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.

Halloween in New Cross

The Drinker’s style guru: Fredric March in Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1932.

One Saturday night about nine or ten years ago, I was invited by very nice young person to attend her Halloween-themed birthday party in New Cross. On arrival, I was met by a striking young woman dressed as a mouse. She was keen to beckon me inside but, after some doorstep negotiations, I realised that I was trying to gain access to the wrong party. As I made my apologies and retreated up the street, the mouse girl remained silhouetted in the doorway and, still staring after me, let out a slow, high-pitched giggle, not unlike the sound the alien pod people make in the 1980 remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. This remains the scariest thing that I have ever experienced on All Hallows’ Eve.

What can I tell you about New Cross? Well, I can do my tour guide bit and mention that Charles Dickens wrote some of Bleak House and Great Expectations in a room in The Five Bells, which still stands on the corner of New Cross Road and Hatcham Park Rd. I could mention the V2 rocket that hit Woolworths in 1944. But today’s New Cross is dominated by Goldsmiths College. Naturally, the various pubs are all slanted towards the student population, and one of these is The Amersham Arms – a landmark pub on an unlovely corner, handy for Goldsmiths’ main campus and nowhere else. Covid-19 notwithstanding, the Amersham offers live music and comedy and is a Mecca for students and energetic young people.

Looks almost wholesome in daylight …

I am not an energetic young person. I am a grey, middle-aged man with a limp. In my elderly foolishness, I had imagined that Amy’s party would be a gently autumnal affair, an evening of theatrical discussion and lovely girls and cheap wine served on a flat-pack table in a dingy flat. Knowing I was going to be the oldest person present, I had dressed accordingly, playing up my role as designated old fart at a bright young things’ party. But I hadn’t accounted for Amy’s wild animal needs; and so there I was, in tweed trousers, roll neck sweater and a camel-haired overcoat that had belonged to my father, standing in a queue to get into the Amersham Arms. My appearance elicited sniggers from patrons and staff (‘That’s quite a look’ was the verdict of the venue manager) but they let me in all the same, taking pity on the ancient fool who’d dressed up for a racehorse auction at Newmarket. But my real humiliation was to come. As a raucous four-piece band belted out a generic Saturday night noise, wee Amy – a lithe, kittenish yoga teacher – made it her project to dance with me. The ensuing gyrations were all on her side; I just lurched and stomped and sweated (it was an unseasonably warm night), an overdressed forty-something wreck in a frayed velvet collar. It wasn’t pretty. After a while Amy gave up and picked on someone her own age, leaving me to gather the shards of my dignity in a corner of the bar. This left me at the mercy of a swaying Goldsmiths student who thought I was a college tutor and who insisted on trying to guess my subject: ‘Philosophy – it’s Philosophy, right? No? Anthropology? Clinical Neuroscience? Creative Writing? Occupational Psychology? Sociocultural Linguistics?’

As it happens, you can study all the above at Goldsmiths, but over the past thirty years it has become famous for its Fine Art courses. Goldsmiths was the crucible of the YBA phenomenon, those ‘makers’ who benefited from Charles Saatchi’s patronage, the core members being Goldsmiths Fine Art graduates. Goldsmiths alumni from the group include Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing, Michael Landy, Sam Taylor Wood, and, of course, Damien Hirst. The YBAs represent an important social and commercial phenomenon but too often I find the work itself disheartening. Sub-journalistic comment decked out in art scene drag: prefabricated outrage for the tabloids and lumpen obviousness for the galleries, mediated in International Art English. (Cod-academic prose that exists to promote the supremacy of curator over artist. As applied to the YBAs, it manifests with a fey earnestness that is ultimately deadly. The ubiquity of the epithet ‘playful’ in this context has rendered the word useless anywhere else.) This has been a mixed blessing for the world beyond Goldsmiths, a world where Damien Hirst is perhaps the most commercially successful artist in history, with an estimated worth in 2020 of $384 million. For me, Hirst’s annihilating success demonstrates the triumph of marketing over content. A platinum, diamond-studded skull affects a mask of kitsch that doesn’t stop it from being genuine kitsch: a super-bling statement fit for a hip oligarch.

Yours for $100,000,000 … Damien Hirst’s For The Love Of God.

But bilious thoughts about Damien Hirst are really just a displacement activity on my part. I can hardly blame him for my own shortcomings, or for my own lack of contemporary relevance. And, in fact, Hirst’s bejewelled skull is fully appropriate to the season, prompting thoughts of lost time, missed opportunities, the futility of striving against fate, and how to get home if the Overground has stopped running. Behold the sad man leaving The Amersham Arms: a tweedy essay in dashed hope wandering through the wastes of SE14, hoping that he hasn’t missed his train.

That said, I am not the only one who has lost his dignity hereabouts. Opposite New Cross Gate station is The Rose pub, formerly The Hobgoblin; it was here that Hollywood star and cultural provocateur Shia LaBeouf would occasionally hang out, as he was dating a girl whose mother lived locally. (The couple were married in Las Vegas by an Elvis Presley impersonator in 2012. They have since divorced.) Mr. LaBoeuf stopped going after a while, as the response of the Rose’s patrons to an anomalous Hollywood player in their midst went from incredulous to abusive, as hats were stolen and fists were thrown and heads were butted and Daily Mail articles were written. A blue plaque is surely in the offing.

Stomping At The Savoy (Part One)

Where Bob stood … Savoy Chapel.

Wherever there is drunkenness about
No secret can be hidden, make no doubt.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (modern English version by Nevill Coghill).

Alley Way
Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues video, 1965.

The main frontage of the Savoy Hotel is on the Strand, a glitzy exercise in 1920s chrome, like a discarded study for the Chrysler Building. In contrast, the river-side aspect is far more muted and discreet, the business end clad in the ‘hygenic’ white glazed tiles the Victorians reserved for the filthier urban environments. The hotel takes its name from the ancient royal manor that once sprawled across the Thames foreshore. Until the 17th century, private access to the river was a prerequisite for any serious player, and the mansions here were as grand as the grandest of Venetian palazzos. Savoy Palace stood here from about 1200, occupied at one point by Eleanor of Castile, consort of Edward I. About a hundred years after that the house became the property of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and the richest man in England at that time. Shakespeare put him in Richard II and gave him some of the best lines (‘This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle’, etc.).

Savoy Hospital, circa 1550.

By 1370 John of Gaunt had re-built and generally pimped-up Savoy Palace, to the point where it was said to be the finest house in the country, a vast royal residence sprawling along the river: a great hall, a chapel, vegetable garden, fish pond, the works. Geoffrey Chaucer benefited from John of Gaunt’s patronage and worked herepage1image3674384as a clerk, writing some of The Canterbury Tales in his free time. The opulence of Savoy Palace reflected John of Gaunt’s position as effective head of state; but he’d also become a sort of Basil Rathbone-type villain, having introduced a poll tax that no-one liked – especially not the peasants who became generally more peasanty as a result of it. Given John of Gaunt’s unpopularity with just about everyone except Chaucer, it’s unsurprising that his gaff got wrecked in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. Wat Tyler’s men started by building a huge bonfire in the courtyard, on top of which they piled all the Duke’s gold, silver, tapestries and such like. They didn’t want to actually steal them, they were as fastidious in that respect as the Bolsheviks who stormed the Tsar’s Winter Palace – and the mob rioted so piously that one of their number who tried to make off with a silver goblet was thrown on the fire himself. It should be said that even this display of moral fervour didn’t prevent a few of them from getting quietly, subversively smashed on the Duke’s wines. Finally, a box of gunpowder, which the rioters thought contained gold, was consigned to the flames; the explosion destroyed the great hall and also caved in the ceiling of palace’s wine cellar, trapping the thirty-two drunken rioters who had been enjoying the Duke’s fine vintages. They were abandoned to their fate, their cries for help ostentatiously ignored by their zealous compatriots. (Goes with the territory.)

Anyway, that did for Savoy Palace. What was left of it was finally converted into a hospital, during the reign of Henry VII, and even that didn’t work out too well. By the end of the 16th century, the Recorder of London was complaining to Elizabeth the 1st’s enforcer Lord Burghley that Savoy Hospital was the ‘chief nursery of evil men’ because criminals claimed sanctuary here from the law. They were taking advantage of ‘The Liberty of the Savoy’, a strange anomaly whereby criminals pursued in London could claim that, because the Savoy territory belonged to the Duke of Lancaster, agents of the Crown had no power over them whilst they stayed within its bounds, a bizarre arrangement that persisted into the 19th century. By that time the whole area was in ruins, and what was left was finally cleared to make way for the approach road to Waterloo Bridge in 1816. The only part of the old Savoy complex that remains is Savoy Chapel, a solemn Tudor fragment adrift amidst the bulk of anonymous offices. I don’t know whether Oscar and Bosie ever came here to inspect ‘the grey twilight of Gothic things’, it’s more likely that they were too busy hustling rent boys into Wilde’s suite at the Savoy Hotel,* but this alley has one bona fide claim on modern culture. It was here, alongside the ancient wall of Savoy Chapel, that the 26-year old Bob Dylan – staying at the Savoy Hotel during his famous ‘electric’ 1965 UK tour – telegraphed Subterranean Homesick Blues for D.A. Pennebaker’s camera. Allen Ginsberg and legendary record producer Tom Wilson can be seen loitering in back of shot, unaware that they are witnessing the birth of a pop culture meme.

(* The ‘Gothic’ quote is from the ‘Hyacinth letter’ from Wilde to Douglas. This letter, and details of the goings on in his rooms at the Savoy, came up in court during Wilde’s legal suit against Queensberry in 1895. At Wilde’s committal, the magistrate observed:‘I know nothing about the Savoy, but I must say that in my view chicken and salad for two at sixteen shillings is very high. I am afraid I will never supper there myself.’ In an early draft of The Importance of Being Earnest, a solicitor arrives to remove Algernon to Holloway Prison for non-payment of restaurant bills at the Savoy, whereupon Algie retorts: ‘I am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End. It is ridiculous.’ With irony that he must have appreciated but can hardly have enjoyed, Wilde was held on remand at Holloway whilst awaiting his first trial.)