A Quick Sharpener Before Doomsday

It should, by now, be apparent to everyone that we are living in a dystopian sci-fi scenario, but who wrote it? John Wyndham? Too cosy, perhaps. Or there’s J.G. Ballard … he wrote extensively about various kinds of societal collapse, either in ‘hard’ sci-fi novels like The Drowned World, or in his later sly and speculative manner, e.g. High Rise. But Ballard didn’t do comedy and the black absurdity of Donald Trump requires a satirical touch. Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of savage, slapstick sci-fi fits the bill, but I have been unable to locate my copies of Cat’s Cradle or Galapagos to refresh ecstatic youthful impressions. (It has also been suggested to me that Channel 4’s 1982 comedy show Whoops Apocalypse is relevant, chiefly with respect to its portrayal of the President of the United States as a total cretin.)

But one work of science fiction that has been haunting me over the past few weeks is the 1961 film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, directed by Val Guest from a script written by himself and Wolf Mankowitz (the same team behind the Soho musical Expresso Bongo). The idea behind this inventive British movie is that nuclear testing has thrown the orbit of the earth out of whack and sent our planet spinning toward the sun. London becomes hotter than Cairo and the city’s residents wilt and go mad in the heat. It is a great time capsule of London locations, and the heroes of the film – as unlikely as this sounds now – are journalists working on the Daily Express, then still operating out of its beautiful Art Deco building on Fleet Street, right opposite St. Bride’s church. The nominal stars are Edward Judd (the producers wanted Richard Burton but couldn’t afford him), Leo McKern, and the delightful Janet Munro. The newspaper scenes have a sense of authenticity amidst the dodgy science, and the verisimilitude extended to the casting of the editor of the Daily Express, a character played by a former editor of the paper. (Arthur Christiansen, editor from 1933 to 1957. A nice conceit, but Christiansen couldn’t really act.)

Fleet Street’s finest … Leo McKern, Edward Judd and Janet Munro feeling the heat outside The Express Building.

There’s a lot wrong with the film: the banter-ish, ‘Front Page’ type dialogue is cringeworthy, Edward Judd is a charm-free zone, and the special effects are often risible – but for all that it remains unsettling and eerily prescient. The clever use of genuine news footage, indicating drought and out of control weather, now looks like an anticipation of recent wildfires in Australia and California. The evocation of oppressive, unnatural heat is very effective: everything dries up or burns up and water becomes the most precious of all commodities. Black market water is spreading typhoid, alcohol is in short supply and even a warm Coke will cost you. As society buckles under the strain, decadent young people express their nihilism by wantonly chucking buckets of priceless water about, drenching themselves to the implausible sound of trad jazz. (‘Beatnik music by Monty Norman’ is the byline in the credits. The crazed, trumpet-touting kids were perhaps inspired by riots at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1960. Was Acker Bilk a baleful influence on British youth? Discuss. )

And, as you’d expect in a film that trades in Fleet Street clichés (‘They say you used to be a writer’), there are many episodes where the hacks go the pub. The pub in question is ‘Harry’s Bar’, a private members’ club just next to St. Bride’s (a fictional one, as far as I am aware). By the end, the trip to Harry’s Bar has acquired a devotional aspect: the film concludes with our heroes assembled in the club – one that by now looks more like a bar in the Australian Outback – and wait to hear whether an operation to save the planet has worked. (The great powers set off ‘corrective’ nukes in an attempt to blast the Earth back to its correct orbit.) Harry’s Bar has run dry, but the manageress gives the small band of regulars a drink on the house from a special, reserved bottle of scotch. This scene reminds me of the titular bar scene at the end of Ice Cold In Alex, where an ordinary glass of lager is a miraculous answer to a fervent but unspoken prayer. And this link between booze and prayer feels pertinent to where we are now. Many of us are offering prayers of one sort or another, even non-believers like me who are simply praying for the pubs to re-open. Of course drink is not always the answer; but whilst we might not be able to drink Covid19 away, we can at least toast its demise. As Leo McKern says as he raises his glass in Harry’s Bar: ‘To the luck of the human race’.

In Harry’s Bar, listening to the countdown over the radio …

For the cineastes out there, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is also notable for Michael Caine’s film debut in a bit part as a policeman (‘Stay clear of Chelsea, they say it’s pretty rough down there’); and also a groundbreaking moment of nudity in British cinema, when Janet Munro’s nipple is briefly glimpsed in her bathroom mirror. Society would never be the same again … At time of writing, you can see the entire film (handsomely restored by the BFI) on YouTube.

Kingsley Amis at The Garrick

The author at his devotions; 1st edition hardback cover.

‘Fuck off. No, fuck off a lot.’
Kingsley Amis to a fellow member of the Garrick Club
(from The Life of Kingsley Amis, by Zachary Leader, Jonathan Cape 2006)

Kingsley Amis was a devout member of the Garrick Club, that famous bastion of Victorian (and ongoing) men’s-club culture which stands at 15 Garrick Street, WC2. Founded in 1831 by the eminent actor David Garrick, the club has always attracted members from the artistic, literary and cultural establishment, and boasts a fine art collection and an equally fine bar. One of its members was A.A. Milne, who bequeathed the rights to Winnie the Pooh to the club; one can only goggle at the deal that the Garrick subsequently made with Disney. Amis hymned the Garrick thus:

‘When bores and pedants drive you up the wall,
Come to the Garrick and forget ‘em all.’

Amis’ devotion to drink is illustrated amply in his early-1970s book On Drink – which remains an entertaining guide to drinking culture and etiquette, although it may be best not to use it as such if you want to retain your more moderate friends. Some of his drink recipes are unique:

‘Queen Victoria’s Tipple:
½ tumbler red wine,
Scotch.

‘The quantity of Scotch is up to you, but I recommend stopping a good deal short of the top of the tumbler. Worth trying once.’

Then there’s this:

‘Evelyn Waugh’s Noonday Reviver:
1 hefty shot gin,
1 (½ pint) bottle of Guinness,
Ginger beer.

Put the gin and Guinness into a pint silver tankard and fill to the brim with ginger beer. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the attribution, which I heard in talk, but the mixture will certainly revive you, or something. I should think two doses is the limit.’

Evelyn Waugh: an inventive drinker but don’t read him if you’re hungover (see below).

On Drink also contains a very useful section on ‘The Hangover’. Amis divides it into its two constituent parts: the physical hangover and the metaphysical hangover. The symptoms of the latter are defined by the author of Lucky Jim in revealingly autobiographical terms:

‘You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is and there is no use crying over spilt milk.’

Amis then suggests recuperative options for hangover reading and hangover listening. Suggested reading includes Milton’s Paradise Lost, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch (on the basis that ‘there are plenty of people about who have to put up with a bloody sight more than you do’), Ian Fleming and P.G. Wodeouse – but explicitly excluding Evelyn Waugh. His listening choices are primarily Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Brahms, and Miles Davis – the latter recommended only when he’s not playing with John Coltrane.

The Garrick gave Amis a platform upon which he could unleash his ‘Kingers’ persona: a full-throated, blimpish xenophobe. Some apologists say it was a merely an act, but the racist quips are no less appealing in print than they can have been when heard live, his listeners struggling to dismiss the offensiveness as just a curmudgeonly routine (except for those who actually agreed with his sentiments, and there would have been more than a few of those at the Garrick). In 1996, a year after Amis’s death, a memorial service was held at St Martin in the Fields church, just yards away, and the after-party was held at the Garrick. The very right-wing journalist Paul Johnson ducked out, complaining that the service had seen Amis posthumously kidnapped by the left. Amis was a conflicted and contradictory figure. In his memoir Experience Martin Amis offers some context and amelioration for his father’s public (and private) statements. He even mentions that Kingsley abandoned a novel because he feared the hero’s homosexuality might be taken by his Garrick chums as a confession on his part. He also suggests that Kingsley’s copious writings on booze were a kind of justification for the amount of time he spent consuming it.

Martin and Kingsley Amis in 1978: a study in dynastic awkwardness. Photo by Dmitri Kasterine.

Anyone curious about the ambience of the Garrick is advised to check out the London-set John Wayne vehicle Brannigan, a genuinely terrible action film from 1975, which includes a scene filmed inside the club. Wayne’s co-star was Richard Attenborough, a long-time Garrick member who managed to persuade the club to open its doors for filming. The Garrick is also the place where Brendan Behan got smashed in advance of his famous live Panorama interview with Malcolm Muggeridge in 1956.

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.