Politics right now is enough to make anyone turn to drink, although perhaps not the teetotal President of the United States. Although it is highly questionable whether “the Donald” is in any respect a conservative (it seems not) it is beyond doubt that he never drinks alcohol.
I am not sure how I feel about this. Watching Trump’s antics on Twitter and in the Oval Office from a distance, the thought occurs that a martini at the bar of New York’s Carlyle Hotel, or even a glass of excellent Californian pinot noir at the Trump hotel in Washington, might help him cope. Would it have a calming effect on the President and introduce a little introspection to his limited emotional repertoire? On second thoughts, even in the initiated drink can exaggerate pre-existing personality traits and flaws. The notion of that first ever martini making Trump even more boastful and combative is too much to contemplate. The military implications do not bear thinking about. Mr President, sir, step away from the drinks cabinet. It is imperative for the future of mankind that Donald Trump remains teetotal.
America has a complicated relationship with alcohol rooted in religion and a phobia of fecklessness – it is a country defined by the search for self-improvement. In the Progressive era there were assorted moral panics about booze. Then the theory of abstinence was tested to destruction during the Prohibition era from 1919 to 1933, when the effect was quite the opposite of that intended by puritanical reformers.
The ban on alcohol forced imbibing underground, giving it an illicit attraction. Arguably, this lust for the allure of the forbidden hard liquor even helped fuel the incredible intensity of the late 1920s economic boom, by making the search for the party a defining pursuit among the rich and the aspirational. America went, merrily, mad. The resulting hangover in the Depression was something to behold.
In the modern era it is quite normal to hear an American acquaintance in business or politics say that they do not really drink. By this they mean that they will never drink at lunchtime. But they will meet you at their favourite bar in Manhattan at the close of the working day where they will in the course of 45 minutes demolish three martinis, while you sip a small glass of wine, before they high-tail it to Grand Central Station in New York for the commuter train home to Greenwich where they collapse in front of Netflix.
The fetishising of the cocktail and fussiness about ingredients is an American speciality, and as Kingsley Amis said in Everyday Drinking – one of his three studies of the subject – there are cocktail bores as well as wine bores, who can be defined as people who take more interest in the technicalities than in the taste.
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The technicalities matter, of course they do, but the universal core aim should be the possibility of transcendence through pleasure, or short of that just relaxation conducive to conversation or comradeship. As Amis put it: “The human race has not yet devised any way of dissolving barriers, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient as letting you and the other chap, or chaps, cease to be totally sober at about the same rate in agreeable surroundings.”
Amis was a chap writing when women were far less likely to drink. And ultimately he himself was not a good advert for drinking. It got him in the end, as his friend Christopher Hitchens said, robbing him of his “wit and charm as well as health.”
Today, we are encouraged to be much more mindful of the impact of excess. Even in southern Europe, with its traditions of supping slowly and venerating the connection between food and wine, there is an emphasis on reducing intake. The Northern European hordes – German wine connoisseurs apart – are different because they tended to drink to forget, possibly to forget the weather and so on.
Developments in recent decades have left the British the most confused of the lot, as northern Europeans who have fallen for the charms of southern Europe. The beery English ale tradition, and hard drinking Scottish culture, has been supplemented by the mass market discovery of wine, thanks to European travel and the search for a cosmopolitan lifestyle. In the UK, lager louts co-exist with stressed middle class types glugging gallons of appalling Pinot Grigio.
The emphasis on health, and the continual pressure from the state to watch it, means that even those of us who admit we enjoy good wine do sometimes make a sustained effort to abstain. I have just experienced one of my pathetic and doomed annual attempts at drinking only mineral water for a while. Once again, after a week, my campaign collapsed, leaving my efforts a complete failure.
The blame lay with a brilliant friend, a well-connected wizard at the technology investing game, who hosted a dinner in honour of a senior editor from an esteemed American newspaper passing through London on a Brexit tour. My resolve was unshakeable, until our host ordered an unaffordable (unaffordable for me, not him) jeroboam (large format) of Chateau Latour 1986. Good wine is sent to test us, just like Donald Trump, and I failed the test and nodded in the affirmative to the offer of a glass.
Latour is one of the greatest of the Bordeaux wines, and this one, drinking beautifully, was made in one of my favourite years. So much that is interesting and significant happened in 1986 in Britain. It was the high watermark of Thatcherism, and a vintage period for British theatre and pop music.
As we ate and drank properly mature wine we discussed the possibility that the immature Trump may succeed on the economy, with his policy of lower taxes and deregulation. It is in the arena of foreign policy and defence, and the frightening power a US president has in an emergency, that the far greater concern lies. This fascinating if at times apocalyptic discussion was improved by the wine, and after several glasses laughter about the President’s peculiarities filled the room. Wine had helped us see the funny side.