Bryson's America: Oh no, you can't do that: it might be fun

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF our bars here in the sweet and orderly little town of New Hampshire in which I live recently placed small printed notices in plastic holders on each of the tables - the sort of notices that normally invite you to order a jug of pina coladas at a special price or perhaps join mine hosts Chip and Tiffany for their convivial daily happy hour.

However, far from inviting anyone to engage in anything as hedonistic as that, what these notices said was this: "We take our responsibility to the community seriously. Therefore we are introducing a policy of limiting each customer to a maximum of three drinks. We thank you for your understanding and co-operation."

When a bar starts telling you that you must leave after as little as three bottles of beer - that's about one and a half English pints - you know something is going on. The problem isn't that townsfolk here in Hanover have been disgracing themselves, you understand. The problem is that they might enjoy themselves more than the modest amount that is deemed socially acceptable in this challenging age in which we live.

HL Mencken once defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy". It was 70 years ago that he said it, but it is as true today as it was then. Everywhere you turn in America these days you encounter a strange and insistent kind of nannying, as in these preposterous new notices in our local bar.

The thing is, the notices are in any case completely unnecessary. I have discovered to my dismay that when an American friend invites you out for a beer that is exactly what he means - a beer. You sip it delicately for about 45 minutes until it is gone and then your companion says, "Hey, that was fun. Let's do it again next year." I don't know anybody - anybody who would be so rakish as to consume three drinks at a sitting. All the people I know barely drink at all, never touch tobacco, watch their cholesterol as if it were HIV positive, jog up to Canada and back about twice a day, and go to bed early. Now that is all very sensible and I know they will outlive me by decades, but it isn't much fun.

And Americans these days find the most extraordinary things to worry about. Newspaper reviews of movies, for instance, nearly always end with a paragraph noting what qualities the film contains that viewers may find disturbing - violence, sexual content, strong language, and so on. That seems unobjectionable enough in principle, but what is remarkable is the things the papers believe worthy of inclusion. The New York Times recently concluded a review of a new Chevy Chase movie with this sombre warning: "Vegas Vacation is rated PG (Parental Guidance suggested). Besides sexual suggestiveness, it shows rattlesnakes and gambling."

Oh well, that's out, then.

The Los Angeles Times meanwhile, warns its readers that As Good as It Gets contains "strong language and thematic elements" (whatever they are), while Mouse Hunt has "mayhem, comic sensuality and language". Not strong language or suggestive language, but just "language". My God, think of it. Language in a movie! Not to mention mayhem. And to think I nearly took the children.

There is, in short, a huge and preposterous disquiet in the land about almost everything. The bookshops and best-seller lists are full of books like Robert Bork's Slouching to Gomorrah, suggesting that America is on the brink of some catastrophic moral collapse. Among the literally hundreds of things Bork is worried about are "the angry activists of homosexuality, feminism, environmentalism (and) animal rights". Oh, please.

Things that would raise barely a flicker in other countries are here looked upon as almost dangerously licentious. Recently, a woman in Hartford, Connecticut, was threatened with arrest when a security guard saw her breast-feeding her baby - discreetly, mind you, with a baby blanket over her shoulder and her back turned to the world - in her car in a remote corner of a restaurant car park. She had left the restaurant and gone to her car to feed the baby because it was more private - but not private enough. Someone with binoculars might have glimpsed what she was doing, and, well, you can imagine the consequences for a stable and orderly society.

Meanwhile, in Boulder, Colorado, which has one of the strictest anti- smoking ordinances in America (ie, they shoot you), an actor in an amateur stage production was threatened with arrest, if you can believe it, for smoking a cigarette on stage during a performance, as his part required. Smoking is of course the great forbidden activity these days. Light up a cigarette almost anywhere in America now and you are looked upon as a pariah. Light up indoors in a public place and you will be swept upon by a phalanx of security people.

Many states - Vermont and California to name two - have laws making it illegal to smoke virtually anywhere indoors, apart from private residences, and often even outdoors. Now I'm all for discouraging smoking, but increasingly this is getting carried to neurotic and even sinister extremes. A company here in New Hampshire recently instituted a policy that any employee who is suspected of having smoked a cigarette within 45 minutes of coming to work faces dismissal, even if he was smoking within the privacy of his own home, on his own time, with government-approved smoking materials.

But the most amazing thing of all is that even young people are voluntarily relinquishing fun. One of the most astounding stories I have encountered lately was a report in the Boston Globe that two college fraternity organisations - live-in clubs for university students - are banning intoxicating beverages of all kinds from their chapters.

If any student is found on the premises with a single can of beer - no matter that he may he legally entitled by age to own it and drink it - he will be instantly dismissed, and if the fraternity house itself dares to organise a function involving so much as a thimble of sherry, it will be shut down without appeal.

When I was young the whole apparent purpose of fraternities was to keep America's breweries humming. You could judge the quality of a fraternity by the number of bodies on the lawn on a Saturday night. Now I am not arguing for unbridled alcoholic consumption at universities (actually I am, but we'll pretend I'm not). But to suggest that a bunch of students can't knock back a few beers on graduation day, or after a big football victory, or upon the conclusion of final exams, or, what the hell, whenever they want, seems to me ludicrously puritanical.

Astonishingly, all but one of the several students quoted in the article favoured the proposal.

"It's about time we had a policy like this," said one priggish young scholar from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who, in my view, wants a good sound slapping.

Call me heartless, but I hope the next movie he sees has scenes involving rattlesnakes, gambling, thematic elements and language, and that it disturbs the dickens out of him. Wouldn't that just serve him right?

`Notes from a Big Country' by Bill Bryson (Doubleday pounds 16.99)