Late Summer Drinking

Late-night summer party at an English country house in north Norfolk. (All photos: David Secombe.)

Summer 2021 had a slightly end-of-hostilities feel to it, a sort of weary ‘is it all over yet?‘ aspect. Your correspondent was ‘pinged’ by the NHS app and had to self-isolate for a week, cutting out a quarter of August right there. This left me feeling even more bored and bilious than usual, surveying London from my 6th floor eyrie at Drinker’s Towers like J.J. Hunsecker surveying New York in Sweet Smell Of Success. Fortunately, August had a chance to redeem itself by way of an invite to a country house part in north Norfolk, an annual gathering that skipped 2020 due to Covid. This bash has been a calendar date for some of us for almost twenty years, an opportunity to gather to celebrate the birthday of our cult’s high priest, the one they call ‘Big Chris’. (The slightly ritualistic tone of the proceedings may be discerned from the photos on this page: Peter’s Friends it is not).

North Norfolk isn’t that far from London, it’s hardly like going to Cornwall or Scotland, yet there is a sensation of arriving in a different time zone, a different era even, when you alight from your car. Joseph Losey’s 1971 film of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between was filmed hereabouts, and the sense of suspended time central to that project is still palpable in a landscape little changed since 1900 – except for the odd supermarket or car dealership, and the procession of holiday 4x4s en route to the coast. And it seems that L.P.Hartley’s own model for the house in The Go-Between was Bradenham Hall, some twenty miles south of our party retreat. And Chris’s party always takes place in the same venue: a majestic Victorian pile with Tudor underpinnings (not to mention a John Soane connection) laid out with formal precision in rich farmland. It is grand yet welcoming, imposing but intimate, an ideal setting for human comedy in all forms.

Meeting many of the participants for the first time in two years was joyous but sobering: was it me or were there a few more grey hairs this year? There were late nights, certainly, but I missed my usual quota, passing out after dinner with alarming frequency. And Chris, a party animal fashioned from titanium, actually went to bed early one night, a development that shocked some of us to the core. And the children have all vanished, replaced by young adults capable of intelligent conversation who made considerate enquiries about one’s welfare (‘How’s the foot?’) and discussed the subjects they were about to study at university. Considering that some of them have been attending the party since they were toddlers, this was hugely significant in itself. This obliges me to quote The Go-Between‘s famous opening line: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.‘ Poignantly true, although it is hard to take this sentiment too much to heart when one is spending an afternoon in the company of a man dressed as Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. But the most telling moment was on the last afternoon, bank holiday Monday, when Chris and a quartet of grizzled gentlemen sampled a bottle of Mersault that the birthday boy had received from the owner of the house. Amidst the tide of cider and lager and catering Prosecco, this was a moment of reflective drinking that – perhaps – marked the dawning of late-onset maturity for all present. On the other hand, maybe we were just humbled in the presence of a fifty quid bottle of wine.

So apart from the geographical connection to The Go-Between, similarities end there. Hartley’s book is, after all, a study in repression and Victorian class strictures, and one is bound to wonder what he would have made of a country house party in 2021, with a group of non-aristocrats taking over a country pile, dressing up as their favourite album covers, and then getting pissed under the stars. (I fear old L.P. would have been appalled: he didn’t really do groovy or louche.) There may have been signs of advancing age, but there wasn’t much repression on show. And there wasn’t any bitterness either, the sort of corrosive waspishness that you read about in accounts of the ‘Bright Young People‘ and their parties of the 1920s; this lot were just happy to be there, grateful to be able to do something as simple as spend time with old friends or friends you’ve just made. That is always a joy, no matter what the state of your liver might be. And now it’s back to London, back to school, just as we get an Indian summer that has no business showing up now … but there is a bit of Norfolk that is forever Walthamstow. As L.P. Hartley said so memorably: A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous. Got me?’

Drunks On Stage

Programme for the Almeida Theatre’s 1998 production, starring Kevin Spacey, which subsequently transferred to The Old Vic and Broadway.

A long train journey recently saw me packing a copy of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh for some not-very-light reading. My copy of the play is the size of a short novel so it’s no wonder that productions frequently last nearly five hours when performed un-cut. Iceman is set in a lower Manhattan dive, circa 1912, and concerns a group of dead-end drunks who have their feeble illusions stripped away by a glad- handing travelling salesman. O’Neill wrote it in the 1940s and I am told that it owes a lot to Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, although it also draws on O’Neill’s experiences of Greenwich Village just before the Great War. A prime slab of American High Earnestness, its merits are undermined by O’Neill’s overt striving for profundity and his relentlessly emphatic, frequently preposterous, dialogue. And it has a lot of dialogue: O’Neill countered charges of repetition and verbosity by saying that bums in their cups repeat themselves over and over again. (He’s dead right there, I know that I do.) But the big speeches offer plenty of room for actors to show off, and big stars are attracted to the play by virtue of its scenery-chewing potential. The part of the salesman, Hickey, has been played in recent years by Denzel Washington, Nathan Lane, and, once upon-a- time, in London and on Broadway, by Kevin Spacey, in that long-lost period when he was the saviour of the Old Vic rather than a monster of Me Too. With a good cast and a good production, the play can appear better than it really is. But in spite of the interesting themes and setting, O’Neill is too overwrought for my taste. So if Iceman isn’t the definitive play about drinking that it thinks it is, where else should we look?

Programme for the original, 1972, London production, with Alan Bates in the title role.

The other book I had with me on the train was a Faber edition of plays by Simon Gray. Gray the playwright seems a bit neglected these days. His elegant and entertaining stage works do not fit the current trend for theatre as a form of social outreach. Like O’Neill, Gray wrote autobiographical plays that replayed certain themes: family, childhood trauma replayed in adulthood, marital infidelity, cognitive decline, and alcoholism. Usually the setting is a backwater of academic or literary life. Perhaps his best-known play is Butley, which sees Ben Butley – a chaotic English professor at a London university – conjuring displays of self-destructive bravado, his drinking fuelling his overall disintegration. It is a great part for an actor and the character has certain similarities to Hickey in Iceman; in fact, the afore-mentioned Nathan Lane also scored a hit with Butley on Broadway in 2006. But Gray is witty and urbane rather than ponderous and sweaty, and Butley wears its nihilism lightly, managing to be very funny within a scenario that isn’t funny at all. Likewise, Close Of Play, whilst more stylised, contains one of the bleakest descriptions of alcoholic decline you can find anywhere, punctuated by moments of perfectly-timed comic business. (My favourite is the moment when a self-confessed alcoholic’s short and shaky bid for sobriety is terminated by his stepmother giving him a bottle of Scotch.) The drinking in Otherwise Engaged is less central, but structurally important; moments of epiphany are marked by characters throwing tumblers of whiskey in each other’s faces. Gray’s writing is very autobiographical; and as performances of his plays dwindled, he gained a considerable reputation as a memoirist, with works like The Smoking Diaries reaching a public that knew little of his writing for the stage. He was candid about the life that fed the drama, about the failure of his first marriage, the death of his brother from alcohol, and his own drinking. Here is an extract from an introduction he wrote to that Faber edition of plays, discussing the production history of The Holy Terror:

A year later … it opened at the Promenade Theatre in New York, in a production that you would have described as eccentric if you hadn’t know that the director drank quite a bit before each day’s rehearsals and quite a bit after them, and more than a bit during them, while never losing the conviction, however many times he stumbled down the aisle and tumbled over the seats, often with a lighted cigarette in his mouth and another, also lighted, in the hand that wasn’t holding a champagne bottle, that he was in full command of his faculties, and that his genius for cutting through to the centre of things had never burned more fiercely – so, when he had trouble moving the actors around the furniture, he cut the furniture; and thus, when he had trouble deciding between different lighting effects, he cut the lighting. So and thus, on the press night the audience found themselves confronted by unnerved actors performing in house lights on a mainly empty set, and the actors could see not only the individual faces of the audience, but also the tops of the heads of the critics as they bent over the pads on their knees. The director himself, by the way, frightened, triumphant and drunk, was also highly visible and all over the place, now at the back of the stalls, now at the top of an aisle, now in the dress circle – if I’d been one of the actors I’d have stepped off the stage in the middle of my scene and murdered him, right there, under the house-lights, in full view of the critics: the report in the next morning’s New York Times might at least have marginalised the review.

Gray’s observations lead us into another area, something of a taboo in theatrical circles: genuine, on-stage drunkenness, whether deliberate or accidental. I have heard, anecdotally, that the great Irish actor Patrick Magee, Samuel Beckett’s favourite advocate of his own work, had a policy of drinking before going on stage, and it seems that this was not uncommon. [NB: See comments section.] A bit like 19th century French train drivers grabbing a calvados before their first shift, or Aeroflot pilots drinking vodka before a flight. I suppose, like everything else, that you have to know how to judge your capacity; and in any case, being pissed on-stage is now a sackable offence. Back in the 1970s, I heard a story concerning an actor who was found passed out in his dressing room during a prestigious Shakespeare production in one of the big venues. His colleagues managed to rouse him just in time for his entrance, and he staggered and extemporised through his part in idiosyncratic fashion. From the blankness of his mind he conjured his own, unique, form of blank verse; one example was: ‘Forsooth! He hath flaunt his SHUM!

Sydney Lumet’s TV version of The Iceman Cometh, from 1960.

Incidentally … The Iceman Cometh was first performed in 1946 and caught the attention of Raymond Chandler, who subsequently wrote to his publisher to point out that the play used the title of his 1939 novel The Big Sleep as a synonym for death. Chandler was convinced that O’Neill took the expression from him in the belief that it was authentic underworld slang, whereas Chandler insisted that he invented the phrase. Chandler noted: ‘The whole tenor of his writing in the play shows that he knows very little about his subject.‘ This might be a bit unfair but it invites a comparison between the styles of the two writers, how Chandler’s dialogue sings and how O’Neill’s lines land with a dull thud. But you can make up your own mind about Iceman by watching the vintage TV version in the above link: directed by the great Sydney Lumet, and starring Jason Robards as Hickey (a star-making turn for him), it makes a good a case as any for the play and keeps it relatively brisk at three hours and twenty minutes. This production also features a very young Robert Redford, in a rare appearance as an unsympathetic character.

Eugene O’Neill having an absolutely smashing time on holiday with his wife Agnes and daughter Oona. (Oona ended up married to Charlie Chaplin; see: Stomping At The Savoy (Part Two).)

Drunk Artist Round-Up

Francis Bacon by John Deakin, early 1950s.

There’s Francis Bacon in all his sinister pomp, as photographed by his friend John Deakin in the 1950s. Deakin was a very talented photographer, contracted to Vogue no less, but also a shabby, unpleasant drunk. He was so careless with his archive that by the time of his death his surviving prints and negatives were largely trashed. This was a pity as he was a Soho insider and his portraits of the principals of fifties Soho are very fine – although, in some cases, the fact that the prints are damaged gives the images an additional power: an authenticity borne of nihilistic carelessness on the part of the artist.

Like his some time friend and artistic rival Lucian Freud, Bacon used London lowlife as the raw material for his art and made it universal. But, naturally, the Soho scene of the forties and fifties was full of artists who failed to be anything other than local curiosities, ‘characters’ even, their art failing to transcend their immediate environment, and whose fate is to be remembered as footnotes in memoirs of the time. But some of them were talented, whilst others deserve to be remembered precisely because they were such specific products of the milieu. John Minton fits both categories. He was a teacher at the Royal College of Art and a prolific book illustrator but also a painter of real ambition. (He was also a man of means, as he was an heir to the Minton china dynasty.) A conspicuous fixture at The Gargoyle Club, to which he also contributed a mural to offset the works by Matisse, he would enter with a motley entourage of rough trade and proceed to dance extravagantly to favourite tunes like I’m Going To Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter. But for Minton The Gargoyle was more than just a place to dance: it was one of the few places where he could be openly gay without fear of being adversely judged.

John Minton: Self-Portrait, 1953.

The poet Ruthven Todd recalled Minton at The Gargoyle, ‘… his long sad clown’s face, lashed by breakers of dark hair, as he danced a frenetic solo on the otherwise unoccupied dance floor. His arms and legs were flying this way and that … Clapping and encouraging him was a ringside audience of the faceless nonentities whom he gathered as an entourage as a magnet does rusty filings.’ Minton felt marooned by the shift away from figurative painting and towards abstraction that happened in the later fifties – and the soaring success of his friend Francis Bacon, fleshy embodiment of the zeitgeist, probably didn’t do much for his morale either. His work was seen as decorative, illustrative, lightweight. One week of his appointment diary is blank except for one word scrawled across both pages: ‘DRUNK’. He killed himself in 1957, at the age of just 40.

Similarly, the tragic story of the demented, kilt-wearing, Scottish painters Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun, universally known in Soho as ‘The Two Roberts’, is a cautionary tale of the fickle nature of artistic success. They were lovers, and shared a studio and an energetic social life in all the usual Soho and Fitzrovia hang- outs, as well as hosting parties at their studio in Kensington. But whereas John Minton inspired protective affection, the Two Roberts could be a social nightmare. In their cups they were fearsome, dancing the Highland Fling one minute, performing Scottish folk songs or reciting ballads, then abruptly threatening fellow punters to buy them a drink, or offering a handshake whilst concealing broken glass in an outstretched hand. As for the art itself, it didn’t really survive the period: both worked in a sort of sub-sub-Picasso idiom (that link is to a Colquhoun canvas, here’s one to a MacBryde) that was eclipsed by the passing fad of the ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of the fifties, and then the more durable fashion for abstract art. In addition to artistic redundancy, a succession of misfortunes overtook the pair. A retrospective exhibition was destroyed by vandals who broke into the studio on the eve of the private view; and Colquhoun expired at his easel, just 47, in 1962. MacBryde carried on as best he could, only to die a few years later in a bizarre traffic accident in Ireland, hit by a car as he was dancing a jig in the street outside a pub.

The Two Roberts: Robert MacBryde, left, and Robert Colquhoun. Picture Post, 1949.

Without wishing to sound callous, it is doubtful that posterity would remember MacBryde or Colquhoun at all if it weren’t for the ghastly vividness of their social lives and their impact on others within their circle. By contrast, Minton, has become more appreciated in recent years due to the numerous book jackets and illustrations that he executed with such fluency and skill. He might have been a ‘minor’ painter but his attractive and atmospheric book designs have helped to define our image of cultural life in fifties Britain. As for John Deakin, the surviving photographs are testament to a powerful, forensic talent for portraiture: a sort of guttersnipe Bill Brandt. His work seems to anticipate some of the bolder experiments of Richard Avedon, and its rediscovery offers a valuable record of the period. But Deakin the man is perhaps best remembered not at all: remembrances of him by acquaintances indicate a thoroughly repellent personality, a cadging drunk who turned out to be a wealthy miser. He was commissioned by Bacon to do a session of nude photographs of Soho scenester Henrietta Moraes, photos intended for use as the basis of a painting, and Henrietta discovered that Deakin had been selling additional prints to sailors in pubs. After Deakin’s sudden death, Francis Bacon found himself tasked with making formal identification of Deakin’s body and noted that in death Deakin was able to do one thing that he was never able to do in life: keep his mouth shut. And there are other artists who outstayed their welcome. Gerald Wilde was another ‘mad artist’ of the period, another fixture at the Wheatsheaf, the Caves De France, etc., a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism in the forties whose work was highly rated but whose drunken persona would try anyone’s patience. According to Daniel Farson, Bacon once held him in high regard but later on regarded him as ‘a dreadful bore’ who had once turned up at his studio at four a.m. demanding money for drink. As for himself, Bacon knew that he was lucky, hitting a raw nerve of the century and surviving to occupy Greatest Living Artist status. But his patience and good manners had limits. There’s a nice story about him at the Colony Room, politely refusing a rather insistent young artist’s repeated invitations to visit him at his studio, until Bacon finally had enough and said ‘I don’t need to see your paintings, I’ve seen your tie.’

See also:
Francis Bacon In The Colony Room
Spies and Queens at The Gargoyle Club
Rathbone Street Pubs