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.

A Quick Valediction

You don’t need me to tell you that there is a surfeit of news about. Your correspondent is eating tinned soup whilst ‘doomscrolling’ an assortment of feeds covering a smorgasbord of disasters: the terrorist attack in Vienna, Covid restrictions and government by headless chicken at Westminster, and – of course – the presidential election in the USA. Furthermore, domestic refurbishment has left my kitchen in pieces with no end in sight. If I seem a bit distracted today I think I may be cut some slack.

However, in a bid to offer some elegiac light relief, the clip above features the late Sean Connery as James Bond in Goldfinger, Guy Hamilton’s 1964 adaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel. This particular scene offers Bond the chance to offer some random insights into the mysteries of the distilling process, and acts as a knowing send-up of the 007 project as a whole. I offer this to mark the passing of Sir Sean and the passing of an era. I have been working on a dissection of Fleming and the Bond phenomenon but I will leave that for another time; to be honest, I’m finding it hard to concentrate at all, and I’ve just discovered that my boiler has packed up. And the latest news is that John Sessions has died of a heart attack … I will conclude this short and sad entry with this clip featuring the man in his element, telling a quick and dirty joke. RIP.

Spitalfields Drinking: Meths, Absinthe, Flat White.

Spitalfields, January 1991. © David Secombe.

As early as the 1730s, overcrowding had become a characteristic of the East End, a process accelerated in the early 19th century by the building of the docks between 1800 and 1830, the demand for unskilled labour, and the arrival of Jews and other refugees from Eastern Europe. […] Hawksmoor’s architecture, imbued with Baroque rhythms, is massive yet solid, like Johnson’s prose. Characteristic of how little we really value [Hawksmoor’s churches] is the fact that, at time of writing, Christ Church, Spitalfields, is under threat of demolition, though thousands of pounds are uselessly thrown away in every conceivable direction.
From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962. Penguin Books.

Spitalfields used to be cited by ‘psychogeographers’ as one of those London locales where the sad history of the city was engraved upon its streets and buildings: a place that was permanently wrong. The district’s association with poverty, with Jack the Ripper, the waves of the dispossessed that have settled over the centuries – this stuff was meat and drink to the likes of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Back in 1900, the great American writer Jack London came here to discover the East End. He posed as an American seaman down on his luck, resorting to this subterfuge after Thomas Cook & Co. refused to give him a tour of the district. The resulting book, People of the Abyss, documented in depressing detail the squalor of Spitalfields, and included photos of down and outs sleeping against the walls of Christ Church. The pictures taken by Jack London have an eerie echo in Bill Brandt’s photos of east enders sheltering in the church’s crypt during the Blitz; his picture of a Sikh family among the tombs is a pointer to the future, as the local Jewish population declined and immigrants from the Indian sub-continent moved in. The 1960s saw moves to demolish the entire area – including Hawksmoor’s church – and the time-locked deprivation of the Georgian district was eloquently captured by photographers Don McCullin, Paul Trevor and (later) Marketa Luskacova. McCullin’s portraits of local meths drinkers are terrifying and poignant: when they aren’t screaming at some unseen object, they defy the abyss by retaining a certain dignity. And Marketa Luskacova’s magnificent portrait of a man singing operatic arias for pennies on Brick Lane is the visual equivalent of Gavin Bryars’ post-modernist tone poem Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, wherein a field recording of a London tramp singing a hymn is accompanied by a limpid orchestral texture. (Although it is worth noting that Bryars made the point that the tramp on the tape, recorded circa 1970, was not a drinker; this also applies to the woman in David Secombe’s photo, and to Marketa’s singer.)

Street singer, Brick Lane, 1982. © Marketa Luskacova.

But Christ Church was not demolished and has in recent years been the beneficiary of grants to restore the fabric of the building after decades of neglect. Hawksmoor’s London churches have experienced a revival in general, and I’ve already written about how they have become talismans for those who seek a hidden or mystical history of the city; so we get Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor, and Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, which links the Jack the Ripper murders to the looming presence of Christ Church over Whitechapel. It’s all balls, really; but mention of From Hell gives me the opportunity to link this clip from the film derived from it, in which Johnny Depp pours himself a very inauthentic absinthe (this particular recipe inspired, methinks, by Aleister Crowley’s ‘Kubla Khan No. 2′ cocktail) …

The picture at the top dates from a moment just before the wealth and bombast of commercial London annexed the neglected East End. Spitalfields’ perceived desirability perked up considerably around this time; long-term residents like Gilbert and George, Dan Cruikshank (who had been one of the original squatters who had helped save the area from destruction in the 1970s) and the American artist Dennis Severs, whose house is now a museum, acted as beacons of gentility amidst the inner-city gloom. And, as the 1990s rolled on, the East End went from being the Dark Heart of Old London to Shiny Retail Zone with bewildering speed. I remember laughing at my first sighting of Japanese tourists apparently lost in Shoreditch circa 1997 – but that was, I think, the same year that a Holiday Inn opened on Old Street. A visit to Spitalfields Market today is a trip to Covent Garden East: Covid-19 notwithstanding, visitors are safe to purchase their branded goods and speciality coffees in a shopping environment free of disquiet. It gives the lie to the theories of Ackroyd and Sinclair: with enough commercial pressure, any area, no matter how dark its history, can be transformed into a playground for contented shoppers. The poor and neglected get moved on and even Jack the Ripper is transformed into a token of area branding. Nostalgia, eh?

The past is a foreign country … Spitalfields Market, 1991.Photo: David Secombe.