In his 1922 book My Discovery of England the Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock turned his attention to British drinking habits, among other topics.
Leacock was famous around the world for his satirical social sketches. He was also politically conservative, pro-Empire and downright racist.
A hundred years on, that makes deciphering his writing difficult.
What does he mean, and what is he saying for comic effect?
Without context, without being absorbed in the issues of the day, it’s hard to say.
His commentary on women being admitted to universities, for example, sounds so extreme that it can’t be sincere. But it seems it was.
On the politics and culture of booze and pubs, however, we feel on safer ground.
In a chapter called ‘Is prohibition coming to England?’ he begins by suggesting, in exaggerated terms, that all anybody in the US and Canada was talking about at the time was prohibition:
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 implemental statutes such as the Volstead Act and the underlying State legislation. A ‘scientist’ is a man who can make clear the distinction between alcoholic percentages by bulk and by weight.
With that in mind, he says, he knew he would be expected to answer the question “Is England going dry?” and so set out to answer it.
What he discovered was, in short, that we are a nation of drunkards:
My first impression on the subject was, I must say, one of severe moral shock. Landing in England after having spent 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 25 cents a bottle, and dry sherry at 18 cents a glass.
He is, here, clearly parodying the tone of temperance campaigners, many of whose books and articles we’ve endured over the years. He goes on:
I realized 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 they are “consuming alcohol”. Their impression is that they are drinking beer.
If you were in any doubt about his seriousness, his statistics would finally tip you off: “The percentage of the working class drinking beer is 125; the percentage of the class without working drinking beer is 200.”
His judgement on the likelihood of prohibition coming into effect in Britain was sincere, though.
“In Scotland,” he writes, “prohibition is not coming; if anything, it is going.” There, he observes, people don’t drink for pleasure anyway. They take whisky “as a medicine, or as a precaution, or as a wise offset against a rather treacherous climate; but as a beverage, never.”
But in England, “prohibition could easily come” and “signs that indicate the possible approach of prohibition”.
He notices, for example, the weird opening hours of pubs:
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.
For all his snark, those opening lines are actually rather beautiful. We always like it when people write poetically about pubs.
His argument (apparently sincere… again, it’s hard to keep track) is that by conceding the need to regulate alcohol consumption at all, England is drifting into prohibition, and giving the puritans somewhere to insert their lever.
He concludes the chapter with a letter written in the voice of an imagined American prohibitionist after prohibition has been imposed in England.
It’s broad, but funny.
He has workers refusing to knock-off at the end of a shift because, without a pub to go to, they’re happy to keep laying bricks.
Members of the House of Lords turn to opium and chewing tobacco.
And the general public, hearing that a popular brand of soap contains alcohol, starts “eating cakes of it”.
The concluding line of this letter is the most pointed, and will sound familiar to anyone who has read any of the more libertarian beer bloggers in recent years:
But I don’t want you to think that if you come over here to see me your private life will be in any way impaired or curtailed. I am glad to say that I have plenty of rich connections whose cellars are very amply stocked. The Duke of Blank is said to have five thousand cases of Scotch whisky, and I have managed to get a card of introduction to his butler. In fact, you will find that, just as with us in America, the benefit of prohibition is intended to fall on the poorer classes; there is no desire to interfere with the rich.
We picked up a very tatty 1923 copy of this book for £2. There are quite a few copies on eBay for around the same price. Or you can read it for free at archive.org and elsewhere.