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.

Dry Quarantini

Samuel Pepys’s diary, 7th June 1665: ‘The hottest day that ever I felt in my life, This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us,” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that to my remembrance I ever saw’.

This is a very odd time to be starting a project about Londoners’ relationship to drinking. When I put up my first post, all of three weeks ago, I was hoping that this site might encourage people to go out and visit London’s bars in a spirit of bibulous curiosity; I think I can be forgiven for being wrongfooted by a sudden attack of ‘events’. At a stroke, the notion of going into a bar to meet a friend for a drink has become impossibly exotic, a lost custom of a lush epoch. However, our current predicament is an obvious opportunity to take a look at the most celebrated pandemic to have hit this or any other city. Pepys is our man on the ground here, and his account of seeing quarantined plague houses in Drury Lane is significant; Drury Lane is, of course, in the parish of St Giles, and this doomed locality was ground zero for the epidemic. Plague had been quietly festering here since early in the year, and a parish official later admitted to Pepys that he was only recording a portion of plague fatalities as having actually died from the illness. With brutal directness, the authorities tried to stop the spread by locking up infected houses and imprisoning anyone left inside for forty days, marking the doomed premises with a red cross on the door. In April the first house was shut up but neighbours took pity on the inmates, overpowered the guards and released the afflicted into the streets.

Other parishes viewed St Giles with horror and more strenuous attempts at quarantine were made, but it was too late. The disease crept into Holborn, down Chancery Lane to the Strand, and eventually into the City itself. The churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields contained so many hastily-interred corpses that the church’s foundations were undermined, leading to its demolition and re-building in the 18th century. (This seems entirely appropriate for St Giles, one of those London spots that seems permanently blighted. After all, the phrase ‘one for the road’ is a local coinage, deriving from the custom of condemned convicts receiving a last drink outside the church, half-way point on the journey from Newgate to Tyburn.)

That could have been handled better … London in 1665.

On 13th of July Pepys writes: ‘Above 700 died of the plague this week’. A week later Pepys was in Deptford, seeing off friends who were leaving the city for the country, and one them gave him a bottle of ‘plague water’ as a prophylactic against the disease. Plague water was an interesting concoction, produced by macerating handfuls of leaves and roots in white wine and brandy. (An adventurous distillery in Minnesota has recently launched its own version of the beverage, using a 17th century recipe sourced from a pamphlet called ‘The London Distiller’ of 1667.) I suppose that any alcohol would have better than drinking straight London water, which remained a hazard to life well into the 19th century.

The plague peaked in September, after which a cold autumn shrivelled the contagion. The king finally returned to London on 1st February 1666. All told, somewhere between 68,000 and 100,000 Londoners had died: roughly a quarter of the capital’s population. If I was writing this in more normal times I would now be suggesting that curious topers should investigate the pubs of St. Giles. There’s The White Hart, a neat Edwardian pub occupying a spot that has been associated with drinking for 700 years; or The Angel, a pub next to St.Giles-in-the-Fields, and which is associated with the ‘one for the road’ custom. Both are welcoming and interesting and God knows when you or I will be able to drink in them again. However, it is worth mentioning that the period after the Great Plague saw a boom in the growth of taverns and hostelries, so perhaps there is hope for a 21st century revival for London’s pubs; they have, as we all know, been closing at a distressing rate over the past few years.

Modern St Giles seen from the saloon of The Angel

As of today, Tuesday 24 March 2020, all of Britain has, along with most of the western world, been placed under lockdown. Hard to know what’s going to happen next but, if supermarkets are any guide, many familiar brands of alcohol will be in short supply. But consider this: if Prohibition gave us the Gin Rickey, the Southside, and other sticky concoctions designed to mask the taste of raw ethanol, then maybe our own grim times will find expression in a new generation of ‘artisan’ cocktails. For example, the ‘Quarantini’ could consist of any remaining dregs of booze you’ve got left in the house after two weeks’ isolation (e.g. a mouthful of grappa, a half-drunk bottle of Nigerian Guinness, an in-flight Beefeater miniature, an ex’s Tia Maria gift set), mixed and chilled as appropriate, and gently imbibed in front of re-runs of Porridge, Poirot, Bargain Hunt, etc. Happy Hour can be whenever you like: I’m synchronising mine with Star Trek – The Original Series, but I wouldn’t judge if you opted for the breakfast showing of Minder.

The Drinker.