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.)

John Osborne’s Champagne Fridge

John Osborne and Penelope Gilliatt arrive in New York as divorce writs fly.

When I was a young shaver, circa 1983, I was working on a photo shoot in one of those huge ‘wedding cake’ townhouses that characterise Belgravia. In the mid-1960s this particular house had belonged to John Osborne and his wife Penelope Gilliatt, who subjected it to an elaborate sixties makeover: a fabulous monument to mid-century luxe, the decoration supervised by none other than Hugh Casson. In his appallingly entertaining memoir Almost a Gentleman, Osborne writes waspishly of Penelope’s ‘Swedish experiments’; he was particularly vituperative about the cost of the massive copper doors on the ground floor. But the couple’s high style made an impression: their guests at their house parties included the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Lord Snowden, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, the Oliviers, assorted aristocrats and intellectuals, plus all the requisite theatrical personnel. Osborne collaborators, such as Nicol Williamson, remember this period as the apex of the playwright’s life.

Johnny has left the building … 31 Chester Square in March 2020.

Two decades on, the big house in Chester Square was a relic of a lost era. The basement and top floor were let out to tenants, but the main rooms were suspended in time, frozen since the day in June 1966 when Osborne walked out on a distraught Gilliatt, leaving her for the actress Jill Bennett. Gilliatt spent most of the rest of her life in New York, returning to London for only short occasional visits. The suite of rooms – comprising the major portion of the house – that Gilliatt retained formed a backdrop to some strange, speculative photography I was doing for a man who lived in the basement. The ground floor was taken up by a huge dining room: an elaborate exercise in formal décor, it featured not one but two genuine Roman marble statues – grave male nudes whose antiquity offered an ironic counterpoint to the layers of dust smothering the table and place settings. (We used one of these statues as a prop in a photo shoot: we hung an alto saxophone round its neck. I can’t remember why, it certainly wasn’t my idea – but people did some strange things in the eighties.) The main living room was on the first floor, an airy space with exquisite appointments: a Castiglione floor lamp, shag-pile sheepskin rugs, vintage stereo system, harpsichord, etc. There is a photograph of Osborne sitting in this room at the time of his play Luther: the playwright’s success made tangible by his surroundings – although in his memoirs he refers to this room as ‘the airport lounge’.

But by 1983 the room and its furnishings – art books forever un-opened, classical LPs permanently in their sleeves – had the poignant aspect of an abandoned theatrical set. Osborne’s diaries record physical fights as Penelope tried to prevent him from leaving, at one point trying to wrestle his suitcase off him as he was going down the staircase. She later made an abortive suicide attempt in the bathroom. The 1980s tenants told tales of Gilliatt’s erratic behaviour and Osborne’s callous attitude to his ex-wife and their daughter; these stories ratified the sense of loss in that house, a mansion haunted by the not-yet-dead. Osborne’s own bilious drama was playing elsewhere.

The unhappy couple: John Osborne and fourth wife Jill Bennett. God knows what’s going to happen when they get home. Frankie Howerd’s not hanging about.

When Osborne and Jill Bennett set up house together they installed a dedicated champagne fridge in the bedroom of their house in Chelsea. They got through so much ‘shampoo’ that they didn’t have to identify it, and the question was merely ‘Would you like some?’ Jill Bennett became Osborne’s fourth wife (there were five in all) but unfortunately, this marriage turned out to be even more volatile than his one with Penelope Gilliatt, and the two leading lights of the theatre fought like cats in a sack. They achieved a spectacular nadir one Sunday in 1973 when, during a drive to Dulwich to have lunch with friends, they had a vicious row that ended with Osborne deliberately ploughing his Mercedes into the Wandsworth roundabout. Osborne had failed to notice that there was police car behind him; he was breathalysed and lost his license for a year. Bennett suffered a fractured ankle – and lost a part in a West End play she’d been rehearsing.

Even Bette Davis is upstaged: Jill Bennett in ‘The Nanny’, directed by Seth Holt for Hammer in 1965.

Gilliatt died of cirrhosis in 1993, at the age of 61. Osborne died the following year, a victim of diabetes derived from a liver complaint, at 65. Jill Bennett died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1990. In his memoir, published a year after his ex-wife’s suicide, Osborne notoriously attacked Bennett in the most gratuitously offensive terms, e.g.: ‘She loathed men and pretended to love women, whom she hated even more. She was at ease only in the company of homosexuals, who she also despised but whose narcissism matched her own.’ Or: ‘Everything about her life had been a pernicious confection, a sham.’ Champagne anyone?

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?’