inflation is doing

No wonder so many younger Americans are turning to marijuana, the smell of which is utterly pervasive now in large US cities as the mushrooming marijuana-industrial complex of Big Dope gets a big thumbs up from the government and Big Business licks its lips. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 12 per cent of US adults said they smoke marijuana, rising to 22 per cent among those aged 18 to 29. Critics of the mushrooming cannabis industry argue it won’t be long before the US rues the day that widespread cannabis use became acceptable.

Steep drink prices are part of a much larger trend in the US. Petrol prices have jumped across the nation as oil prices reach a 7-year high. September prices for meats, poultry, fish and eggs were up by 10.5 per cent from September 2020, according to the monthly Consumer Price Index report. Real estate prices and rental rates are out of control in numerous cities. All the while, concerns linger about what inflation is doing — the annual US inflation rate stood at 5.4 per cent in September, with predictions it’s heading for 7 per cent soon.

One potential consequence if the above trajectory continues, beyond economic hardships for millions of people and families, is the increased likelihood that President Biden and the Democratic Party will struggle, if not get hammered, in the 2022 mid-term elections. Such an outcome could encourage Donald Trump to compete in the 2024 presidential election. The majority of Americans engaged at the bar told me Trump will run again given enough opportunity.

Rising costs, runaway inflation, the return of Trump, all within the new Covid-19-industrial complex — it’s enough to make you sprint for the bar regardless of any prices. But as I sip my drink nowadays, I increasingly hear the squawking “Attention! Attention!” of Aldous Huxley’s mynah birds.

In Island, his last novel published in 1962, the author best known for his 1932 dystopian classic Brave New World offers a more utopian vision of the future. Huxley transports us to the fictional Pacific island of Pala where an ideal society has flourished for 120 years. The island’s inhabitants use the mynah birds and their capacity for mimicry as a tool for mindfulness — a means to remind them to pay attention to the present.

Drugs and alcohol typically don’t help one to remain present focused. Huxley’s relationship to the former was complex, if not fluid. In Brave New World he warns of how the supine population is kept sated through the government-supplied drug soma. But after his psychedelic experience on mescaline, described in his short 1954 book The Doors of Perception that became a bible for the 1960s counterculture, Huxley became much more open to the potentialities of mind-altering drugs, right up until famously experiencing one last acid trip on his deathbed.

It does seem a shame to have to pay through the nose for a little respite

Throughout his writings, though, Huxley had little time for alcohol, cautioning how the need to actively engage with reality and defend liberties that are more vulnerable than we realise is ill served by an addled brain. Life under Covid, both in the US and UK, increasingly appears more Brave New World as we douse ourselves in social media dopamine hits and distract ourselves from reality with booze and recreational drugs. Currently, the government doesn’t need to hit us over the head — à la George Orwell’s 1984 — we are doing it to ourselves.

I suspect Huxley would advise us to lay off the social media and mind-altering ingestions to mitigate us feeling so addled — and becoming so malleable. But then I think of Jack London’s autobiographical John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs, arguably the first literary treatise on alcohol in American literature:

“Heaven forefend me from the most of the average run of male humans who are not good fellows, the ones cold of heart and cold of head who don’t smoke, drink, or swear, or do much of anything else that is brase, and resentful, and stinging, because in their feeble fibres there has never been the stir and prod of life to well over its boundaries and be devilish and daring,” Barleycorn says. “One doesn’t meet these in saloons, nor rallying to lost causes, nor flaming on the adventure-paths, nor loving as God’s own mad lovers. They are too busy keeping their feet dry, conserving their heart-beats, and making unlovely life-successes of their spirit-mediocrity.”

And as Barleycorn notes, the Greeks believed that the gods gave them wine so that they might forget the miserableness of existence. Admittedly by the end of the book an older wiser Barleycorn is praising the emotional and intellectual liberty that comes from temperance. If one succumbs the other way, though, especially now, I think one can easily be forgiven given present circumstances. And it does seem a shame to have to pay through the nose for a little respite.

“It’s hard to understand other people, to know what’s hidden in their hearts, and without the assistance of alcohol it might never be done at all,” French novelist Michel Houellebecq says of the alcohol conundrum in Submission, his 2015 novel about a near dystopian future in which France becomes a quasi-Islamic state.

Underpinning much of Houellebecq’s writing is how modernist society is “a machine for destroying love”, and how strange and sad things can happen to the societal order if we aren’t careful. So much of the response to Covid-19 has been justified in the name of love and protecting loved ones.

“That’s what you always forget, isn’t it?” one of Pala’s residents tells the novel’s protagonist when explaining the role of the mynah birds. “You forget to pay attention to what’s happening.”

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