"I wanna live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse" is the memorable line delivered by a good-looking young hoodlum in the 40s Humphrey Bogart movie, Knock on Any Door.
Well, if the new wave of Puritans have their way, we're all going to live extremely slowly, die very old, and leave pretty ugly, ancient corpses – with pristine livers.
Last week, scientists at the University of Oxford declared that the Government's guidelines for healthy drinking are dangerously high. At the moment, the Department of Health says men should have no more than three to four units of alcohol a day – a pint and a half of beer, or two 175ml glasses of wine. Women should have no more than a pint of beer, or one 250ml glass of wine.
In parched, joyless Oxford, they're advocating bringing the maximum down to a quarter of a pint of beer, or a third of a glass of wine, the same limit for both men and women. I suppose you could just about wet a baby's head, or your whistle, with that, but you wouldn't get much more than a single splash out of it.
There is some irony in Oxford medics restricting us to thimblefuls of lager. When I was at the university, it was always the medical students who were most nimble at the optic run – that is, downing a shot from each and every one of the optics lined up behind the bar. Perhaps that's a cheap shot (no pun intended) – my medical contemporaries have grown up and now have a duty to recommend healthier lives than their own, even the ones who are still heavy drinkers. Do as I say, not as I do, and all that.
But, still, there is something seriously flawed in these findings, which have been published in the medical journal, BMJ Open. The authors suggest that, if the two-thirds of the population who drink restricted themselves to the suggested guidelines, 4,759 fewer people a year would die from alcohol-related causes.
That seems a fair enough conclusion. I know plenty of very heavy drinkers who really should cut back in order to survive into old age. But that's not the same as saying we should all cut down to these ludicrously low levels.
These are classic scare-story tactics – take a case of extreme over-indulgence in a particular substance, and apply its lessons to mild consumers. Look what happened to George Best, goes the argument; look what happened to 63-stone Georgia Davis, Britain's fattest teenager, who had to be cut out of her home in Aberdare, South Wales, last month, to be taken to hospital suffering from kidney failure and diabetes. That's what'll happen to you if you drink or eat too much, says Nanny.
Yes, but it won't happen to us, will it? Not to normal us – the ones with the greatest health-preservation device known too humanity: the knowledge that too much of pretty much anything is bad for you, while regular, decent-sized chunks of pleasure – whether food, drink or sex – are actually rather good for your well-being, and negligibly harmful to your health. They worked this out 2,500 years ago at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, where the sign above the door read, "Meden agan" ("Nothing in excess"). It seems pretty slow of those planet brains at Oxford not to have seen the wisdom of the Ancient Greek maxim.
But, then again, they are clearly suffering from the new strain of depressing Puritanism now stalking the land, one that puts physical health before mental pleasure. It's essentially a kind of self-obsession which says that my longevity matters more than my being in good company/ staying up for another half an hour/ buying you a drink.
The locus classicus for this New Puritanism is found in the anti-smoking movement. Even the most jumped-up teetotaller can hardly claim to suffer ill-effects from passive drinking, although anti-alcohol campaigners are keen enough on compiling statistics about the knock-on effects of heavy drinking on battered wives, neglected children and drink-driving victims. All completely beyond the pale, of course, but don't blame the drink – blame the drunk who, unlike most drunks, has a nasty tendency to hit women, neglect children and drive cars when incapacitated. This is a moral fault entirely separate from the question of how much we should drink.
Anti-smokers, though, have the wonderful weapon of passive smoking with which to beat smokers over the head. Before the smoking ban, I was in a Soho restaurant with a friend who politely asked a woman on the next table, "Mind if I smoke?"
"Mind if I fart?" she answered, with all the calm, nasty smugness of the New Puritan, wrapped up in the moral forcefield that deflects all the normal obligations of politeness and social interaction.
New Puritanism is largely, though not exclusively, a middle-class fetish. An admirable tenet of the ideal middle-class life is the innate understanding of the benefits of pleasure deferral, whether through paying into a pension in order to secure a comfortable old age; sticking with the hellish two-hour commute in order to live in a nicer house; or bankrupting yourself to send your children to private school
All this is utterly admirable, but, as the Oracle at Delphi knew, you can take anything too far, even when it comes to denying yourself pleasure. That addiction to self-denial all too easily blends into the insistence that others should deny themselves, too.
The authors of the Oxford report were clearly suffering from this delusion. I also have suffered from it. Earlier this month, I flew by easyJet to Crete. The flight was packed. You wouldn't have known we were in the worst recession in 80 years, or that our destination was mired in the worst one since they built that Oracle at Delphi.
Just like the Oxford researchers, I developed a prickling disapproval of my fellow holidaymakers for getting stuck into the two-glasses-for-one deal on white wine – in the middle of the day! And isn't drinking at 35,000 feet supposed to be bad for you?
Any sane observer wouldn't have remarked on the difference in health between the drinkers and this cold fish, gloomily reading the Blue Guide chapter on the Minoan ruins at Knossos, so pleased with himself for staying off the booze at lunchtime. They would have seen that the drinkers were having a better time, laughing more, talking more, making friends with the other drinkers in the seat next to them.
Of course, it's not advisable to drink yourself to death, or to eat yourself out of your half-demolished house and into the Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr Tydfil. But to incorporate a healthy dose of drinking and eating into social life is the sign of a sophisticated culture, as opposed to the babyish, terrified, New Puritan world where food and drink are treated as poisons that must be banned or restricted.
If consumed sensibly, food and drink are among the greatest human pleasures. As Kingsley Amis put it, there is no pleasure worth forgoing for an extra four years in a nursing home in Weston-super-Mare. Of course, we often miscalibrate the balance between pleasure and bad health. Ian Fleming took the Amis philosophy a little too far and refused to give up smoking, on the grounds that life wasn't worth living if he couldn't smoke. He promptly dropped dead of a heart attack, at 56. But, still, the same advice applies. Fleming, like the Oxford doctors, should have listened to the Oracle at Delphi: Meden agan.
Harry Mount's 'How England Made the English' is out now (Viking, £20)