The longest hangover

PROHIBITION: The Thirteen Years That Changed America by Edward Behr, BBC pounds 17.99
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The Independent Culture
The president's study reeked of whisky. So did the Democratic Convention. A partition in the Senate library concealed a bar. The Congress cellars were crammed with bottles. Drink was the biggest industry of the USA, worth four billion dollars. Business was so bubbly for one distiller that he gave a party at which he presented all the female guests with a new Pontiac. Roll on Prohibition, you might well say.

Except that this was Prohibition, the 13 dry years beginning at midnight on 17 January 1920, when the USA declared itself a booze-free-zone - and celebrated by cracking open a bottle or three. The war against Demon Drink was even less successful than today's battle with Wicked Weed. Although repealed in 1933, the teetotal legislation gave the USA a hangover from which it has never recovered.

It is one of the great What Ifs of history. If Prohibition had itself been prohibited in the first place, there would have been no cocktails, devised to hide the taste of the more poisonous forms of alcohol; no bootleggers, so named after the traditional practice of concealing contraband in high boots; no St Valentine's Day massacre, which was Al Capone's way of discouraging Bugs Moran from hijacking his whisky; rather fewer gangsters, who become socially acceptable by delivering the illicit booze and still have their feet firmly under the table; and rather fewer films about rackets (have you seen Casino?).

The story of the alcohol Ayatollahs has often been told, becoming more bizarre each time. Edward Behr's Prohibition is billed as the drinking companion of the BBC2 series which had its final episode last night, and of which he is the, as it were, Godfather. In fact, it stands perfectly steadily on its own two feet. This enjoyable and well-written book begins by explaining that the Volstead Act, so named after Andrew J Volstead who happened to chair the government committee which pushed through the legislation, did not creep up on the country overnight. Alcohol was a pickle from which the USA had been attempting to extricate itself for decades.

The early Republic took to the bottle so enthusiastically that "Boston Rum Party" would have been a fitting title for the event which kicked off Independence. Alcohol became a form of currency: 20 gallons of whisky would buy a decent male slave. At the same time, the anti-booze backlash was building up. Well before Independence, the British government had banned spirits from hard-drinking Georgia, although the legislation was abandoned in despair when, just as during Prohibition two centuries later, Georgians merely brewed their own or smuggled supplies in across the state line.

Later, individual areas gradually took the teetotal option. During the Civil War, Maine recruited its own Temperance regiment, which presumably could boast hangover-free soldiers for those early morning battles. Christian ladies who smashed up saloons even had their own newspaper, The Smashers' Mail. The Bible was bowdlerised to delete all references to wine. By 1908, Prohibition was being test-marketed in practically all of Ohio. During WWI, Prohibition seemed rather patriotic, as many of the breweries were owned by Germans. Legislation was passed in January 1919, which left a year's drinking-up time before it was implemented.

As a teetotaller who refused even a glass of champagne in the early hours of 2 May 1997, I would like to find something to applaud about the Volstead Act. Behr finds virtually nothing, apart from a brief decline in cases of cirrhosis of the liver. Alcohol could not be uninvented. The genie was out of the bottle, or rather, fermenting happily inside it. In 1927 there were an estimated 30,000 illegal speakeasies - twice the number of legal bars before Prohibition. By the same year, when Prohibition had almost half its course still to run, the total of deaths from poisoned liquor reached approximately 50,000, quite apart from cases of blindness and paralysis.

Behr uses the dodgy career of George Remus to show how organised crime filled the vacuum left by the legal drinks industry. No relation to Uncle, Remus was that Mr Big of Booze who presented Pontiacs to his lady guests. He had 1,000 salesmen on his payroll - many of them policemen. He reckoned that half his turnover went on bribes. When two Prohibition Agents accidentally stumbled across his drinks factory at the charmingly named Death Valley Farm, a swift phone call to their boss and a few glasses of something strong made them forget all about it.

Remus did finally end up behind bars. Although there is rather too much about his subsequent life story, which is more to do with crime passionnel than Prohibition, this does provide one of the few cheery notes of the 13 unlucky years. His wife cheated him of his ill-gotten gains and ran off - with a former Prohibition Agent.