From The Independent online edition, 21st December 2021:
Britain’s top civil servant has been accused of misleading officials over what he knew about Christmas parties in his own department during lockdown. Simon Case stepped down last week as head of an investigation into claims of parties in Downing Street, after it emerged there had been a quiz – registered in work calendars as ‘Christmas party!’ – in the Cabinet Office on December 17 last year. He also faced allegations of an impromptu drinks for 15-20 people held in and around his office in the second week in December, after an investigation by The Independent and Politico. Before being removed from the investigation, Mr Case assured colleagues that he had no knowledge of any parties or social gatherings of any kind at the Cabinet Office in the run up to Christmas 2020, the Independent understands. (Full story here.)
Christmas work parties are suddenly a news item, notably the ones that senior members of government held last Christmas, when such gatherings were banned. The above photograph is a ghost of Christmas Past, a souvenir of that lost time when people could gather at or near their workplaces to get festively shitfaced, free from the fear of contracting a potentially lethal pathogen – or merely the fear of being arrested. That such Christmas gatherings have become, in the unhappy circumstances in which we find ourselves, both a risky activity and an indicator of the moral bankruptcy of our elected leaders is a very sorry state of affairs indeed. Now I don’t want to dwell on The State Of The Nation, this is not really that kind of project, even if politics occasionally seeps in like the overflow from a blocked pub lavatory. But, denied the opportunity to party with abandon, one is thrown back on memory, recalling the strange admixture of laughter and frenzy, hope and melancholy that seems to characterise festive work gatherings at this time of year. True, there is the risk of doing some harm to your standing amongst your colleagues if you party too hard; this is when Angie from Credit Control sings along to the karaoke a semi-tone flat, when the head of Publicity drunkenly laments the state of his marriage to an important – and teetotal – client, when the quiet girl from Typography takes photographs of her bum and texts them to Brian in Dispatch. (Let’s hope that Brian a decent chap and deletes them.) These are party events that will dog you beyond the hangover you nurse during the firm Christmas dinner the following day; anecdotes that threaten to follow you around for the rest of the year, possibly even for the rest of your career. The pathos of ‘The Work Do’ is memorably depicted in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, which takes place across Christmas and New Year; Jack Lemmon’s courting of Shirley Maclaine’s lift girl is abruptly curtailed when he realises that she is sleeping with his boss (he identifies her by the cracked mirror in her compact):
(… Jack Lemmon then leaves the party alone and proceeds to a bar, where he drinks martinis, decorates the counter with cocktail olives, and makes small talk with another lonely heart.)
I suppose Christmas work parties throw into focus the stressful nature of the festive season; not a happy time for many even under ‘normal’ conditions, and even a little bit of reflecting upon the true nature of life can send anyone over the edge. Past a certain age Christmas is just about loss. We gather together now but, one way or another, some of us will be gone tomorrow. Perhaps this derives from a collective folk memory of winter solstice gatherings in pre-history. The workforce who constructed Stonehenge must have had a right rave-up round about now: mourning the past, drinking to lost friends, but expressing hope for the future as they crouched around the fire, defiant against the bitter cold and the terrifying dark. I don’t think human nature has changed much since then. What else can human beings do? I know that a few of the people in that photo at the top of the page are now dead, and I no longer have contact with the rest: so the loss represented by this photo sums up my experience of life in the decades since it was taken. In recent years I have seen friends and loved ones drop like nine pins; and, if it isn’t death, then it’s some insurmountable distance or irreconcilable estrangement that might as well be death. But I have my memories; and they all live there.
I have never worked behind a bar. I suspect that if I had I would not be writing A Drinker’s History of London. I have drunk enough in public to wince at fragmentary memories of erratic behaviour that must have drawn the disdain of bar staff; and perhaps the most painful recollections are the ones where I made an arse of myself in places where I was a regular. But the staff in those establishments were never less than welcoming to me; in fact, I am fortunate enough to have encountered very little unpleasantness from anyone behind any bar anywhere. I think they take one look and identify me as a harmless oaf. However, the famous ‘barred’ list from the Half Moon in Herne Hill describes the essential qualities of troublesome punters with concise and admirable precision:
MICKEY TWO SUITS VITRIOLIC QUEEN …OOHH IT’S NOT HOXTON THE GLASWEGIAN THE GINGER TWAT DRUNK THAT BLONDE BITCH CRAZY LINDA ADAM THE DEAF GUY STARING PERVERT
… and so on. One imagines that lists similar to this one sit behind the bar of every pub in Britain. Like those who work in the emergency services, bar staff are obliged to engage with the less appealing aspects of humanity; this must do something to you as a person. Bar staff themselves come in all flavours: friendly, taciturn, knowing, chaotic, self-absorbed, shouty, flirtatious, officious, hesitant, hostile – and, on just one occasion in my experience, drunk. Irascible landlords of legend include Norman Balon, proprietor of The Coaches And Horses in Soho, whose snarl of ‘You’re barred!’ became a media catchphrase and was turned into graphic art by the great Michael Heath. Last summer I encountered an interesting contemporary variant of the species when I went with a colleague to a pub in Smithfield: the landlord was inordinately proud of his COVID-19 one-way system, enforcing it with comic rigidity even when the pub was empty. At closing time I chose to leave the deserted bar by the ‘IN’ door and heard a furious and indignant cry follow me out into the street: ‘Wrong way!’ – to which I replied, with glee: ‘I KNOW!‘ But today I am concerned with the more urbane type of barkeep; more Gaston of ‘The French’ than Norman of ‘Norman’s’. Those imperturbable professionals who facilitate their patrons’ addictions and endure their conversations with neither stern disapproval or false bonhomie. These men and women are the quiet heroes of our drinking culture.
Fiction offers some well-observed examples. In Evelyn Waugh’s novella Work Suspended (published in 1943 and set in the period just before WW2) the narrator, Plant, is taken to a seedy club off Wimpole Street by ‘Atwater’, a man who recently ran over and killed Plant’s father. Before they enter, Atwater explains that he is known at the club as ‘Norton’.
The room into which he led me was entirely empty. It was at once bar, lounge, and dining room, but mostly bar, for which a kind of film-set had been erected, built far into the room, with oak rafters, a thatched roof, a wrought iron lantern and an inn-sign painted in mock heraldry with quartered bottles and tankards. ‘Jim!’ Cried Atwater. ‘Sir.’ A head appeared above the bar. ‘Well, Mr Norton, we haven’t seen you for a long time. I was just having my bit of dinner.’ ‘May I interrupt that important function and give my friend here something in the nature of a snorter’ – this was a new and greatly expanded version of Atwater the good scout. ‘Two of your specials, please, Jim.’ To me, ‘Jim’s specials are famous.’ To Jim, ’This is one of my best pals, Mr. Plant.’ To me, ‘There’s not much Jim doesn’t know about me.’ To Jim, ‘Where’s the gang?’ ‘They don’t seem to come here like they did, Mr Norton. There’s not the money about.’ ‘You’ve said it.’ Jim put two cocktails on the bar before us. ‘I presume, Jim, that since this is Mr Plant’s first time among us, in pursuance of the old Wimpole custom, these are on the house?’ Jim laughed rather anxiously. ‘Mr Norton likes his joke.’ ‘Joke? Jim, you shame me before my friends. But never fear. I have found a rich backer; if we aren’t having this with you, you must have one with us.’ The barman poured himself something from a bottle which he kept for the purpose on a shelf below the bar, and said, ‘First today,’ as we toasted one another. Atwater said, ‘It’s one of the mysteries of the club what Jim keeps in that bottle of his.’ I knew; it was what every barman kept, cold tea, but I thought it would spoil Atwater’s treat if I told him. Jim’s ‘special’ was strong and agreeable.
… and the pair proceed to spend the rest of the afternoon getting smashed.
Another personal favourite of mine is Ambrose, the hotel barman who features in Alan Ayckbourn’s Private Fears In Public Places, and who has been co-opted as ‘best friend’ by the alcoholic Dan. This is how the pair are introduced, at the start of Scene Two:
Dan: Very quiet today isn’t it Ambrose? Ambrose: Very quiet, sir. Dan: Why’s it so quiet? Do you know? Ambrose: No idea sir. Tuesday, possibly. Dan: Oh yes. Ambrose: Always slow on Tuesday for some reason, this hotel. Dan: Wonder why that is? Ambrose: no idea, sir. Dan: You’d think, Tuesday. People would be up and about by then. I mean, Monday. You can understand a Monday. Ambrose: Oh yes. Dan: Being the day after Sunday, you know. I mean, Saturday night and all that. You’d expect that on Mondays. But Tuesday – I can’t think why – [slight pause.] Did you say it was Tuesday?
(Ayckbourn’s London-set play was turned into a film by, of all people, Alain Resnais, he of Last Year In Marienbad, to create an interesting Anglo-French, London-Parisian, cultural hybrid. Dare I say it evidences deeper emotions than the original play?)
I think that the reason these two examples resonate with me is down to the uneasy feeling that I am that man: the man on the ‘civilian’ side of the bar, boring the likes of the exemplary, impassive Bernard (of ‘Le Tartin’ and ‘Manouche’) and others of his trade. I do not know – and do not want to know – what Bernard really thought of me, my friends, my dates. But, for all his good manners, I think I can guess. And I still wince at the elaborate courtesy of the Polish landlord of that pub in Waterloo, the one where I fell asleep after an afternoon of drinking with colleagues. I awoke at the start of the evening session, long abandoned by my companions, to feel the landlord gently patting me on the shoulder as he said, with evident concern, ‘You can’t sleep here.’ Even more tragic in recollection is the flirting; the hopeless, desperate attempts at banter with hordes of pretty barmaids in pubs in practically every postcode in London. Now, way too old to be a plausible flirt, I have been forced to retreat to a position of gnomic detachment: sitting alone at a corner table, ostentatiously reading a small-talk defying tome (Our Bones Are Scattered, Andrew Ward’s epic account of the Cawnpore massacres, remains the ultimate conversation-deterrent), I resist commonplace saloon-bar chat in case that nice girl who is collecting the empties says something and I immediately make an arse of myself yet again. Mind you, Christmas is coming up and – omicron variant notwithstanding – I fully expect to engage in festive drinking that could well result in preposterous and embarrassing loquacity on my part. You have been warned.