Nov 30, 2006

The Devil's Picnic by Taras Grescoe - thoughts

“Every era chooses its poisons. What a society ends up stigmatizing is often more revealing of its own phobias and prejudices than the inherent nefariousness of the substance in question.”

Taras Grescoe knows whereof he speaks. He has travelled the world in search of the banned, the taboo, and the outlawed. And, with one potent exception, he has willingly consumed the lot of them.

His previous book, The End of Elsewhere, took the fearless journalist where few travel writers would dare, directly into the darkest heart of the tourist industry. Witty and provocative, Elsewhere set Grescoe up as a man willing to challenge the status quo, always at the ready with an incisive quip or informative commentary.

The Devil’s Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit finds the writer on another quest, this one both physical and historical. Forget the exotic locales, it’s the illicit comestibles Grescoe is interested in, the commodities that administrations see fit to ban, then “react with shock when their citizens start to act like naughty children, breaking the law to get at what they’ve been deemed too immature to handle.”

Picnic, thus, finds Grescoe in full confrontation mode, determined to discover why governments are hell-bent on prohibition despite overwhelming evidence that such actions do not work. “When you can’t have it, you want it,” Grescoe decides early on, and finds ample evidence that this theory will always win.

Setting out, Grescoe discovers a wealth of illegal pleasures, both sublime and silly. He sips cocaine tea in Bolivia; ingests “deadly” unpasteurized cheeses in France; and smokes Cuban cigars in San Francisco. Most amusingly, he brazenly chews gum in Singapore, a land so Orwellian in design, “the road of excess is not only barricaded: the boys in the Palace of Wisdom have also strewn it with land mines from curb to curb.”

Make no mistake; Grescoe is on a mission, and many will not appreciate what he has to say. Grescoe is a committed apologist for the freedom to live the way we choose, despite governments that insist they know best. Regrettably, his tendency to speechify dilutes valid criticisms toward prohibitions that serve no useful purpose but to maintain a level of power over the citizenry.

Nearing the end of his travels, wisely declining to sample the Swiss suicide cocktail pentobarbital sodium, he rants, “[When] it comes to some of the most important issues—assisted suicide, capital punishment, gay marriage, drugs—it is as if the Enlightenment never happened.” Grescoe’s argument thereby becomes swamped in despair, and while his anger is invigorating, it overwhelms the book, lending him the impression of the lone man screaming in the wilderness for sanity.

Yet his reasoning remains valid, and while some may dispute his ideals, there is no denying his passion. In a world where lines are drawn in the sand, “you are either on the righteous side of the line, or in a world of shame, picnicking with the devil.” Grescoe has chosen his side, and it is highly tempting.

Originally published in The Winnipeg Free Press.

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