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.)

A Man Doesn’t Walk Into A Pub

ʻAt first sight, when one had emerged from the underground, the whole of central London, bare of wheeled traffic, seemed impassably thick with people; yet this was just an illusion, for the crowd had no centre, no real purpose, and everyone was aimlessly on the move. What could one do, after all, but drink as one had drink before, kiss familiar or unfamiliar faces, join in the sporadic outbreaks of singing, stare at the brave souls shinning up the lamp-posts, and cavort for a while in the uncouth, impromptu dances which suddenly cleared a space for themselves in the throngs?ʼ
VE Night, 8 May 1945, described in The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945 by Angus Calder.

When I started this site, a mere two months ago, I was blithely unaware that we were about to be subjected to yet another overdose of history. How could I have predicted, in the halcyon, far off days of late February, that by the last week of March it would be impossible for me or anyone else to visit a bar of any description for ʻthe durationʼ. Astonishing really. But, like our plucky wartime forbears, we adapt to circumstances. For example, the Zoom platform has been a godsend, and some of us have used it to arrange virtual drinking sessions, a make-do-and-mend substitute for getting shitfaced in company. But beyond the state of our livers, comparisons between the historical event just commemorated and the pick ‘n’ mix bag of crises we are currently wading through scream to be made. It would be delinquent of me not to address some awkward facts, so I suggest you pour yourself a stiff one now.

Winston joins the royals on the balcony at Buck House, fails to get jiggy with it.

In The People’s War, Angus Calder’s commanding study of wartime Britain, the impressions of London on VE Day have a suitably disordered character. The afternoon was dominated by the euphoria that greeted Churchill, who addressed crowds from a balcony overlooking St.James’s Park (his bodyguard observing that the PM enjoyed himself ‘like a schoolboy at an outing’). As day turned to night, the city was brilliantly illuminated after five years of darkness. Amidst the crush, you might have glimpsed a young Guards officer, Humphrey Lyttleton, drunk on champagne, playing his trumpet whilst riding in a handcart at the head of an impromptu jazz band proceeding up and down the Mall. Somewhere in the crowd, the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret mingled with the throng (an incident that was the subject of a fairly recent film), bonfires were lit, flags were waved, and so on and so forth. But fugitive spectres were glimpsed in the shadows. On VE night Harold Nicolson attended a party given by a rich Conservative MP. ʻThere in his room, copied from the Amalienburg, under the lights of many candles, were gathered the Nurembergers and the Munichois celebrating our victory over their friend Herr von Ribbentrop.ʼ (A couple of days ago, some wag on Twitter echoed this sentiment, expressing surprise that the Daily Mail was celebrating the 75th anniversary given that their side lost.)

The collective memory of post-war Britain is an accretion of semi-mythical totems, with convenient elisions along the way. If victory over Hitler is rightly remembered, the crippling post-war war debt to America is conveniently forgotten, along with the Suez debacle and the near-bankruptcy of the 1960s and 70s. Misremembering the past is a national pastime; and our post-imperial comfort blanket of war-time victory regrettably feeds a sentimental myth of national exceptionalism, one that leads to the heart of our sick and Brexity present. On 20th March, as the scale of the Covid-19 crisis dawned on even the Prime Minister, Boris Johnsonʼs announced the closure of bars thus: ʻWeʼre taking way the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pubʼ, an absurd bit of flag-waving made at the very worst possible time. (Mr. Johnson is fond of posing with a pint in his hand, but it is hardly a secret that he prefers Bollinger to bitter.) If, in the words of another social media wit, Boris Johnson is essaying a Winston Churchill tribute act, this studied persona is showing the strain. The Prime Ministerʼs television address to the nation on Sunday was hardly stirring rhetoric, and its lack of eloquence has been very eloquently parodied. As certainly as his relentless careerism led to the chaos of Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare his inability to lead in a national emergency (one not of his own making, that is). Applause for the NHS is no substitute for the government cash it has been very conspicuously denied. And, as Nicola Sturgeon coolly repudiates Johnsonʼs softening of quarantine measures, the very viability of the Union that he purports to lead is even more in doubt. All this as a hard Brexit looms into view, with EU negotiators complaining of Britain’s apathy whilst British diplomats in the USA fervently lobby for a trade deal. So, despite the bombast and the rhetoric and the champagne (although Churchill preferred Pol Roger to Bollinger), it strikes me that future historians will not compare Boris Johnson to Winston Churchill – nor to Herbert Asquith, nor even to Neville Chamberlain. Personally, Iʼd say that the ʻwartime leaderʼ that ʻBojoʼ most resembles is Norwayʼs Vidkun Quisling. Cheers.

Blitz Spirits

A phlegmatic caterer, London, 1940.

It should have come as no surprise that The Great Quarantine of 2020 has shown life at its best and worst. Whilst we applaud the heroism of front line care workers and essential service providers, we also have to suffer the manic hoarding of the panicked or entitled, the mendacity of elected officials, and a smorgasbord of craziness from nutjobs of all sorts – e.g. the ones burning down telecommunication masts because ‘5G spreads the virus’. (This last a modern equivalent of flagellation as a prophylactic against The Black Death.)

These are difficult times to negotiate without recourse to a stiff drink or two. Our favourite bars are shuttered and silent, their ‘bottly glitter’ dulled, the pumps covered as if they were dead. At least we can still buy liquor to drink at home. But the role of drink in a crisis is bound to be controversial. Last week, The Independent ran an opinion piece that argued for the closing of off-licences during the pandemic. The article, by Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health at the University of York, advocated a ‘Dry Covid’ and was as well-intentioned as it was naïve. The Independent tweeted the column …

The Independent@independentOpinion: Let’s try “Dry Covid” – lockdown is the time to kick our national alcohol habit for good

… and the response from the twitterati speaks for itself. Here are a few of the many, many replies (with the great Irvine Welsh leading the charge):

Irvine Welsh @IrvineWelsh
Get fucked you dozy cunts

Tom Lynch @BahnstormerTom
Fuck right off.
Kind regards,
Everyone

Stephen Graham @PlopGazetteOpinion: Let’s try fucking off.

Ruth Mitchell @BeerFaerie
I think I speak for a lot of people when I say “Fuck Off”.

Ciara McShane @Ciara87C
Absolutely fucking not.

Jim Cognito @JimCognito2016
We’re suffering enough – piss off

That last tweet hits it dead on. Far be it for me to deny the deleterious effects of drink, but this is no time for piety: things are hard enough as they are. (Two days after the ‘Dry Covid’ piece, The Independent published a trenchant column by Chris Owen that thoughtfully but thoroughly rebutted Mr. Hamilton’s remarks.) Reaching for historical parallels to help us through this difficult time, the default position is invariably World War 2. Philip Ziegler’s admirable London at War 1939-45 has some detail on Londoners’ wartime drinking habits. The government realised early on that it was effectively impossible for them to close pubs, that would have been a deprivation too far. West End pubs did a great trade from the ‘Phoney War’ onwards, oases of conviviality in the blacked-out streets. (Rather hauntingly, the descriptions of wartime pubs recall Charles ‘Boz’ Dickens’s 1835 report on a gin palace in St.Giles, contrasting the darkness and filth of the surrounding streets with the ‘dazzling’ light and life of the bar’s interior.) But getting hold of booze was another matter: it was very hard to find whisky or gin, and fraudulent substitutes were occasionally served by unscrupulous barmen: war-time accounts of methyl poisoning read a little like tales of absinthe poisoning or, nearer our own time, incautious trips on LSD.

Moonlit Piccadilly in the blackout.

During a pub crawl with Dylan Thomas in the summer of 1943 the novelist Julian Maclaren Ross (whom I would nominate as patron saint for all London drinkers, we’ll meet him again another time) was relieved to discover that the Café Royal was still serving Irish whisky at a time when scotch was totally unobtainable. Beer was easier to come by but was generally weaker than it had been before the war and often ran out before closing time. Even glasses were in short supply, and pubs might ask patrons to bring their own. But despite this, pubs remained venues for social interaction, offering comradeship and temporary escape from conditions that post-war generations can barely imagine. But comparisons with the war end there. As some exasperated wag put it, in response to an older person’s reminiscence of not letting the war interfere with day-to-day living, ‘But you can’t catch the Blitz’. Any pub is a potential Petri dish for Covid19 and thus we are denied the pleasure of public drinking for the foreseeable future. I asked a friend on Facebook earlier today if she had any photos of pub interiors and she replied ‘In my dreams!’ She speaks for all of us who miss the simple joy of enjoying a drink in agreeable company – or even disagreeable company, if it comes to it. But we’re still free to drink at home and, for all the concomitant risks, it is impossible to underestimate the morale-boosting function of booze. My father served as a bombardier in WW2, seeing action in some of the most arduous theatres of the Mediterranean conflict, and he remembered with uncharacteristic solemnity the unexpected appearance of a rum ration: that’s when they knew they were in for a tough one. But a man in his regiment won the Victoria Cross for taking out a German gun emplacement single-handed, a feat achieved when he was comprehensively pissed (he was upset because a friend had been killed by a German sniper’s bullet). So courage mon brave! Drink responsibly, as the health warnings have it, no gin-scented tears please, but go ahead and drink. Your livers will save the nation. Chin chin!

VE Night, 8 May 1945, at The Feathers, Lambeth Walk.