A Man Doesn’t Walk Into A Pub

ʻAt first sight, when one had emerged from the underground, the whole of central London, bare of wheeled traffic, seemed impassably thick with people; yet this was just an illusion, for the crowd had no centre, no real purpose, and everyone was aimlessly on the move. What could one do, after all, but drink as one had drink before, kiss familiar or unfamiliar faces, join in the sporadic outbreaks of singing, stare at the brave souls shinning up the lamp-posts, and cavort for a while in the uncouth, impromptu dances which suddenly cleared a space for themselves in the throngs?ʼ
VE Night, 8 May 1945, described in The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945 by Angus Calder.

When I started this site, a mere two months ago, I was blithely unaware that we were about to be subjected to yet another overdose of history. How could I have predicted, in the halcyon, far off days of late February, that by the last week of March it would be impossible for me or anyone else to visit a bar of any description for ʻthe durationʼ. Astonishing really. But, like our plucky wartime forbears, we adapt to circumstances. For example, the Zoom platform has been a godsend, and some of us have used it to arrange virtual drinking sessions, a make-do-and-mend substitute for getting shitfaced in company. But beyond the state of our livers, comparisons between the historical event just commemorated and the pick ‘n’ mix bag of crises we are currently wading through scream to be made. It would be delinquent of me not to address some awkward facts, so I suggest you pour yourself a stiff one now.

Winston joins the royals on the balcony at Buck House, fails to get jiggy with it.

In The People’s War, Angus Calder’s commanding study of wartime Britain, the impressions of London on VE Day have a suitably disordered character. The afternoon was dominated by the euphoria that greeted Churchill, who addressed crowds from a balcony overlooking St.James’s Park (his bodyguard observing that the PM enjoyed himself ‘like a schoolboy at an outing’). As day turned to night, the city was brilliantly illuminated after five years of darkness. Amidst the crush, you might have glimpsed a young Guards officer, Humphrey Lyttleton, drunk on champagne, playing his trumpet whilst riding in a handcart at the head of an impromptu jazz band proceeding up and down the Mall. Somewhere in the crowd, the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret mingled with the throng (an incident that was the subject of a fairly recent film), bonfires were lit, flags were waved, and so on and so forth. But fugitive spectres were glimpsed in the shadows. On VE night Harold Nicolson attended a party given by a rich Conservative MP. ʻThere in his room, copied from the Amalienburg, under the lights of many candles, were gathered the Nurembergers and the Munichois celebrating our victory over their friend Herr von Ribbentrop.ʼ (A couple of days ago, some wag on Twitter echoed this sentiment, expressing surprise that the Daily Mail was celebrating the 75th anniversary given that their side lost.)

The collective memory of post-war Britain is an accretion of semi-mythical totems, with convenient elisions along the way. If victory over Hitler is rightly remembered, the crippling post-war war debt to America is conveniently forgotten, along with the Suez debacle and the near-bankruptcy of the 1960s and 70s. Misremembering the past is a national pastime; and our post-imperial comfort blanket of war-time victory regrettably feeds a sentimental myth of national exceptionalism, one that leads to the heart of our sick and Brexity present. On 20th March, as the scale of the Covid-19 crisis dawned on even the Prime Minister, Boris Johnsonʼs announced the closure of bars thus: ʻWeʼre taking way the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pubʼ, an absurd bit of flag-waving made at the very worst possible time. (Mr. Johnson is fond of posing with a pint in his hand, but it is hardly a secret that he prefers Bollinger to bitter.) If, in the words of another social media wit, Boris Johnson is essaying a Winston Churchill tribute act, this studied persona is showing the strain. The Prime Ministerʼs television address to the nation on Sunday was hardly stirring rhetoric, and its lack of eloquence has been very eloquently parodied. As certainly as his relentless careerism led to the chaos of Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare his inability to lead in a national emergency (one not of his own making, that is). Applause for the NHS is no substitute for the government cash it has been very conspicuously denied. And, as Nicola Sturgeon coolly repudiates Johnsonʼs softening of quarantine measures, the very viability of the Union that he purports to lead is even more in doubt. All this as a hard Brexit looms into view, with EU negotiators complaining of Britain’s apathy whilst British diplomats in the USA fervently lobby for a trade deal. So, despite the bombast and the rhetoric and the champagne (although Churchill preferred Pol Roger to Bollinger), it strikes me that future historians will not compare Boris Johnson to Winston Churchill – nor to Herbert Asquith, nor even to Neville Chamberlain. Personally, Iʼd say that the ʻwartime leaderʼ that ʻBojoʼ most resembles is Norwayʼs Vidkun Quisling. Cheers.

A Quick Sharpener Before Doomsday

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 … At time of writing, you can see the entire film (handsomely restored by the BFI) on YouTube.

Kingsley Amis at The Garrick

The author at his devotions; 1st edition hardback cover.

‘Fuck off. No, fuck off a lot.’
Kingsley Amis to a fellow member of the Garrick Club
(from The Life of Kingsley Amis, by Zachary Leader, Jonathan Cape 2006)

Kingsley Amis was a devout member of the Garrick Club, that famous bastion of Victorian (and ongoing) men’s-club culture which stands at 15 Garrick Street, WC2. Founded in 1831 by the eminent actor David Garrick, the club has always attracted members from the artistic, literary and cultural establishment, and boasts a fine art collection and an equally fine bar. One of its members was A.A. Milne, who bequeathed the rights to Winnie the Pooh to the club; one can only goggle at the deal that the Garrick subsequently made with Disney. Amis hymned the Garrick thus:

‘When bores and pedants drive you up the wall,
Come to the Garrick and forget ‘em all.’

Amis’ devotion to drink is illustrated amply in his early-1970s book On Drink – which remains an entertaining guide to drinking culture and etiquette, although it may be best not to use it as such if you want to retain your more moderate friends. Some of his drink recipes are unique:

‘Queen Victoria’s Tipple:
½ tumbler red wine,
Scotch.

‘The quantity of Scotch is up to you, but I recommend stopping a good deal short of the top of the tumbler. Worth trying once.’

Then there’s this:

‘Evelyn Waugh’s Noonday Reviver:
1 hefty shot gin,
1 (½ pint) bottle of Guinness,
Ginger beer.

Put the gin and Guinness into a pint silver tankard and fill to the brim with ginger beer. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the attribution, which I heard in talk, but the mixture will certainly revive you, or something. I should think two doses is the limit.’

Evelyn Waugh: an inventive drinker but don’t read him if you’re hungover (see below).

On Drink also contains a very useful section on ‘The Hangover’. Amis divides it into its two constituent parts: the physical hangover and the metaphysical hangover. The symptoms of the latter are defined by the author of Lucky Jim in revealingly autobiographical terms:

‘You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is and there is no use crying over spilt milk.’

Amis then suggests recuperative options for hangover reading and hangover listening. Suggested reading includes Milton’s Paradise Lost, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch (on the basis that ‘there are plenty of people about who have to put up with a bloody sight more than you do’), Ian Fleming and P.G. Wodeouse – but explicitly excluding Evelyn Waugh. His listening choices are primarily Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Brahms, and Miles Davis – the latter recommended only when he’s not playing with John Coltrane.

The Garrick gave Amis a platform upon which he could unleash his ‘Kingers’ persona: a full-throated, blimpish xenophobe. Some apologists say it was a merely an act, but the racist quips are no less appealing in print than they can have been when heard live, his listeners struggling to dismiss the offensiveness as just a curmudgeonly routine (except for those who actually agreed with his sentiments, and there would have been more than a few of those at the Garrick). In 1996, a year after Amis’s death, a memorial service was held at St Martin in the Fields church, just yards away, and the after-party was held at the Garrick. The very right-wing journalist Paul Johnson ducked out, complaining that the service had seen Amis posthumously kidnapped by the left. Amis was a conflicted and contradictory figure. In his memoir Experience Martin Amis offers some context and amelioration for his father’s public (and private) statements. He even mentions that Kingsley abandoned a novel because he feared the hero’s homosexuality might be taken by his Garrick chums as a confession on his part. He also suggests that Kingsley’s copious writings on booze were a kind of justification for the amount of time he spent consuming it.

Martin and Kingsley Amis in 1978: a study in dynastic awkwardness. Photo by Dmitri Kasterine.

Anyone curious about the ambience of the Garrick is advised to check out the London-set John Wayne vehicle Brannigan, a genuinely terrible action film from 1975, which includes a scene filmed inside the club. Wayne’s co-star was Richard Attenborough, a long-time Garrick member who managed to persuade the club to open its doors for filming. The Garrick is also the place where Brendan Behan got smashed in advance of his famous live Panorama interview with Malcolm Muggeridge in 1956.