Brave And Chilly Spring

April is the cruellest month … Gipsy Hill, 11 April 2021.

Sam Hancock, The Independent, 13 April 2021:

London’s Soho was busier than ever on Monday night — although some of those enjoying the reopening of pubs admitted there was “very little” social distancing being adhered to. Police patrolled central London as crowds flocked to Old Compton Street, signalling the end of certain lockdown restrictions and the reopening of pubs and bars’ outdoor areas across England. Several West End streets were even closed to traffic between 5pm and 11pm, to create outdoor seating areas as part of measures implemented by Westminster City Council to support hospitality businesses. Pictures and videos being shared online show people packed onto tables, while dozens more stood on the streets raising a glass to England officially entering into stage two of Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown.

The spring-like peep out of lockdown has everyone on edge. And attempts to enjoy a freezing al fresco drink inevitably emphasise the painful distance between Before Covid and our current Covid Era. Personally, I have no plans to book a slot to do my Captain Scott impersonation (‘this is an awful place …’) in an arctic pub garden, and don’t fancy drinking amidst desperate Soho crowds pretending it’s VE Night. It’s indoor spaces that I miss. My mind wanders to cold spring evenings in former times; when the pub garden turned chilly in twilight, you would retreat to the cosy public bar, to the gleam of polished mahogany and the crystalline brightness behind the counter. You’d take your drink to a spot next to the wooden partition that separated you from the customers in the saloon, and fragments of their conversation drifted in and out of your hearing:

‘Nah, it was John Wayne they filmed in this pub. Him and that Richard Attenborough, played policemen they did. Filmed it here, I should know, I was in it wasn’t I?’

‘Do you know what my son said to me the other night? He phones up and he says: :”Dad, can I come round? I need to borrow fifty pence”‘.

‘I don’t know whether she knew or not, but let’s put it this way: she got very good at getting blood out of carpet.’

‘My dad knew him, he was staying at a hotel in Kensington Gardens, very dapper and polite he was, you’d never guess he had bodies dissolving in a tank in Crawley’.

Before lunch I’d been in the witness box and they were jumping all over me, felt like a right wanker. And I was looking at doing four years. Anyway, after lunch the jury was ready to come in and everything and then the prosecution said the CCTV didn’t work. That’s their case dead in the water. So I was acquitted. I’m thinking of compensation. Go after them I will, yeah. I’ve got letters about my loss of hearing.’

Here, I’m selling this phone. It’s fucking immaculate, no scratches on it or nothing, I mean I did manage to drop it in the slop bucket behind the bar, but you’d never tell.

‘From Muscat he was, yeah – one of those places where they don’t wear things on their feet.’

The Victorian pub interior is an inviting place, an urban parlour, a place where plumbers give racing tips to bankers, where visitors from exotic lands fall for boys from Penge or girls from Hainault, and where addled regulars share unlikely stories (‘it’s true, I swear, I was there’) with anyone who will listen. Britain’s peculiar drinking culture might have been a source of appalled wonder for foreign tourists but London’s lugubrious, booze-only boozers offered easy access to the interior life of the city. In an earlier time, I would bewail the rise of the gastro-pub as a factor eroding the democratic nature of the institution: tables take up room, families colonise the bar space and the social or solitary drinker is marginalised. ‘The decline of the pub’, I would say to anyone who would listen, ‘as a place to just drink is making the city colder and less knowable than before’. (And thus I became someone else’s loquacious pub bore.) Well, what did I know. Now, if I could, I would cheerfully walk into a gastropub and order the most pretentious thing on the carte du jour just so I could be in an interior where people have come to gather. Even a hipster bar is good for overheard remarks:

So what does a full-time anarchist do? Do you celebrate Christmas?’

But if Monday night demonstrated anything, it’s that Londoners need to drink. The manifest ills of drinking are well rehearsed, but the social value of documents such as Life and Labour of the People in London are often compromised by their authors’ failure to empathise with hard-pressed city-dwellers, or to fully understand their need for release. London is an ongoing experiment in urban life: a 2,000 year-old Roman settlement that became the first industrialised city, the first world city, the first mega-city. Londoners have had to suffer the sharp end of history so it’s no wonder that they developed a craving for booze – as a stimulant, a palliative, a tradable commodity, or simply a safer beverage than Thames water. And, call me old-fashioned, but I think that public drinking is healthier than private drinking: if there are people around you, there’s always someone to tell you that you are overdoing it, or simply being a tit. (Altogether now: ‘What good is sitting alone in your room …’ etc.) But I’m looking forward to getting inside pubs, not lurking outside them. And who knows? Maybe it will be all over by Christmas.

The other milestone this week was, of course, the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. I did, as it happens, have a few encounters with him over the years but I didn’t fancy contributing to the tsunami of news coverage, or the grinding of axes by op-ed toters. Those stories will have to wait.

Working Class Family’ by Ralph Steadman, circa 1969. Via Ralph Steadman Printshop.

Rathbone Street Pubs

1st edition cover, 1950. Illustration by the great John Minton.

‘The scene of this entertaining first novel is London by night, the decaying back streets of Soho and the sad and elegant squares of Bloomsbury just beyond.’ Jacket blurb for Scamp, 1950.

Above is the cover design for an obscure mid-20th century British novel. The image (by John Minton, painter, book illustrator, and Soho monument) shows a man tramping down Rathbone St. in Fitzrovia; he is walking past an unidentified pub, which is in fact The Marquis of Granby, which still stands at the bottom of the street. At the top of the street is another unidentified pub: The Duke of York, also still extant. The lamp-post just beyond the couple on the left marks, roughly, where The Newman Arms is situated. Those who bother to read the novel will discover that the man in the picture is an impression of a literary type peculiar to the district; it is also, as Ian Sinclair points out in his introduction to the 21st century edition, a portrait of the author himself. Scamp is a novel drawn directly from life. This is how the novel was reviewed by the TLS when it first appeared:

‘The book is written from the standpoint of the “bum”: that bearded and corduroyed figure who may be seen crouching over a half of bitter in the corner of a Bloomsbury “pub”; it is ostensibly concerned with the rise and fall of a short-lived literary review, but Mr. Camberton, who appears to be devoid of any narrative gift, makes this an excuse for dragging in disconnectedly and to little apparent purpose a series of thinly disguised local or literary celebrities.’

The review was written by Julian MacLaren-Ross, the model for one of the characters in the novel. No wonder he panned it: Camberton’s characterisation of him as ‘Angus Steerforth-Sims’, a faded novelist past his prime, was cruelly accurate. But Scamp clearly hit a nerve beyond MacLaren-Ross’s wounded pride, as it portrays literary bohemia in decline: the fixtures of the ‘forties remain just about in place but lack purpose and impetus. The novel ends with its corduroyed hero realising that the literary scene is a mug’s game, whereupon he and his girl leave London for an idealised future in Wales. MacLaren-Ross’s disdain for the ‘bums’ was a pained reflection that he no longer had the scene to himself; and that perhaps that there was no longer much of a scene left to be had.

Bohemian Fitzrovia was defined by the archipelago of pubs between Oxford Street and Howland Street, chiefly the Wheatsheaf and The Fitzroy Tavern, but other watering holes played their part as well. The Marquis of Granby had a reputation as a bruisers’ pub, with tales of vicious guardsmen and the occasional fatal beating. (To this day I have never had a drink in that pub, and I used to spend a lot of time in the area.) So we’ll edge past and make for The Newman Arms, halfway up Rathbone Street. The pub abuts Newman Passage, an atmospheric cobbled alley (MacLaren-Ross dubbed it ‘Jekyll and Hyde Alley’) later featured in the opening sequence of Michael Powell’s shocker Peeping Tom, released to widespread revulsion in 1960. The ‘Arms was George Orwell’s favourite pub during the war, although its appeal was limited as it only sold beer. He used it as the basis for the ‘Proles’ Pub’ in Nineteen-Eighty- Four. Orwell was more at home here than he was in the garrulous, gossipy saloon of the Wheatsheaf, although it seems that an overheard remark in that pub gave him essential inspiration for his dystopian masterpiece. A theatrical scene painter called Gilbert Wood had a phobia about rats that frequently found its way into his conversation when he was drunk. Anthony Burgess, another wartime habitué of Fitzrovia, believed that Wood’s anxiety gave the watchful Orwell the key to Winston Smith’s ultimate terror. Burgess also remarked that the real subject of Nineteen- Eighty-Four was not future horror but the deprivations of ‘the miserable forties’: ersatz food, ersatz gin, ersatz hope.

I wouldn’t go down there love … the opening of Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’.

At the top of Rathbone Street is The Duke of York, another attractively located pub although, in Fitzrovia’s glory days, regarded as a second-tier drinking hole. Maclaren Ross only started coming here after he was exiled from The Wheatsheaf. (A change of landlord saw MacLaren-Ross banned from The Wheatsheaf for playing his ridiculous matchstick game ‘Spoof’ for money in the bar. In Scamp, the game is called ‘Scrag’.) But The Duke of York has its own cameo in literary history. On leave from the army, Anthony Burgess and his young wife Lynne found themselves in the Duke of York when a group of thugs from the Pirelli gang invaded the bar, demanded pints of beer from a terrified barman before pouring them on the floor, smashing the glasses and threatening the punters. Lynne commented on the waste of drink, which prompted the ‘cherubic’ leader of the group to force her to drink pint after pint of bitter. Burgess reckoned that Lynne’s courage was a product of her essential innocence: she was unable to take the little goons seriously, she thought their leader was too much like ‘Pinky’ from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Later in the war, Lynne was robbed and savagely beaten on a London street by a group of American soldiers on the run. She was pregnant and miscarried as a result of the attack. These two episodes stewed in Burgess’s mind and ultimately begat Alex and the droogs of A Clockwork Orange. (See Burgess’s memoir Little Wilson and Big God.)

As for Roland Camberton, author of Scamp, his real name was Henry Cohen, and praise for his first novel led to a second, published in 1952, and then … nothing. He died in 1965, aged only 44. But most of Fitzrovia’s 1940s’ lynchpins were dead by then. Orwell died in 1948, Dylan Thomas in 1953, Nina Hamnett in 1956, Augustus John in 1961 … MacLaren-Ross died of a heart attack in 1964, still attempting to keep ahead of his creditors whilst touting ideas for novels, plays and films. Like Nina Hamnett, MacLaren-Ross’s ultimate fate was to be a character, associated with a very specific territory: a faded bohemian landscape that dissolved amidst the rise of youth cultures that changed Soho and London forever.

The Duke of York pub is today identified by a truly frightful pub sign showing the contemporary occupant of that title in mock-heroic pose. Even before Prince Andrew’s recent difficulties, this seemed like a catastrophic lapse of taste and one wonders how long that sign will remain in situ. That said, our current Covid-driven dystopia has one wondering about the permanence and viability of pubs themselves. Change is in the air, not necessarily for the better; and, like a bewildered bohemian staring at the duffel-coated ‘bums’ walking down Rathbone Street, I don’t like it one bit.

The Duke of York, July 2020.

Artistic Off-Licence

The Drinker’s role-model … James Stewart as L.B. Jeffries in Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Your correspondent is off his feet at present, following a long-delayed surgical procedure – a ‘tendoachilles reconstruction’ on my right foot – carried out at Guy’s Hospital last week. The operation seems to have gone well but I was more than a touch over-ambitious in estimating my post-operative capabilities; and as my flat is on the 6th floor, I have forsaken Drinker’s Towers in The Deep South (SE19) and fallen upon the kindness of family in Metro-Land. As they say on literary blurbs, ‘He divides his time …’ between a sofa in the front room and a sofa in the back room. In some respects, this is a lockdown within a lockdown: but unlike earlier experiments in socially-distant living, back in March, when staying in and getting drunk whilst watching daytime TV could be categorised as a patriotic duty, I am currently on strong painkillers and blood thinners and am obliged to be teetotal for the next few weeks. This is beyond daunting. Already, the novelty of watching contemporary television is wearing thin and even the comfort of a 1975 episode of The Sweeney is not the same without a large Malbec at hand. With plenty of time to ponder the texture of my life, the question that has been troubling me is this: how many of my aesthetic pleasures are contingent upon booze? To what extent is my inner landscape littered with empty bottles? Is my cultural engagement merely a pretext for a few glasses of whatever they’ve got behind the bar?

Music. I’m safe with this one. I’ll admit that I find drink to be an effective enhancer when listening at home – a light dessert wine with Haydn, a fine Armagnac with Debussy, blood-temperature Tennants with The Cramps, etc. – but I am a model of sobriety when I go to hear live music. (That said, I once woke up to find myself drooling on a stranger’s shoulder during a programme of late Brahms at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Never attempt high culture after a heavy meal.) The exception is live opera. You’re OK with Mozart, Puccini and one or two others, but Richard Strauss or Harrison Birtwistle should only be attempted after a few fistfuls of gin. (A similar rule applies to ballet.)

Literature. Reading a novel whilst drunk might lend an ethereal shimmer to otherwise undistinguished prose but booze tends to obliterate plot, so this is not recommended unless you are a professional book reviewer. However, the average literary event is vastly improved by judicious pre-loading, which also helps smooth out the more obvious signs of freeloading at the drinks table. A few glasses of ‘concrete floor’* catering wine and you’re ready to impress the literati with your observations on, say, the thematic importance of alcohol in the short stories of John Cheever, erudition that should marginalise any infelicities, such as dropping your devilled egg in Margaret Drabble’s hair. (Remember that the more toney the publisher, the greater the potential for social or career suicide.) Poetry nights can be particularly desperate affairs, real life-or-death stuff, especially if the poems in question have been translated from an obscure sub-Saharan dialect, or are in Welsh. Poets get gnarly very quickly and Pinot Grigio-scented tears are never far away. I remember a strange, lurching evening at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden, wherein the tremulous urgency of the poet declaiming from the tiny stage was undermined by a drunken row in the audience (‘Your problem is you’re too fucking highbrow!’), accompanied by an obbligato of slamming toilet doors, clacking high heels, clinking bottles and tinkling tins.

(* A term coined, if I’m not mistaken, by Charles Jennings, late of Sediment.)

Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. See it at The National Gallery, then nip to the Lamb and Flag for a quick one.

Visual Arts. Like many non-believers, I consider a trip to a great gallery to be a substitute for religious observation. Perhaps that is why I find private views in such surroundings to be rather jarring: it is hard to muster high spirits in front of Titian or Mantegna or Holbein, the old masters make you keenly aware of your own inadequacy. And, should you decide to go for it, all that free Dom Perignon will have you playing ‘Twister’ behind the Elgin Marbles and feeling utterly ashamed the next day. My own experience of art world ligging has generally been on a less elevated plane, usually involving repurposed industrial units in east London, events where art and venue are as grubby as they are evanescent, and the exhibiting artists the drunkest people in the room. In these cases, in spite of strenuous and explicit claims for the Work, what passes for art is a perfunctory excuse for a piss-up. Careful you don’t trip over the Turner-nominated Maker passed out in the corridor, overcome by an excess of sponsor’s lager and a naval-strength dose of Impostor Syndrome.

Theatre. It should go without saying that it is heresy to see a play without having a drink in the interval. It is impossible to really enjoy the first act of anything without the promise of a pre-booked gin and tonic served in a wonky plastic vessel, a ritual that – as all crafty playwrights know – functions as a structural element in the drama itself. In some cases, it is advisable to take your own flask into the auditorium, especially if you are seeing the Oresteia or are accompanying a relative keen to sing along to Mamma Mia!. But you need to get the proportions right or you risk involuntary audience participation. My sister was performing in a play at the National Theatre when the action was interrupted by a death rattle coming from the stalls, prompting an alarmed theatre-goer to raise the alarm thus: ‘For pity’s sake stop acting! Can’t you hear someone’s in trouble?!’ It transpired that the distressed punter had merely fallen asleep, and awoke to find the entire Lyttleton auditorium staring at him.

Cinema. A visit to the flicks is usually pretty sober for me, but a trip to see Tenet – just about the only film showing in cinemas last summer – made me wish that I had brought my own stash of brandy with me. The film was utter tosh but the seats were so comfy and it was a relief to be out of the flat.

Cut to the present. This exercise feels depressingly redundant, an old fart remembering the glories of a lost age. I am currently under a duvet on a sofa, where I have laid for the past fifteen hours. I had a bit of an accident in the night but it’s all mopped up now. On television, the commercials are all of the Covid Christmas variety, explicitly equating consumerism with national heroism, with a side order of nervous, pre-Brexit flag-waving (‘Made with British potatoes’ etc.) On the bright side, I’ve just taken some more painkillers, I have a cup of tea, an M&S fruit and fibre bar, and Cash In The Attic is on soon. I’ve never felt so alive.