Julian and Dylan at The Wheatsheaf

The saloon bar of the Wheatsheaf was not large but cheerful, warm in winter and always brightly lit, good blackout boards fitting tightly over the windows of armorial glass and the floor spread with scarlet linoleum. It had mock-Tudor panelling and inset round the walls, squares of tartan belonging to various tartan clans. (‘Memoirs of the Forties’, Julian Maclaren-Ross).

London never did café culture, that was Paris’s forte; but what we used to have was the writers’ pub. During the 1930s and 40s London’s own left bank was Fitzrovia, that archipelago of pubs and restaurants between Fitzroy Square and the bottom of Rathbone Place, where it slams up against Oxford St.. The queen of Fitzrovia’s literary pubs was the mock-Tudor Wheatsheaf on Rathbone Place. The stories associated with the Wheatsheaf are the stuff of literary cliché. If you walked in here one lunchtime during the 2nd World War, you would almost certainly encounter the twin popes of The Wheatsheaf bar, Dylan Thomas and the novelist Julian Maclaren-Ross, each with his own set of acolytes.

‘What will you have to drink Mr. Thomas?’ ‘Anything that goes down my throat.’

Whilst Dylan was versifying by the stained glass windows in the public bar, MacLaren Ross occupied the saloon end of the counter, from where he would broadcast his opinions on films or modern novels. You might see George Orwell on lunch break from the BBC, perhaps waiting to meet the glamorous Sonia Brownell who lived just around the corner. Sonia’s employer, Cyril Connolly, the pudgy aesthete and editor of Horizon review, might be there too, talking an incongruously beautiful woman into investing money in his magazine. Perhaps you’d notice a young woman who, on closer inspection, turns out to be Quentin Crisp in austerity drag. Or you might wonder about the demure ‘Sister Anne’, a prostitute whose quiet demeanour gave no indication as to her trade. And you’d also see the bar limpets of an older Fitzrovia: an ancient lady in Edwardian dress drinking Guinness over newspaper crosswords; or the venerable Nina Hamnett, a once feted artist and model, muse to Modigliani, Sickert and Gaudier-Breszka, but now well into her alcoholic decline. You get the idea. The Wheatsheaf was the real thing: the place where dreams, greatness and failure met.

John Banting’s cover illustration for Maclaren-Ross’s 1946 collection of short stories.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Julian Maclaren-Ross was a ‘promising’ writer, his stories exploring the seedy, London-to-Brighton idiom pioneered by Patrick Hamilton (who used aspects of The Wheatsheaf in his monument to inter-war drinking 20,000 Streets Under The Sky) and the young Graham Greene. Like those illustrious practitioners, Maclaren-Ross described the furtive world of the travelling salesman, the cheap hotel, and the saloon bar – but Maclaren-Ross was living the material of his own stories to an alarming extent. He pursued his own ideal of how a modern man of letters should live, an experiment carried out in the teeth of aggrieved landladies, vengeful girlfriends, and exasperated publishers. He had a career-trashing habit of selling the same rights to the same unwritten novels to multiple publishers in return for a few quid to pay the next week’s rent. His occasional commissions were marked by a celebratory splurge of immoderate spending, the lavish dinners, benders and extra-long cigarettes somehow failing to mitigate the mounting bills and imminent (and occasionally actual) homelessness. One way of supplementing his shaky literary income was to lure the gullible into playing his ridiculous matchstick game ‘Spoof’ for real money, the bar of the Wheatsheaf offering him the ideal venue to fleece the unwary. And when the pub closed at 10.30, Julian would lead the hard-core drinkers a few steps up Rathbone Place to the Marquis of Granby, which – being in the borough of Marylebone – was subject to different licensing laws and didn’t ring time until 11. After that, it was back to wherever he was kipping that night; a Turkish baths, say, or the waiting room of Euston station, or – if his luck was in – a girlfriend’s flat in some distant suburb.

Meanwhile …

‘Somebody’s boring me. I think it’s me.’

Dylan Thomas, drunk again, the quote taken from a live radio broadcast for the BBC. Everyone knows Dylan Thomas; but in life, his burgeoning fame as poet and public figure offered no respite from the lure of the London pub. Although he was the prototype professional Welshman it was in London that Thomas cemented his reputation as a raconteur, mimic, and purveyor of his own patent brand of Welsh sentimentality. There’s a strangely touching story about him taking Henry Miller on a pub crawl around Soho and Fitzrovia and then on to a little dairy that sold sandwiches just opposite The Wheatsheaf. Miller was rather more far-gone than Dylan Thomas, as well as being very short sighted, and was convinced that he was in some kind of brothel, and Dylan was trying to stop him propositioning the startled waitresses. This is an unusual story as it casts Thomas in the unaccustomed role of (relatively) responsible adult, as opposed to the incorrigible man-child drunk that forms the bulk of his legend. It’s a more endearing image of Thomas than, say, that of him shacking up with Caitlin Macnamara, teenage mistress of the ageing Augustus John, a few hours after their first meeting in The Wheatsheaf.

The Wheatsheaf’s front door, July 2020; note (i) the blue plaques for Orwell and Dylan Thomas; (ii) safety tape on the pavement – to facilitate drinking in the time of Covid.

Literary drinking in Fitzrovia is a big subject and I will return to these characters in future instalments. But, for now, I will leave the last word to the Wheatsheaf’s most extravagantly dressed monument to squandered talent. Julian Maclaren-Ross’s conspicuous outfit (teddy-bear overcoat, green aviator shades, a carnation in his button hole, an extra-long cigarette in his cigarette holder and a silver-topped malacca cane in his hand) made him an occasional target for abuse. Towards the end of his stint as barnacle in chief of the Wheatsheaf bar, he was approached by a clutch of menacing youths who demanded that he ‘Say something witty!’ Maclaren-Ross peered at them and declaimed:

‘Noel Coward!’

(For those interested in Maclaren-Ross, I recommend the excellent biography by Paul Willetts, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia.)

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?’

The First Gin Palace

‘The Gin Shop’, a cautionary cartoon by George Cruikshank. This dates from 1829; in just a few years Londoners could drink themselves to ruin in much plusher surroundings.

‘It was near Field Lane that the first London gin palace was built. The polished mahogany counters, the garish bar fittings, the smartly painted vats, inscribed ‘Old Tom’ and ‘Cream of the Valley’, the rows of showy bottles of noyau and other cordials, and above all the immense blaze of gas light within and without these buildings as soon as dusk set in, were all so many novelties and came as a vision of splendour to the besotted denizens of the neighbouring slums. (From Glances Back through Seventy Years by Henry Viztelly. ‘Noyau’ is, I believe, a French liqueur made from brandy, flavoured with almonds and the pits of apricots.)

The gin palace described by Henry Viztelly was an establishment called Thompson and Fearon’s – and whilst it might have been the first of London’s gin palaces, it didn’t last long. Built in the mid-1830s, it was swept away in 1860 to make way for Holborn Viaduct. A drawing made shortly before its destruction shows a tidy establishment, not the flamboyant palace of booze associated with later examples of the species. But it was a prototype for all the others, and its location is significant, as Field Lane – which remains in ghostly form as Shoe Lane – was a remarkably hairy locality and had been so for at least a hundred years before the Victorians remodelled the area. Field Lane abutted the western edge of ‘Fleet Ditch’, the monstrously polluted Fleet River, and was once notorious as the site of an early 18th century gay brothel, Mother Clap’s, whose proprietor died in the pillory. (Mark Ravenhill wrote a play about her. And I’ve already written about a famous local dive, Jonathan Wild’s House.)

Holborn Hill circa 1860, shortly before redevelopment. Thompson and Fearon’s is on the left, with the cute balcony. As reproduced in Mark Girouard’s ‘Victorian Pubs’.

The new drinking establishments fascinated the young Dickens, who noted that the ‘handsomest’ gin palaces were the ones closest to the worst rookeries, but he evinced unqualified approval for the theatrical glamour of the bars themselves:

The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London can hardly be imagined … You turn the corner. What a change! All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left. (‘A Gin Palace’, 1835’)

Dickens left an intriguing inventory of the brands of gin on offer, their descriptions a come-on even at a distance of 180 years: ‘The Cream of the Valley,’ ‘The Out and Out,’ ‘The No Mistake,’ ‘The Real Knock- Me-Down’, ‘The Regular Flare-up … I never seen any of these brands in Waitrose, but it’s only a matter of time before some artisan distillery christens their boutique spirit with one of these monickers, slapped with a faux-Victorian label and bottled in hand-blown glass – good value at £46 for 50cl.

There’s a direct connection between the expansion of London and the endless trudges the workforce were compelled to make to and from work (in an era where public transport was non-existent), so that bars located on the main arterial roads offered the working populace an opportunity to break their interminable journey home with a palliative stiff one. If the gin palaces got a bad rep, perhaps it was because a bright pub on a dark street often indicated the only available pleasure in a pitiless urban existence: a source of warmth and light, company and laughter, oblivion and escape. And, as Mark Girouard succinctly puts it in his admirable book Victorian Pubs, Their customers tended to get drunk because semi-starving people get drunk very easily’.

A fun evening in Thompson and Fearon’s (allegedly). Another illustration from ‘London Pubs’.

Dickens was writing Oliver Twist at the same time as he wrote his piece on gin palaces, and he chose to locate Fagin’s hideout in Field Lane, at that time the centre of the ‘snot-haul’ trade. (A pickpocket was a ‘snotter hauler’, although Dickens uses the politer term ‘fogle-hauler’.) Silk handkerchiefs stolen all over London were brought here to be traded on, displayed in lines on poles above the street.

The rear of Wren’s church of St. Andrew abuts Shoe Lane, and the church is name- checked in Oliver Twist, as Bill Sikes leads Oliver away to Hyde Park Corner he makes sure to check the time by its clock. (A few years after Oliver Twist, Dickens used this vicinity again for his historical novel Barnaby Rudge, based on the Gordon Riots of 1780.) The arse end of St.Andrews remains monumentally imposing today, its stony bulk offering no comfort to the lost, vanished souls of Field Lane – or, for that matter, to anyone who walks down Shoe Lane today. When I was researching this post, back in February this year, it seemed to me that Shoe Lane was as desolate and dead a street as it was possible to find in 21st century London. But, post-lockdown, all of London looks like a bit like Shoe Lane now. However, at time of writing there are fragile grounds for hope; pubs are, ever so tentatively, opening again. On Saturday I walked through a deserted Clerkenwell and discovered a small oasis in the hot, empty streets: by St. John’s Gate a bar was open for business, serving a handful of customers sitting in the sunshine. It was indescribably beautiful.