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.

Peter Cook and Private Eye drink Robert Maxwell’s Champagne


‘Mrs Maxwell and all our children were utterly shocked to have me, their father, compared to a convicted major gangster.’ Robert Maxwell giving evidence at the Royal Courts of Justice in 1986 during his libel action against Private Eye.

(Private Eye had, amongst other things, printed a photographic ‘lookalike’, comparing Maxwell’s photo with one of Ronnie Kray.)

On the south western corner of Holborn Circus is a vast 21st century office block that is the corporate HQ of Sainsbury’s. This site was once occupied by a 1950s block that was the home of Mirror Group newspapers. In the 1980s Mirror Group was bought by the media tycoon Robert Maxwell. A preposterous but menacing figure, a natural and inveterate bully, Maxwell blustered his way through the British media scene from the 1950s through to his mysterious death in 1991.

There are a great many Maxwell stories and more than a few are apocryphal; but all are informed by his authentically monstrous personality. Maxwell inspired real fear and real loathing. The top of the Mirror building served as a parking spot for Maxwell’s personal helicopter and witnesses testified that he liked to urinate off the roof, joking that people in the street below didn’t know he was pissing on them. But it was also said that, after one particularly hairy landing in a sudden squall, his pilot discovered a brick in the heli-pad’s wind sock. He was not a popular man.

Maxwell atop the Mirror Building.

I have heard Maxwell stories from people who experienced his temper at first hand but my favourite story involves his feud with Private Eye. Maxwell had long been a target of the ‘Eye but when he sued the magazine for libel in 1986 he was awarded damages of about a third of a million quid, a sum that nearly sank the magazine. This was over an article suggesting that Maxwell was funding the Labour party in the hope of getting a state honour (‘cash for peerages’ as the phrase went). Following his victory, Maxwell – in what we might now characterize as a Trump-ish gesture – decreed that the Daily Mirror produce a one-off publication called Not Private Eye. Meanwhile, the Eye’s staff mused that if they could only get hold of the dummy magazine they could persuade W.H. Smith’s to reverse their decision to stock it – but how to get it? The Eye’s owner, the great Peter Cook, had an idea … Here’s Ian Hislop, quoted by Peter Cook’s biographer:

‘So Cookie said, ‘Let’s send a crate of whisky over to the people who are putting it together, because they won’t want to do it, they’ll have been ordered to do this.’ So we sent this crate of whisky over. About two hours later, Cookie said ‘Let’s phone them up and see what’s happened.’ We phoned up and the four people doing it were completely legless. So Cookie said ‘Sounds like really good fun there, we’re coming over.’ And they were all so drunk they said, ‘Yeah, fine.’ So we all got into a taxi and went to the Mirror building; and it was the first time I realised that if you’re famous you can do anything, because security stopped us and said, ‘Have you got passes?’ and we had to say ‘No’ and then Cookie appeared and said ‘We’re just going upstairs lads, is that all right?’ And they said ‘Oh, it’s Peter Cook’ and let us in. So we went up to Maxwell’s suite, where they were all lying across the floor, and stole the dummy.’

Peter Cook outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand.

The others were keen to head for the exit, but Peter had only just begun. He sat at Maxwell’s desk, rang the Mirror’s catering department and ordered champagne. Then he telephoned the picture desk and ordered them to come up and take a picture of the Eye staff relaxing in Maxwell’s suite. He graffiti’d the walls and windows with crayons, writing ‘Hello Captain Bob’ everywhere. Then he telephoned Maxwell’s mistress in New York, and got Maxwell on the phone to explain what he’d done. Maxwell went ballistic and telephoned Mirror security at once. Before long a party of security men burst into Maxwell’s suite; such was Peter’s charisma, however, that before long they too had joined the party. (Taken from Peter Cook: a Biography by Harry Thompson, Hodder, 1997.)

The mission was a success: on seeing the dummy copy W.H. Smith were persuaded not to stock Maxwell’s lumbering ‘Eye parody.

The Mirror announces Maxwell’s death, before their journalists realised that he’d stolen their pensions.

In December 1991 Maxwell died at sea, falling off his yacht in open water near the Canary Islands. After his death he was found to have embezzled the Mirror’s pension fund to the tune of about £460,000,000. One theory has it that Maxwell jumped off his yacht as he knew the game was up; another theory is that he was murdered by Israeli intelligence agents. Others who knew Maxwell say that the man would never have done himself in; and falling off the boat whilst peeing into the sea was as plausible as it was fitting.

(As it happens, my then-wife was working for a Maxwell company at the time of his death. As the chaos of Maxwell’s finances was revealed – it wasn’t just the Mirror that was affected – employees saw their end of year wage packets disappear from their bank accounts, and desperate office managers wrote personal cheques to pay for staff Christmas parties. My ex attended a grim lunch + discotheque, curtains drawn so staff could get shitfaced, dance, do karaoke – ‘I believe that children are the futuuure’ – and try to forget their missed mortgage payments. Ah, the memories …)

1991 Christmas edition.

The Drinker.

Dry Quarantini

Samuel Pepys’s diary, 7th June 1665: ‘The hottest day that ever I felt in my life, This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us,” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that to my remembrance I ever saw’.

This is a very odd time to be starting a project about Londoners’ relationship to drinking. When I put up my first post, all of three weeks ago, I was hoping that this site might encourage people to go out and visit London’s bars in a spirit of bibulous curiosity; I think I can be forgiven for being wrongfooted by a sudden attack of ‘events’. At a stroke, the notion of going into a bar to meet a friend for a drink has become impossibly exotic, a lost custom of a lush epoch. However, our current predicament is an obvious opportunity to take a look at the most celebrated pandemic to have hit this or any other city. Pepys is our man on the ground here, and his account of seeing quarantined plague houses in Drury Lane is significant; Drury Lane is, of course, in the parish of St Giles, and this doomed locality was ground zero for the epidemic. Plague had been quietly festering here since early in the year, and a parish official later admitted to Pepys that he was only recording a portion of plague fatalities as having actually died from the illness. With brutal directness, the authorities tried to stop the spread by locking up infected houses and imprisoning anyone left inside for forty days, marking the doomed premises with a red cross on the door. In April the first house was shut up but neighbours took pity on the inmates, overpowered the guards and released the afflicted into the streets.

Other parishes viewed St Giles with horror and more strenuous attempts at quarantine were made, but it was too late. The disease crept into Holborn, down Chancery Lane to the Strand, and eventually into the City itself. The churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields contained so many hastily-interred corpses that the church’s foundations were undermined, leading to its demolition and re-building in the 18th century. (This seems entirely appropriate for St Giles, one of those London spots that seems permanently blighted. After all, the phrase ‘one for the road’ is a local coinage, deriving from the custom of condemned convicts receiving a last drink outside the church, half-way point on the journey from Newgate to Tyburn.)

That could have been handled better … London in 1665.

On 13th of July Pepys writes: ‘Above 700 died of the plague this week’. A week later Pepys was in Deptford, seeing off friends who were leaving the city for the country, and one them gave him a bottle of ‘plague water’ as a prophylactic against the disease. Plague water was an interesting concoction, produced by macerating handfuls of leaves and roots in white wine and brandy. (An adventurous distillery in Minnesota has recently launched its own version of the beverage, using a 17th century recipe sourced from a pamphlet called ‘The London Distiller’ of 1667.) I suppose that any alcohol would have better than drinking straight London water, which remained a hazard to life well into the 19th century.

The plague peaked in September, after which a cold autumn shrivelled the contagion. The king finally returned to London on 1st February 1666. All told, somewhere between 68,000 and 100,000 Londoners had died: roughly a quarter of the capital’s population. If I was writing this in more normal times I would now be suggesting that curious topers should investigate the pubs of St. Giles. There’s The White Hart, a neat Edwardian pub occupying a spot that has been associated with drinking for 700 years; or The Angel, a pub next to St.Giles-in-the-Fields, and which is associated with the ‘one for the road’ custom. Both are welcoming and interesting and God knows when you or I will be able to drink in them again. However, it is worth mentioning that the period after the Great Plague saw a boom in the growth of taverns and hostelries, so perhaps there is hope for a 21st century revival for London’s pubs; they have, as we all know, been closing at a distressing rate over the past few years.

Modern St Giles seen from the saloon of The Angel

As of today, Tuesday 24 March 2020, all of Britain has, along with most of the western world, been placed under lockdown. Hard to know what’s going to happen next but, if supermarkets are any guide, many familiar brands of alcohol will be in short supply. But consider this: if Prohibition gave us the Gin Rickey, the Southside, and other sticky concoctions designed to mask the taste of raw ethanol, then maybe our own grim times will find expression in a new generation of ‘artisan’ cocktails. For example, the ‘Quarantini’ could consist of any remaining dregs of booze you’ve got left in the house after two weeks’ isolation (e.g. a mouthful of grappa, a half-drunk bottle of Nigerian Guinness, an in-flight Beefeater miniature, an ex’s Tia Maria gift set), mixed and chilled as appropriate, and gently imbibed in front of re-runs of Porridge, Poirot, Bargain Hunt, etc. Happy Hour can be whenever you like: I’m synchronising mine with Star Trek – The Original Series, but I wouldn’t judge if you opted for the breakfast showing of Minder.

The Drinker.