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.

More Sex, Death and Fruit

Jon Finch in ‘Frenzy’, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1972.

‘Are you deaf? I distinctly said a large brandy, there’s scarcely enough in that to cover the bottom. Actually, you can make it a triple.’ (Jon Finch gives a barman a hard time in Frenzy.)

August 2020. The tedium of London on a Sunday has a sort of time-warped quality, as if we are transported back to Tony Hancock’s room in East Cheam circa 1958. Many of us are bored to distraction, resorting to the Netflix menu, unwatched DVD boxed sets, VHS tapes, wax cylinders, etc.. This weekend your correspondent watched a double bill of London-set thrillers: Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, wherein Woody tries and fails to essay a working-class melodrama with a Mike Leigh cast, and Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film: Frenzy. This last is a solid fifty years old now and is interesting as Hitchcock’s homage to the London of his youth; Hitch was the son of a wholesale greengrocer and the action of the film centres on Covent Garden’s fruit and veg market, then in its final years of operation. Frenzy also offers a very troubling insight into the great director’s id.

The film opens with a nostalgic helicopter shot of London from the river, the camera passing under Tower Bridge to the sounds of Ron Goodwin’s travelogue-style theme music. (Ron Goodwin was chosen after Henry Mancini’s score had been scrapped by Hitch, Goodwin supposedly getting the nod because Hitch liked his music for the Peter Sellers sketch Balham: Gateway to the South). Frenzy was based on the novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern, which was inspired by the ‘Jack the Stripper’ murders of the 1960s. Hitchcock’s treatment of the subject is a queasy admixture of anachronistic Britishness and up-to- date sexual violence, the permissive climate of early ’70s cinema allowing him to indulge his obsessions to an upsetting degree. The film’s anti-hero is Blaney, a surly ex-RAF officer down on his luck, played by Jon Finch. Finch had just played Macbeth for Polanski and he is very good at projecting the uncontrolled resentment of Blaney: divorced, homeless, jobless, he reeks of booze and rage, at one point crushing a brandy balloon in his hand. But Blaney isn’t the killer: he has the misfortune of being another of Hitchcock’s ‘wrong men’, as the real murderer is a greengrocer in a double-breasted suit, played with jaunty menace by Barry Foster. (Hitch’s first choice was Michael Caine, but he thought the project was revolting.)

Finch and Barry Foster. Never accept grapes from a man in a double-breasted suit.

A fair bit of the action takes place in well-known Covent Garden pubs, although the interiors are Pinewood sets. There is The Globe on Bow Street, where Blaney and his girlfriend Anna Massey work behind the bar; but the start of the film sees Blaney sacked by landlord Bernard Cribbins for drinking the pub’s stock. Later on, Blaney drinks in Nell of Old Drury on Catherine St.. Blaney is in the Nell when a lawyer and a doctor from the courts discuss the latest killing with the barmaid: ‘We were just talking about the ‘tie murderer’ Maisie, you’d better watch out!’ and cheerfully note that the killings are good for the tourist trade. This kind of banter could have come out of one of Hitch’s pre-War British films (the screenplay is by Anthony Shaffer and is not one of his best); but if the dialogue is dated, the film’s sadism is very ‘70s. It is hard to stomach the repugnant scene that graphically depicts the rape and murder of Barbara Leigh Hunt’s character. It took three gruelling days to shoot and although both principals are brilliant the result is indefensible. Ms Hunt joined the select band of tortured Hitchcock women, but none of her illustrious predecessors (not even Janet Leigh) were ever shown in such a disgusting ‘post-mortem’ close-up. For his part, Barry Foster was forever after plagued by drunks accosting him with shouts of ‘Lovely! Lovely!’

However, the film does contain a first-rate slice of Hitchcock ‘cake’: this is the masterly sequence that foreshadows the fate of Anna Massey at the hands of Barry Foster. We’ve already seen what happened to Barbara Leigh Hunt, so we know that Anna shouldn’t be hanging out with the natty grocer, but there she is going back to his place. (The address is no. 3 Henrietta St., above the premises of Duckworth’s the publisher: I wonder what the firm thought about that?) This time Hitchcock doesn’t show the murder; instead, the scene ends with a famous bit of cinematic invention, as Hitch’s camera retreats downstairs after following Foster and Massey into the upstairs flat, finally moving into the bustling street, where life carries on regardless. An assistant in a bookshop in Stoke Newington recently told me that he was the extra carrying the sack of potatoes who walks past the doorway, his entrance covering the cut between the interior – studio – take and the exterior sequence. He was quite proud of this fact, although the sack he carries completely hides his face.

That one scene aside, I’m not sure that Frenzy really does much for Hitchcock’s reputation, beyond offering irrefutable proof of his own pathology. But it is fascinating as a kind of lament for a way of life that was disappearing: its Covent Garden seems almost as remote as that of Hogarth’s time. It’s also a reminder of how good Barry Foster and Jon Finch could be. The latter, in particular, now seems like one of British cinema’s lost talents. What happened? He appeared in some of the most important films of the era but he seems to have turned down a lot of promising offers. Ill-health forced him to withdraw from Alien, replaced at 24-hours’ notice by John Hurt, cinema history made without him. If he hadn’t been invalided out of that illustrious project his star would surely have risen again. Instead, he drifted into obscure European productions, was sighted here and there in unusual places (e.g. playing the titular role in Ken Hill’s entertaining version of The Invisible Man at Stratford East), before dying in a flat in Hastings at the age of 70.

NB: Miles Richardson has offered some of his own memories of Jon Finch in the comments section.

‘Where did it go wrong love?’ Finch and Anna Massey outside The Globe.

Good evening Mr. Torrance. What’ll it be?

Jack goes back for another drink in The Gold Room …

Winter, 1978. In a film studio to the north of London, Jack Nicholson sits on a bar stool in a cavernous ballroom as Stanley Kubrick films the first ‘Gold Room’ set-up in The Shining, Kubrick’s adaptation of Steven King’s bestselling novel. In this scene Nicholson’s character Jack Torrance encounters the Overlook Hotel’s ghostly but immaculate bartender Lloyd, played by the immaculate Joe Turkel. They are the only two performers, marooned amidst the empty, glittering vastness of the Gold Room set. Kubrick films take after take after take of Nicholson’s self-pitying drinker’s monologue. In a lull between takes, as the Panavision camera is re-loaded, Nicholson leans across the bar and mutters to Turkel: ‘Right, for this next one I’m going to go waaaaaaaay over the edge; let’s see what he does.’ Nicholson is as good as his word; and cinematic history is made. (Disclaimer: I read this somewhere, the source being Turkel himself. I’m paraphrasing Nicholson’s reported comment as best I can remember.)

As the lockdown gradually lifts and pubs tentatively re-open for business, your correspondent has lurched from joyous anticipation to beady suspicion. God knows it is a relief to see watering holes opening up again, if only for the reassurance that those bars are still in business; but I am hardly the only one suspicious of glad-handing boosterism. You only have to look at Trump’s America to see the car-crash consequences of premature re-opening. But let’s go back to Nicholson, Kubrick and The Shining. In case you think that I am straying from my brief, let me remind you that practically the entire film was shot on huge soundstages at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, a short drive from Kubrick’s palatial Hertfordshire mansion. For our purposes, I’m going to class this as London. And although you hardly need me to tell you how significant the film is in cinematic or pop cultural terms, please bear with me: I want to discuss the film as a drinker.

Stephen King – who famously hated Kubrick’s film of his novel – wrote The Shining as a recovering alcoholic, and made the character of Jack Torrance a struggling writer with a drink problem; thus, the bottles of Jack Daniels that appear by supernatural agency embody Jack Torrance’s hellish temptation. In his conception, the hotel was the ultimate evil and Torrance was a flawed but essentially decent man sucked unwillingly into its maw. Kubrick had a more oblique, sardonic view of the possibilities offered by the novel, and his treatment of Torrance, as embodied by Jack Nicholson at his most unhinged, is far bleaker than King’s original character. No room for redemption here; Kubrick’s Jack Torrance is a man whose soul is dirt cheap. This point is explicitly, even clumsily, made: when Jack says to himself, alone in the echoing emptiness of The Gold Room, that he’d ‘give his goddamn soul just for a glass of beer’, Lloyd the barkeep appears, ready to serve him anything he’d like. And what follows is one of the best drinking scenes in all cinema. Lloyd pours Jack a JD on the rocks – the rocks being only slightly runny from the studio lights – and Jack sips his first glass of whisky in God knows how long. Nicholson might be on his way to self-parodic iconography, but the moment eloquently conveys the narcotic hit of addiction. And Lloyd patiently indulges Jack’s tedious drinker’s conversation with the smiling contempt of any smooth, real-world bartender; those of us who have sat on too many bar stools, spending the facts of our lives ‘like small change on strangers‘, know the type all too well.

Nicholson cedes control and Kubrick puts Shelley Duvall at her unease … filming ‘The Shining’.

The shoot was famously long and fraught, as Kubrick drove principals Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall to physical and nervous exhaustion, a process documented by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian in a very interesting ‘making of’ film. Kubrick’s direction of Nicholson into ham territory seems to have been a conscious choice: a collection of twitchy mannerisms set against the understated chill of Turkel’s bartender or The Shining‘s other catering spectre, waiter Delbert Grady, icily played by Philip Stone. It seems to me that Nicholson was forced over the top in this film and never quite came back: The Shining marks the great divide in his career, between the nuanced actor of Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, The Last Detail, etc., and the leering gargoyle he has been in almost everything since. To that extent, Jack Nicholson is Jack Torrance, unable to leave The Overlook Hotel. And as for poor Shelley Duvall … well, that is a genuine tragedy.

So why am I talking about this now? Well, The Shining came to mind by way of an old drink-driving awareness ad that shamelessly ripped it off, but which could easily be adapted to the age of Covid-19. Social drinking as existential threat. Jack Torrance might have been assailed by murderous phantoms, but at least he didn’t have to worry about a contagious pathogen; in fact, The Overlook strikes me as the perfect place to self-isolate, assuming the bar is well stocked and you don’t mind a vengeful wraith or two. A crowded Soho bar in July 2020 is another matter. I am not alone in my anxiety. I did an informal poll of my friends today: I asked them how they felt about public drinking Covid-stlye and even the toughest livers recoiled at the prospect. It’s not that I’m expecting to walk into, say, the Lamb and Flag to find Joe Turkel behind the bar or Philip Stone loitering in the gents’ (‘I’ve always been here’), but I certainly don’t want to encounter this chancer: that would be worse than meeting Jack Torrance and all The Overlook’s spooks put together. I want my visit to the pub to be a solace, a refuge from the cares of the world, not a game of Russian roulette. I resent the gung-ho appeals to ‘patriotic drinking’ adduced by self-serving politicians: I have my own reasons for drinking and they have nothing to do with saving someone else’s face. For now, I will continue to drink alone, summoning my own ghosts, in my own Overlook Hotel. Cheers.

‘Great party isn’t it?’