Monday, July 15, 2024
Jack London is best known for telling tales of his wild adventures in the Yukon and around the globe - his perceptions of risk and danger are valuable to this day. Photo credit: Brad Cathers, Cathers Wilderness Adventures
Opinion/ColumnPropaganda Watch

Free version of Jack London’s “An Alcoholic Memoir” is a great way to celebrate New Year’s Day

Working for an Ontario MPP in 2020, I took some pretty angry phone calls from constituents who could not see any logic to what was open and what was closed during the COVID lockdowns.

“Why is Wal-mart open when my local shops are closed?” and “How are cannabis shops ‘essential services’ when they’ve only existed for two years?” were frequent questions.

The Liquor stores (LCBO) question was comparatively easy to answer. I recall one very no-nonsense woman demanding to know why churches were closed but the Liquor Stores were open.

“Most likely, because if they closed the LCBOs we’d have thousands of Ontarians going into immediate alcohol withdrawal, and our healthcare system couldn’t handle that,” I replied honestly.

“I can see that happening,” the caller agreed. She didn’t argue that point any further.

The degree to which Canadians increased alcohol consumption to deal with the stress and boredom of COVID lockdowns was a daily topic of interest on social media, with memes about “breakfast wines” and “cocktails for kids” making regular rounds.

When I decided to quit drinking alcohol in 2018, a friend sent me a link to a little-known masterpiece by Jack London, author of “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang.” Both the text and the audiobook are free on Librivox; whether you are resolving to stop after three years of COVID drinking or one crazy New Year’s weekend, it’s a fascinating and compelling read.

“John Barleycorn, or an Alcoholic Memoir,” was published in 1913, when London was at the peak of wealth and fame as one of the world’s most popular writers.

From the recounting of his first drunken experience – “I was five years old the first time I got drunk” – to the impact alcohol had on his developing friendships at age seven and when he set out to sea as a teen-ager, it’s easy to think that London’s relationship with alcohol was a product of the rough age in which he lived.

When you look at how alcohol is presented today, you will find unmistakable parallels. We have more regulations about drinking in 2022, but we don’t have any less alcohol or any fewer ruined lives. “John Barleycorn,” as London personifies the substance, is alive and well and actually still making most of the rules.

Describing how John Barleycorn became a pervasive presence in his life, London wrote, “Not only had it always been accessible, but every interest of my developing life had drawn me to it. A newsboy on the streets, a sailor, a miner, a wanderer in far lands, always where men came together to exchange ideas, to laugh and boast and dare, to relax, to forget the dull toil of tiresome nights and days, always they came together over alcohol.”

London describes how casually and completely John Barleycorn took over his existence. Drinking more, drinking earlier, more special concoctions, more expensive products, with a circle of friends more dedicated to drinking than friendship, he slid into the lifestyle experienced by some COVID-quarantined Canadians.

Early on, London wrote 1,000 words every morning. Then, he began to celebrate finishing his 1,000 words with a drink. Eventually, he enjoyed drinking WHILE he wrote; at the end, he could not write anything at all unless he had a drink first.

London made an observation which is perhaps even more meaningful today. As we fret about the long-term consequences of climate change or the assumed estimated projected infection rates of COVID-19, there remains a clear and present danger which we blithely ignore:

“We have with great success made a practice of not leaving arsenic and strychnine, and typhoid and tuberculosis germs lying around for our children to be destroyed by,” London observed.

“Treat John Barleycorn the same way.”