Yes, sorry, we're back with booze. But it's not my fault. Blame the man on the radio.

"Alcohol," said the man on the radio, and he might as well have stopped there. The choice of word already tells you which way the geese are flying. To him a bottle of shiraz, the colour of oxygenated blood and tasting of sun and paganism, is a mere chemical, C2H5COOH, therefore by definition just a drug. And drugs are sinful. End of story. The man on the radio is a puritan.

There is always an upsurge of puritan tutting as Christmas approaches, so someone has to swat it down and I am happy to do the job. I think of it as my act of Christmas charity.

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I have quoted before Mencken's definition of puritanism but I don't hesitate to quote it again, for it is true and the truth doesn't just bear repetition, it demands it. Truth is like a gemstone: it never dims with familiarity. The only crime you can commit against it is to hide it from sight.

HL Mencken was an iconoclastic American journalist who got to the age of 76 on a diet of hard liquor and cheap cigars. Photo / Getty Images
HL Mencken was an iconoclastic American journalist who got to the age of 76 on a diet of hard liquor and cheap cigars. Photo / Getty Images

HL Mencken was an iconoclastic American journalist who got to the age of 76 on a diet of hard liquor and cheap cigars, and who was wrong about several things. But not about the puritans. Puritanism, he declared, is the haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy. Beat that for brilliance.

The roots of puritanism are religious, of course. We are fallen creatures. We are drenched in sin. We inhabit a vale of tears, so happiness is only to be found post mortem. Therefore any appearance of happiness pre-mortem must be some sort of base animal pleasure to be condemned as wickedness.

These days in the west religion is waning, but puritanism persists, with our duty to God replaced by our duty to live a long time. Instead of seeking life eternal by paying the priest, we now seek life extended by paying the personal trainer. But it remains as true as ever that this life's the only one we've got so it makes sense we should try to enjoy it.

That Christmas should bring out the puritans is no surprise, for it is the one season whose official note is jollity. Christmas songs are happy songs and Saint Nicholas is fat because the origin of Christmas is the winter solstice, a feast and booze-up to mark the nadir of the year, a tonic for those besieged by the cold, and a beano that's a good deal older than the religion that co-opted it but failed to change its nature. The spirit of Christmas is indulgence.

Drinking among the aged is a silent epidemic, the man on the radio said. Photo / Getty Images
Drinking among the aged is a silent epidemic, the man on the radio said. Photo / Getty Images

But the man on the radio surprised me. He didn't lament the sin of booze in general. He lamented the sin of booze among the elderly. Alcohol, he said - and though I am not quoting him precisely because I did not take notes, I am being faithful to his message - is laying waste to our old people, felling our pensioners like pines. Drinking among the aged is a silent epidemic. Something needs to be done (oh listen to the wringing of my hands). So many preventable deaths.

Well now, anyone speaking of preventable deaths needs a crash course in thought. Death is not preventable. It is only postponable. But it suits our puritan friend to speak of preventable deaths because that casts him, implicitly, as a saviour. And who can criticise a saviour? Well I can.

Let us suppose that he is right and that the elderly are falling to the bottle by the thousand. Are they going on crime rampages and disrupting the peace? They are not. Are they harming others in any way? They are not. Are they costing the state? They are not. By dying early they are saving the state millions. So what exactly does it have to do with you or me or anyone else? Leave them be.

Are people never to be regarded as autonomous adults? Are we always to be treated as toddlers in need of supervision by nanny, even after we have lived our lives and raised our children, done what we were going to do and sunk down into the comfy chair of retirement? Well are we?

And neither is that all. Implicit in the puritan's attitude is the assumption that the wages of virtue are better than the wages of sin. Well are they now? Consider my sainted mother who has lived a life of abstention and moderation. For most of her 80s she was bored.

She watched a lot of daytime television. Then she had a stroke. For the last three years she has been demented, incontinent, bewildered, demeaned, and she will be that way till fate stops toying with her. Perhaps she should have drunk more.