“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





25 August 2008

Fellow drug dealers

by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in 2007

Never thought I’d hear words like it. Tucked away, it was, in a late night news bulletin on Radio National. Smack in the middle of the week in which our Prime Minister seems to have declared war on any aboriginal person who fails to swab clean, the Premier of Queensland suggested it was time that the huge businesses that make a lot of money flogging booze to troubled bush communities might consider sharing the cost of the havoc wrought by their powerful intoxicating depressants.

The intensity of my stunned silence was matched only by the silence radiating from those manufacturers of rotgut fortifieds and bladder packs.

Suddenly, belatedly, the environmental cost of the irrigation regime which makes possible this part of our beloved wine industry has become glaringly apparent thanks to the drought. Squandering our only river to make plonk that’s three times the strength of average beer and sells for the cost of Perrier water has always confounded me. Before the PM engaged his God to stop the drought, the water crisis cast a very bright light on this rote stupidity. While the rain he sent was far too heavy and in all the wrong places, perhaps his aim will be better if he shines his big torch on the human health costs incurred by the cheapest end of the wine business.

It’s twenty five years since Richard Farmer, then a famous Canberra liquor store owner - whilst also Prime Minister Hawke’s press secretary - stood up in Sydney’s Bulletin Place Cellars and addressed the throng of wine industry magnates as “fellow drug dealers”. While the faces have changed, the suits remain the same, and none since has uttered anything quite so disarmingly honest.

It would be easy to monitor precisely which alcohol products are behind the horrors the PM has declared war upon. The model’s been working perfectly for nearly thirty years in South Australia. It’s called the Beverages Container Legislation, and I am proud to have worked in the visionary crew that devised it.

This clever mechanism was designed to clear up the rubbish which once lined all major roadways, parks and beaches. Slices of public property were cleared of all litter, which was sorted and categorised. Any item that made up more than a predetermined percentage of the total would incur a deposit, which would encourage its recycling.

Suddenly, bottles and drink cans disappeared from the roadsides. While that left squillions of ring-pulls in the environment, the threat of another deposit on those saw the drinks business quickly invent the flip-top can.

While this system was imposed in the name of a healthy environment, it could very easily be adapted to improve the health of the humans that coincidentally inhabit that environment. Record the brands of alcohol most abused in each troubled community; tweak the bar code technology to reveal the identity of the vendor, and invite both manufacturer and dealer to share the cost of fixing the broken drinkers, their families and communities.

The cunning plonkmongers of the Alice long ago learned that the best way to hide the identity of the bladder pack manufacturer was to remove the bladders from their packs at the cash register, leaving the drinker to squirt the stuff straight in, a la your goatskin, and the emptied bags to blow like big chrome leaves around the bed of the Todd while the flattened boxes grew like topsy beside the grog shop counter.

You’d never be permitted to erect a big billboard there to promote your port or gordo moselle, but there’s no need for billboards in a bush landscape which constantly vibrates with glittering reminders of the faux relief promised by the silver pillow. But even this clever veil of anonymity could easily be lifted if the bar code was printed on the bladder as well as the cardboard.

This unpacking trick also removed any chance of the indigenous drinker sighting the cute little image of the International Standard ISO 3591-1977 tasting snifter, politely half full at 50 millilitres, which illustrates the number of standard drinks the bags contain. No tasting glasses in the bed of the Todd.

We’ll probably never know whether this removal of the bags from their branded boxes was an initiative of the manufacturers, but there’s an enormous amount of money at stake. Fortified wine production might be declining, but nearly half of Australia’s wine is sold in bladder packs.

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