In the course of a long conversation this morning Paul and I touched on the quantity of whisky which would certainly be consumed in Scotland on Friday the 19th. (and what a bonanza this Referendum must prove to this mainstay industry in our economy), when the hard business of campaigning and deciding is in the past and we can relax with a glass in our hand…
As a poet, that’s to say someone with one foot in each of two worlds (sounds a bit like an Undecided Voter), I’m fascinated with the web of meanings which has formed round the word “spirit”. It’s connected to that other web of meanings around the epithet “water of life” for something which is quite clearly the water of death (there’s a doctor in one of Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s plays who gets lyrical about the connections between alcohol and corpses). I’m a bit old-fashioned about the use of the word spirit, and regard its hijacking to mean alcohol as just one of many attempts made to subvert human consciousness by that hard-nosed little demon, Materialism. But what interests me even more in the current circumstances in Scotland is the fact that this so-called traditional drink of our land can’t have been around, in more than laboratory quantities anyway, for more than, say, five hundred years, and more likely three to four – for the very simple reason that distilling equipment would have been very hard to come by. Which brings me to the very interesting question of why whisky – grain alcohol (universally available, with the right equipment) stored in foreign barrels in which foreign wines had previously been stored – should have come to be regarded Scotland’s “national” drink. Maybe it just means we’ve got a very cosmopolitan outlook. But it’s interesting when you consider that this beverage must have first seen the light of day in this country at the very time Scotland was being got through the process of so-called “union” with England. I don’t think it’s too much of an intellectual leap to suggest that “spirits” came as Civilisation’s gift to the Scots, in very much the same way as strong liquor was Civilisation’s gift to the indigenous populations of America and Australia. (It occurs to me that the German word for poison is “Gift”.) And in parallel – we hear less about this – cheap strong liquor managed to come the way of undesirable elements of society at the same time, just when the English countryside was being systematically cleared of its excess population to make way for the parkland and manor houses and darling little villages which we still know and love as the English Rural Idyll.
Anyway, being a resourceful people, Scots turned their spirit into a prime export – not that we could do anything similar nowadays, the Bank of England will point out that we’re far too brainless – and everyone has to drink it or at least try it, and for those who think they don’t care for it may I say it’s a bit like sex: a bit bizarre at first but all right once you get used to it.
And this is positively my last blog about the Referendum. Have a good orgy.