One More Before Doomsday

This post originally appeared in April last year. I am running it again to mark this summer’s extreme weather. Pour yourself an apocalyptic one …

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 …

How Was It For You?

It is human nature to minimise the peril that seems passed. The town, so recently roused out of despair, indulged an exaggerated confidence. From The Great Plague In London In 1665 by W.G. Bell, 1924.

It feels strange to be constantly living through history, one preposterous event following another in quick succession. A bit like being Chris Morris’s reporter in On The Hour, ‘… standing next to the hole out of which the events are emerging.’ Yesterday was something called ‘Freedom Day’ which, in true British fashion, turned out to be something of a fiasco: a queasy admixture of nervous hedonism, ongoing grievance and hubris. We were, thankfully, spared Boris Johnson’s planned ‘Victory Day’ speech as he was forced into reluctant self-isolation after Sajid Javid’s Covid diagnosis. A friend of mine did manage to celebrate yesterday, by having an eight-hour lunch at Soho House. This demonstrates admirable spirit and might have been something I would have done if I wasn’t broke. I did do a bit of indoor drinking but that wasn’t a celebration, merely business as usual. Only the ferocious heat seemed different. Anyway, what are we supposed to be drinking to? Celebrating ‘freedom’ from a contagious virus that is not fully understood is so idiotic that one winces and wonder what it says about the state of the nation. I don’t think anyone ever waved a flag to declare that the Spanish Flu was now over and we could all have a party. Perhaps the end of the Black Death was marked with the odd roast swan or two, easier to poach in the de-populated countryside than before. In any case the Brexit mess is the very definition of unfinished business, so Johnson’s ‘Churchillian’ speech would have gone down as yet another national embarrassment. (To paraphrase the late Artist Formerly Known As Prince, ‘Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1938 …’)

Recent parallels being of limited use (after all, you can’t catch the Blitz) I consulted W.G. Bell’s account of the Great Plague of London in search of historical resonance for the present moment. (I’ve written about The Plague before, at the start of the Great Covid.) Bell marks the official end of the Plague with the King’s return to London. The Plague had started in the spring and Charles II and his court abandoned London in July. Administration of the city was left to George Monck, first Duke of Albemarle, a tough but efficient soldier who had played a vital role in Charles’s restoration. The contagion raged through the hot summer months but the infection was checked by a cold winter and Charles made his royal return to Whitehall Palace on 1st February. But whilst the Plague might have receded from the commercial and fashionable areas of town it still lurked in less salubrious corners. The first four months of 1666 saw 781 Plague deaths reported in the Bills of Mortality and the true number was certainly higher than that. There was alarm in Whitehall Palace in April when the king’s ‘closet keeper’, Tom Chiffinch, died suddenly of the ‘pestilence’, less than twenty-four hours after he was reported to be cheerfully playing backgammon (but at least he got to be buried in Westminster Abbey). There were fears of the Plague returning at full strength but it petered out in the capital – although towns like Deal, Colchester, Norwich and Cambridge suffered terrible outbreaks in 1666. (And then there is the heroic story of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire.) The official total of Plague victims was 68,596. Bell extrapolates that if allowance is made for error, lack of reporting and concealment, the true number is in the vicinity of 110,000; he goes on to calculate that, beyond the wealthy who had fled the city, about one in three of London’s population died from the disease.

So where does this get us, exactly? Dominic Cummings is all over the news today, as he is giving his first broadcast interview to Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC. It appears that one of his claims is that Boris Johnson resisted a second national coronavirus lockdown because he believed those dying were ‘essentially all over 80‘. Johnson is also reported as denying that the NHS was overwhelmed. Cummings is backing up his claims with WhatsApp messages purporting to be from Johnson, who he accuses of ‘putting his own political interests ahead of people’s lives‘. Cummings is, of course, the slipperiest of slippery operators, who spent a significant portion of last summer smirking his way past accusations that he had himself had breached lockdown for trivial reasons (at a time when families were prevented from seeing each other by Covid restrictions, when family members were unable to say goodbye to mortally sick relatives , etc. etc.) And he was all over Brexit, let’s not forget that. But he was at the centre of government and, if he is dishing the goods on his former boss now, it seems congruent with the culture at the top. Can someone have social immunity from a disease? In his history of the Plague, W.G. Bell pointedly notes that: ‘No single gap was made by the Plague in the ranks of statesmen; no member of Lords or Commons is returned dead by Plague. […] I have not found that a magistrate succumbed to the Plague. The Court and the professional classes, the big financiers […] who assisted King Charles in his often desperate need for money, the wealthier London merchants and tradesmen – all returned to London to take up the broken thread of their affairs. Yet there were one hundred thousand dead. To these others the Plague had been an inconvenience, a monetary loss, no more. […] It had been ‘the poore’s Plague.”

It would be tempting to compare Johnson to Charles II – the foppishness, the entitlement, the sleaze, the girls, etc. – but at least Charles knew his limitations and was smart enough to delegate Plague command to the very capable Albemarle. And, of course, Charles was a monarch rather than a politician, someone who was lumbered with his dynastic legacy and whose obligations were pre-destined. (I’m not going to get into an argument about the Restoration now, we can do that another time.) He wasn’t a career politician or an opportunistic chancer whose default setting is to treat national leadership as a branch of the entertainment business. Cummings also claims that Johnson had to be stopped from meeting with the Queen early in the pandemic, when official advice was to avoid unnecessary contact, especially with the elderly, amidst signs that Covid-19 was already spreading in Downing Street. This is where we enter a level of reality that is beyond satire – although one could see this scenario work in the format of a situation comedy. This is political history as an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, with Dominic Cummings as Sid James, Sajid Javid as Bill Kerr, and Johnson, of course, as ‘the lad himself’. In this episode the Queen plays herself, although we only hear her talking to her corgis. Waiting outside, in a Buckingham Palace ante-room, Hancock tousles his hair to achieve a look of endearing boyishness as Sid tries to persuade him that passing on a deadly virus to HMQ might be a bad look with the electorate. Then his phone rings: it’s Bill. ‘Tub? I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news …’

(Priti Patel as Hattie Jacques? Discuss.)

Dominic Cummings’s interview with Laura Keunssberg is on BBC2 at 7pm tonight.

See also:

Dry Quarantini

A Man Doesn’t Walk Into A Bar

Infamy In Clerkenwell

The Horseshoe, Clerkenwell Close, in 1971. (Photo via British History Online.)

‘Excuse me, but are you Bill Oddie?’

It is a freezing night in February 2020. It is my 50-something birthday. I am sat outside The Crown pub on Clerkenwell Green with my friends Chris, Mark and Paul. The first pints of the evening have just been assembled on the table and an attractive young woman, obviously pleased to have spotted a celebrity out on the town, has just identified me as the noted birdwatcher and ex-Goodie. ‘Can I get your autograph?’ But I am not Bill Oddie, any more than I am Alfred Molina, Trevor Nunn, or Paul Greengrass, for whom I have, at one time or another, been mistaken. What’s worse, much worse, is that the shock has caused me to knock over Chris’s drink.

I made haste to repair the damage I had done to Chris’s pristine, un-tasted, pint. For all his affability, Chris is nearly seven feet tall; and just as Serengeti park rangers advise visitors never to get between a hippo and a waterhole, it is unwise to separate Chris from his cider. I returned with a fresh Aspall’s and heard Mark, a trade union operative with a rich Barnsley accent that masks the fact that he was born in Croydon, offering some observations on Clerkenwell’s long association with radicalism: exactly the sort of spot that would interest Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilich Lenin, both of whom lived and worked locally. Lenin published his proto-Bolshevik periodical Iskra out of an office No. 37a Clerkenwell Green between 1902 and 1903. It’s also been suggested, although no-one can prove it, that Lenin took Stalin for drinks at The Crown when the latter visited London a few years later. Stalin certainly went drinking elsewhere in London during that visit, sometimes in the company of his new friend Leon Trotsky, who he had assassinated thirty years later. (37a is now The Marx Memorial Library.)

Clerkenwell Green has the aspect of the classic London village, church and houses nestling around a village green. It seems this is accidental, and that it actually came into being as little more than a bare patch between the Fleet and the two religious houses here: St John’s priory and St Mary’s nunnery, where St. James’s church is now. As the religious institutions declined, new buildings were constructed looking onto the Green rather than away from it, so you get the classic village configuration. There were riots here in the 1760s in support of radical MP John Wilkes, and by the 1780s the Gordon Riots demonstrated in spectacular fashion that slum conditions could fuel social disorder. Living conditions were certainly grim, even for those involved in small trades like watchmaking, which was a local speciality. Somewhere near here was Frying Pan Alley – a lane just twenty feet long by two feet wide. The name may have had something to do with it being the width of a frying pan, or it may be related to one of the bleak occupations resorted to by the desperate: frying-up rancid, cast-off fish at home and hawking them round local pubs as a bar snack. There was a similar trade in out-of-date cabbages, which were cleaned up to be re-sold; but neither pursuit was going to endear you to your neighbours. The rookeries became great material for the mid-Victorian press, as they were able to parlay sensational stories under the banner of outraged decency. When they began to be cleared away, the demise of the more notorious slums was marked by a certain nostalgia for grunge and squalor.

Reform League protesters outside the Middlesex Session House, Clerkenwell Green, 1867.

By the 1860s Clerkenwell Green was a well-established forum for dissent and radicalism. Thousands of people turned out at mass demos in the fields that lay just north of the churchyard. In 1887 William Morris addressed a crowd of 5,000 here, protesting for social justice on a range of issues, including rights for Ireland, reflecting the make-up of the local community. That demo (dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday‘) ended in violence, police moving in on the marchers as they reached Trafalgar Square. Earlier, in 1867, an Irish nationalist named Captain Richard O’Sullivan Burke was being held in the Clerkenwell House of Detention on Clerkenwell Close. Fenians attempted to spring Burke; the first try didn’t work because they used damp gunpowder, so the second time they parked a wheelbarrow of explosive against the prison wall. The blast was heard forty miles away. An entire street of houses was levelled, killing six and injuring forty others. There was a mass jailbreak, naturally, but Burke had already been moved so he was not amongst the escapees. One of the bombers, Michael Barrett, was convicted and became the last man to be publicly executed in Britain, hanged outside the door of Newgate Gaol.

I think I was boring my birthday evening companions with this factoid, as by that point we had relocated to The Horseshoe in Clerkenwell Close, near the site of the old prison. Although the Peabody flats that back on to the pub show the reforming zeal of the late Victorians, Clerkenwell Close now boasts some of the most expensive (and controversial) properties in any EC district. (One wonders what George Gissing, whose resolutely bleak, Zola-esque novel The Nether World is set in 1880s Clerkenwell, would have made of this.) As for The Horseshoe, it remains a pub of fond memory for me, as my much-missed friend John O’Driscoll ran a photo darkroom next door in the 1990s. The pub hasn’t changed since then; well, it hadn’t changed in February 2020 – I’m not sure what Covid has done to it since.

My memory of the evening is a little vague past a certain point … I remember a vivid discussion of why Harvey Keitel was dismissed from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut; and even more vivid speculation as to whether it was the same reason he was fired from Apocalypse Now (I’m not going to peddle scurrilous rumours here, you’ll have to Google them yourself.) Was that the night that Andrew and Alan came along? When we went on to that club near Tower Bridge, and I had to walk all the way from The Minories to Whitehall through pelting hail to get the night bus home? Who knows … but one thing is certain: Bill Oddie turns 80 in July this year.