One More Before Doomsday

This post originally appeared in April last year. I am running it again to mark this summer’s extreme weather. Pour yourself an apocalyptic one …

It should, by now, be apparent to everyone that we are living in a dystopian sci-fi scenario, but who wrote it? John Wyndham? Too cosy, perhaps. Or there’s J.G. Ballard … he wrote extensively about various kinds of societal collapse, either in ‘hard’ sci-fi novels like The Drowned World, or in his later sly and speculative manner, e.g. High Rise. But Ballard didn’t do comedy and the black absurdity of Donald Trump requires a satirical touch. Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of savage, slapstick sci-fi fits the bill, but I have been unable to locate my copies of Cat’s Cradle or Galapagos to refresh ecstatic youthful impressions. (It has also been suggested to me that Channel 4’s 1982 comedy show Whoops Apocalypse is relevant, chiefly with respect to its portrayal of the President of the United States as a total cretin.) 

But one work of science fiction that has been haunting me over the past few weeks is the 1961 film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, directed by Val Guest from a script written by himself and Wolf Mankowitz (the same team behind the Soho musical Expresso Bongo). The idea behind this inventive British movie is that nuclear testing has thrown the orbit of the earth out of whack and sent our planet spinning toward the sun. London becomes hotter than Cairo and the city’s residents wilt and go mad in the heat. It is a great time capsule of London locations, and the heroes of the film – as unlikely as this sounds now – are journalists working on the Daily Express, then still operating out of its beautiful Art Deco building on Fleet Street, right opposite St. Bride’s church. The nominal stars are Edward Judd (the producers wanted Richard Burton but couldn’t afford him), Leo McKern, and the delightful Janet Munro. The newspaper scenes have a sense of authenticity amidst the dodgy science, and the verisimilitude extended to the casting of the editor of the Daily Express, a character played by a former editor of the paper. (Arthur Christiansen, editor from 1933 to 1957. A nice conceit, but Christiansen couldn’t really act.)

Fleet Street’s finest … Leo McKern, Edward Judd and Janet Munro feeling the heat outside The Express Building.

There’s a lot wrong with the film: the banter-ish, ‘Front Page’ type dialogue is cringeworthy, Edward Judd is a charm-free zone, and the special effects are often risible – but for all that it remains unsettling and eerily prescient. The clever use of genuine news footage, indicating drought and out of control weather, now looks like an anticipation of recent wildfires in Australia and California. The evocation of oppressive, unnatural heat is very effective: everything dries up or burns up and water becomes the most precious of all commodities. Black market water is spreading typhoid, alcohol is in short supply and even a warm Coke will cost you. As society buckles under the strain, decadent young people express their nihilism by wantonly chucking buckets of priceless water about, drenching themselves to the implausible sound of trad jazz. (‘Beatnik music by Monty Norman’ is the byline in the credits. The crazed, trumpet-touting kids were perhaps inspired by riots at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1960. Was Acker Bilk a baleful influence on British youth? Discuss. )

And, as you’d expect in a film that trades in Fleet Street clichés (‘They say you used to be a writer’), there are many episodes where the hacks go the pub. The pub in question is ‘Harry’s Bar’, a private members’ club just next to St. Bride’s (a fictional one, as far as I am aware). By the end, the trip to Harry’s Bar has acquired a devotional aspect: the film concludes with our heroes assembled in the club – one that by now looks more like a bar in the Australian Outback – and wait to hear whether an operation to save the planet has worked. (The great powers set off ‘corrective’ nukes in an attempt to blast the Earth back to its correct orbit.) Harry’s Bar has run dry, but the manageress gives the small band of regulars a drink on the house from a special, reserved bottle of scotch. This scene reminds me of the titular bar scene at the end of Ice Cold In Alex, where an ordinary glass of lager is a miraculous answer to a fervent but unspoken prayer. And this link between booze and prayer feels pertinent to where we are now. Many of us are offering prayers of one sort or another, even non-believers like me who are simply praying for the pubs to re-open. Of course drink is not always the answer; but whilst we might not be able to drink Covid19 away, we can at least toast its demise. As Leo McKern says as he raises his glass in Harry’s Bar: ‘To the luck of the human race’. 

In Harry’s Bar, listening to the countdown over the radio …

For the cineastes out there, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is also notable for Michael Caine’s film debut in a bit part as a policeman (‘Stay clear of Chelsea, they say it’s pretty rough down there’); and also a groundbreaking moment of nudity in British cinema, when Janet Munro’s nipple is briefly glimpsed in her bathroom mirror. Society would never be the same again …

How Was It For You?

It is human nature to minimise the peril that seems passed. The town, so recently roused out of despair, indulged an exaggerated confidence. From The Great Plague In London In 1665 by W.G. Bell, 1924.

It feels strange to be constantly living through history, one preposterous event following another in quick succession. A bit like being Chris Morris’s reporter in On The Hour, ‘… standing next to the hole out of which the events are emerging.’ Yesterday was something called ‘Freedom Day’ which, in true British fashion, turned out to be something of a fiasco: a queasy admixture of nervous hedonism, ongoing grievance and hubris. We were, thankfully, spared Boris Johnson’s planned ‘Victory Day’ speech as he was forced into reluctant self-isolation after Sajid Javid’s Covid diagnosis. A friend of mine did manage to celebrate yesterday, by having an eight-hour lunch at Soho House. This demonstrates admirable spirit and might have been something I would have done if I wasn’t broke. I did do a bit of indoor drinking but that wasn’t a celebration, merely business as usual. Only the ferocious heat seemed different. Anyway, what are we supposed to be drinking to? Celebrating ‘freedom’ from a contagious virus that is not fully understood is so idiotic that one winces and wonder what it says about the state of the nation. I don’t think anyone ever waved a flag to declare that the Spanish Flu was now over and we could all have a party. Perhaps the end of the Black Death was marked with the odd roast swan or two, easier to poach in the de-populated countryside than before. In any case the Brexit mess is the very definition of unfinished business, so Johnson’s ‘Churchillian’ speech would have gone down as yet another national embarrassment. (To paraphrase the late Artist Formerly Known As Prince, ‘Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1938 …’)

Recent parallels being of limited use (after all, you can’t catch the Blitz) I consulted W.G. Bell’s account of the Great Plague of London in search of historical resonance for the present moment. (I’ve written about The Plague before, at the start of the Great Covid.) Bell marks the official end of the Plague with the King’s return to London. The Plague had started in the spring and Charles II and his court abandoned London in July. Administration of the city was left to George Monck, first Duke of Albemarle, a tough but efficient soldier who had played a vital role in Charles’s restoration. The contagion raged through the hot summer months but the infection was checked by a cold winter and Charles made his royal return to Whitehall Palace on 1st February. But whilst the Plague might have receded from the commercial and fashionable areas of town it still lurked in less salubrious corners. The first four months of 1666 saw 781 Plague deaths reported in the Bills of Mortality and the true number was certainly higher than that. There was alarm in Whitehall Palace in April when the king’s ‘closet keeper’, Tom Chiffinch, died suddenly of the ‘pestilence’, less than twenty-four hours after he was reported to be cheerfully playing backgammon (but at least he got to be buried in Westminster Abbey). There were fears of the Plague returning at full strength but it petered out in the capital – although towns like Deal, Colchester, Norwich and Cambridge suffered terrible outbreaks in 1666. (And then there is the heroic story of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire.) The official total of Plague victims was 68,596. Bell extrapolates that if allowance is made for error, lack of reporting and concealment, the true number is in the vicinity of 110,000; he goes on to calculate that, beyond the wealthy who had fled the city, about one in three of London’s population died from the disease.

So where does this get us, exactly? Dominic Cummings is all over the news today, as he is giving his first broadcast interview to Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC. It appears that one of his claims is that Boris Johnson resisted a second national coronavirus lockdown because he believed those dying were ‘essentially all over 80‘. Johnson is also reported as denying that the NHS was overwhelmed. Cummings is backing up his claims with WhatsApp messages purporting to be from Johnson, who he accuses of ‘putting his own political interests ahead of people’s lives‘. Cummings is, of course, the slipperiest of slippery operators, who spent a significant portion of last summer smirking his way past accusations that he had himself had breached lockdown for trivial reasons (at a time when families were prevented from seeing each other by Covid restrictions, when family members were unable to say goodbye to mortally sick relatives , etc. etc.) And he was all over Brexit, let’s not forget that. But he was at the centre of government and, if he is dishing the goods on his former boss now, it seems congruent with the culture at the top. Can someone have social immunity from a disease? In his history of the Plague, W.G. Bell pointedly notes that: ‘No single gap was made by the Plague in the ranks of statesmen; no member of Lords or Commons is returned dead by Plague. […] I have not found that a magistrate succumbed to the Plague. The Court and the professional classes, the big financiers […] who assisted King Charles in his often desperate need for money, the wealthier London merchants and tradesmen – all returned to London to take up the broken thread of their affairs. Yet there were one hundred thousand dead. To these others the Plague had been an inconvenience, a monetary loss, no more. […] It had been ‘the poore’s Plague.”

It would be tempting to compare Johnson to Charles II – the foppishness, the entitlement, the sleaze, the girls, etc. – but at least Charles knew his limitations and was smart enough to delegate Plague command to the very capable Albemarle. And, of course, Charles was a monarch rather than a politician, someone who was lumbered with his dynastic legacy and whose obligations were pre-destined. (I’m not going to get into an argument about the Restoration now, we can do that another time.) He wasn’t a career politician or an opportunistic chancer whose default setting is to treat national leadership as a branch of the entertainment business. Cummings also claims that Johnson had to be stopped from meeting with the Queen early in the pandemic, when official advice was to avoid unnecessary contact, especially with the elderly, amidst signs that Covid-19 was already spreading in Downing Street. This is where we enter a level of reality that is beyond satire – although one could see this scenario work in the format of a situation comedy. This is political history as an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, with Dominic Cummings as Sid James, Sajid Javid as Bill Kerr, and Johnson, of course, as ‘the lad himself’. In this episode the Queen plays herself, although we only hear her talking to her corgis. Waiting outside, in a Buckingham Palace ante-room, Hancock tousles his hair to achieve a look of endearing boyishness as Sid tries to persuade him that passing on a deadly virus to HMQ might be a bad look with the electorate. Then his phone rings: it’s Bill. ‘Tub? I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news …’

(Priti Patel as Hattie Jacques? Discuss.)

Dominic Cummings’s interview with Laura Keunssberg is on BBC2 at 7pm tonight.

See also:

Dry Quarantini

A Man Doesn’t Walk Into A Bar

A Cat A Dog A Sausage Roll

Muriel Spark, 1948.

From A Far Cry From Kensington, Muriel Spark, 1988:

I went to lunch at a pub nearby to eat half a delicious ham sandwich and drink half a cup of watery coffee and half a glass of port.[ … ]The place was soon full of people and noise, the smell of cigarettes, beer and of people. The door swung open and shut as more and more people came in. One man had a spaniel on a lead. He let it loose and it ambled around everyone’s legs to see what treats it could pick up from friendly customers by way of bits of sandwich or sausage rolls.

Anyone with a feeling for the cultural moment will be aware of Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, a short story first published in The New Yorker in 2017 that went on to become the most discussed short story in the history of the internet. The unprecedented online response to this ‘Me-Too’-ready story secured a book contract and film deal for Roupenian. Last week it was revealed that Roupenian used real-life models for her fictional protagonists: a man she had once known and the man’s younger girlfriend, who Roupenian did not know but whose personal attributes she was able to glean from social media. The model for ‘Robert’, the ageing creep (he is 34) of Roupenian’s story, was described in warm terms by his actual ex-girlfriend, one Alexis Nowicki, in her own account of how she discovered herself to be a character in a Zeigeist-serving work of fiction. She also disclosed that the model for ‘Robert’ died in 2020.

This episode highlights the danger an author runs when smuggling living, breathing human beings into their work. Naturally, there are plenty of august literary antecedents for hurt feelings being caused by authors transplanting genuine personalities directly onto the page. Leigh Hunt was deeply wounded by Dickens’s portrayal of him as Harold Skimpole in Bleak House, and Ottoline Morrell never forgave D.H. Lawrence for sending her up in Women In Love. The novels of Waugh and Anthony Powell are stuffed with easily recognisable personalities who are not always treated kindly. And so on, fair game for novelists and dramatists, etc.. But I will confess to being intrigued by what the process reveals about the writer attempting the transformation. Reading up on Fitzrovia’s literary pubs I became interested in one Derek Stanford, a minor figure on the post-war literary scene whose involvement with Muriel Spark began as romantic and literary camaraderie but ended up souring in spectacular fashion. In the 1940s the two of them were a force in London’s notoriously febrile poetry world and so close personally that at one point they were actually engaged. However, something went very badly wrong, and by the time she wrote A Far Cry From Kensington she detested Stanford so much that she used him as the model for that book’s villain.

A Far Cry From Kensington is a roman-à-clef, and draws on Spark’s experiences in publishing during the London of the mid-1950s. For all its inventiveness and atmosphere – drawing on the boarding-house seediness of post-war west London – it possesses a certain smugness of tone, a retrospective self-satisfaction that reminds me of Evelyn Waugh at his most complacent. The narrator, a Mrs. Hawkins, a war widow of twenty-eight, describes herself as ‘fat’ in the early pages of the book, and her remedy to this condition is presented thus: ‘You eat and drink the same as always, only half, and adds: ‘I offer this advice without fee: it is included in the price of this book.’ (As someone who has struggled with his weight for most of his life, all I can say to that is ‘Oh yeah?’) By contrast to the omniscience of Mrs Hawkins, the villain, a literary chancer called Hector Bartlett, is so larded with villainy that his misdeeds threaten to upend the narrative. Spark’s Mrs Hawkins calls him a ‘pisseur du copie’, i.e. a talentless hack who ‘vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it’. The pisseur reference is repeated at least two dozen times throughout the book, sometimes multiple times on the same page, to the extent that it becomes an idée fixe. It is so resolutely applied to Bartlett by Mrs. Hawkins that it gets her sacked from her job at a publishing firm. But beyond being a pisseur, Bartlett is described as a boor, a thief, a con man and possibly even a blackmailer whose activities have prompted a suicide. Just in case we are left in any doubt about Bartlett’s utterly base nature, Spark includes a little episode in a pub; the excerpt quoted at the top of the page continues:

It was at the bar now, and was nosing a sausage roll which a man was idly letting hang from his left hand while his right hand was holding a glass of beer. Rather comically, the dog just helped himself to a bite of this dangling sausage roll. The man turned and swore at the dog. I now saw who this man was: Hector Bartlett. All in one second, he now took a large dab of mustard from the pot on the counter, dabbed it on the rest of the sausage roll, and gave it to the greedy dog.

In English fiction being labelled as cruel to dogs is as low as it gets, so what did Derek Stanford do to Muriel Spark to merit such a damning memorial in fiction? Spark suspected that Stanford had pilfered some papers of hers when she was in hospital, papers that he sold at auction many years later, by which point Spark was a fully established novelist. That is a pretty damning accusation; also, he wrote a study of Spark’s work without clearing it with her first, which is undeniably graceless. Yet at one point they were very close, and Stanford’s own Memoirs Of The Forties describes their relations with a sort of shrewd fondness. But Muriel Spark was a great writer and Stanford most definitely was not; yet the venom towards the pisseur in A Far Cry From Kensington seems so out of proportion as to damage the texture of the novel. It feels too much like a heavy-handed attempt to settle a score in the real world, in much he same way that Mrs. Hawkins’s happy ending feels like an assertion of the author’s moral superiority rather than a natural outcome of the narrative.

In Kingsley Amis’s Stanley And The Women, the author’s resentment at his recently- departed wife – Elizabeth Jane Howard – infuses the narrative, and the bitterness of the real, lived experience is the major reason that the book fails to deliver: the reader simply refuses to side with ‘Stanley’ against his wife. The author’s bile, distributed as if by a firehose, wrecks his own novel. In any case Elizabeth Jane Howard was a very considerable writer so for all the personal hurt she was, eventually, able to set out her own views on Kingsley in her memoir Slipstream. (Incidentally, Kingsley being such a conspicuous drinker we have already written about his opinions on booze and behaviour when drinking it.) The model for the Cat Person of Cat Person had no obvious means of redress; it just so happened that his former girlfriend, who recognised herself in the story despite not knowing the author, was herself a writer. (Roupenian has apologised to her about retaining real-world details in the story.) But what was Roupenian’s beef with this man, this ‘Robert’? It is hard not to wonder what prompted the animus, especially as the ending of Cat Person fails to convince in much the same way that the ending of Stanley And The Women falls flat: lived experience remains undigested, reality is not transmuted, unprocessed feelings have got in the way.

Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis at their wedding reception, June 1965.

So where does any of this get us? Bad people make for good characters in morally uplifting works of fiction? Or decent people, improperly understood, make good writers look a bit shitty? Never offer a sausage roll to a dog in a pub? Never go on a date with a writer, let alone marry one? Yes, that’s it. Stick to plumbers, dentists, chartered accountants – or hedge fund managers.

See also:

Muriel Spark The Biography by Martin Stannard.

Kingsley At The Garrick