Saturday, 14 March 2009

a pint of view

I am a product of the pub; the sum of perhaps a dozen cosy inns in England, Wales and Dublin. I was called to the bar to be educated in them, taught manners and the meaning of friendship. They have been my workplace, my university, and for much of my early manhood the nearest thing I had to a home.


My generation learned the etiquette of drinking from fathers who took us for a pre-lunch pint on Sundays. The central rule was that getting drunk was a sign of immaturity. The ability to hold drink was prized. There was no swearing in the presence of women. If you were bought a drink, you bought one back. There was no need for bouncers. Discipline was maintained by the customers themselves. The proper rate for drink consumption was a pint every fifteen minutes and the usual “session” lasted an hour. Anyone who drank from the bottle was to be avoided.


I was trained in the Red Lion and The Grove in Manchester, the Wellington in Doncaster, The Kings Head and Eight Bells in Chelsea, The Pearl Lounge in Dublin, The Bulls Head on Anglesey, The Bear and Billet, The Boot, The Beehive, The Swan in Chester - and a number of other public houses scattered about the country.


None in Scotland where drinking is a serious business, like so much else in that unhappy country, the New Puritania.


Why are wet blankets woven in bright tartan?


 Not content with creating a near dictatorship at home, Scotland has exported some of the worst politicians in history. To its own corrupt Establishment we owe the ban on hunting with hounds, the death of smoking in pubs. Now that Maelstrom of Misery is howling round the “Wee Hauf”. Or even more bizarre, a tax on chocolate drops.


The sad truth is that we are the product of our genes and the genes of the Celt are a rich harvest of melancholic addiction. My Scottish blood has made of me, as it has my son, my father, my grandfather and most of my uncles, a drunk. Even now when drink is no longer attractive I am still by nature a drunk. It ruined a career, a marriage and goodness knows how many friendships. For all that, I remember my roaring days with pleasure and no little regret. I still get incensed when, despite the fact the Government admitted that its “safe units” measurement of alcohol was bogus, it continues to trot out the same fictional warning.


My old drinking chum Bill Hagerty, Eisenhower’s spin doctor, reviewing a Michael Frayne book, loved this quote: “There is no-one (like a journalist of the old school) with that astonishing ability to drink until the floor tips and still write a thousand words on the shocking decline in standards of behaviour”

Pubs are not necessarily bad influences. I was reminded recently of that moment when they are at their best in this from The Long Goodbye. Terry Lennox tells Marlowe:

"I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar."


Alas, like England, the pub which nurtured me no longer exists. In its place I have The Computer which opens its welcoming Arms and offers many of the joys of the pub. Many rude things are said about this Wonder of Our Age. Like the local of yore, it has disadvantages which it shares with the pub.. Far too many jokes, the ever present danger of stumbling on a bore; though it must be said that, as in the pub, so on the screen: arcane knowledge is there for the searching


Like the pub, there is always someone ready to sell you something, to enlist you in lost causes and to provoke bright anger. There are programmes one would hesitate to enter as there were pubs. There are others, like You Tube, which provide the best of entertainment: Ella, Sinatra, Garland, Durante and all the jazz greats on the same programme.


A great joy of the pub was the conversation of like minds. Now I get a much higher quality via E-Mails. Surely the most intelligent form of communication yet devised. Made for those of us who think of the right thing to say several minutes after it is no longer possible to say it.


At the luxury end, pubs had copies of the daily papers. Every morning I have my cup of tea in bed, riffling through facsimile issues of The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent. Brought to my laptop among a thousand other English language titles by


Goodness knows how many trees I save.


I do most of my shopping at my desk. I have CDs of the great paintings of the world and a library of music.


My heart will always be leaning on a bar somewhere but my brain is more at home at my computer desk.



Seven weeks is more than enough time to waste on cancer and to find the same answer as Damon Runyon to the question of “Why Me?” It is “Why not?”


Yesterday the pump finished its healing work, the umbilical cord has been disconnected and I no longer feel like a heavily anchored Bionic Man, though I will always carry my own Ty Bach, the little house that used to stand at the end of every Welsh garden, though in winter the seat was kept in the kitchen fireplace for purposes of central heating.


 Next week I go for my final interview with the surgeon, who will no doubt tell me again that further operations are out of the question, even if I have lost four stone from my top weight. Since I celebrate eighty years of ducking and diving in May, it is not news that concerns me greatly. If cancer is a hell of a way to lose weight, there is no better indicator of where your loving friends are.


Thank you.

Sunday, 8 March 2009



There was probably no time in history when there were more books on quotations pouring from the publishers or fewer people who use them in ordinary conversation.


This may be because people are less well read now than they used to be or it may be that schools don’t insist on children memorising memorable remarks, speeches from Shakespeare or acres of poetry. Which I think is a pity.


Ruskin, if I may quote him, said that a room without pictures was a house without windows. I think much the same is true of quotations.


Quotations are the pictures we hang on the walls of conversation. At their best they say in a few words what would take the rest of us whole sentences to explain; in the way that a good picture encompasses far more than the room it takes.


However, quotations of a sort still play a major part in our lives. Difficult to think of a pop song which is much more than a list of quotable remarks. The Beatles, it seems to me, were particularly gifted in this direction. I believe in yesterday sums up my whole attitude to life.


So little of television is memorable that I cannot think of a single catchphrase from that medium; but radio used to provide them in handfuls. In the days of ITMA you could hold an entire conversation with lines from the show, such as “Don’t forget the diver”, “Can I do you now, sir?” and “I don’t mind if I do”.


The ability to do them in the right voice was a plus.


I met a girl called Elizabeth Knowles who was  the managing editor of a large team at the Oxford Press which has produced surely the first Dictionary of Literary Quotations. to begin with Ancient Egyptian aphorisms and end on the Internet. Four thousand entries in all.


It had a reading team of five people and I wonder; does their reading consist of other books of quotations or do they go the pit face? I ask because, with the possible exception of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary and Geoffrey Madden’s Notebooks, the same quotations seem to crop up again and again.


My favourite quotation in the whole book comes from Alan Bennett when he reported that looking in a diary for the birthdays of contemporary figures, he finds, on his own birthday, merely a notice it was the day the first launderette opened.


Celebrity comes in for a hammering too. See John Updike’s brilliant observation that it is a mask that eats the face.


Their view of themselves is revealing. Barbara Cartland believed that she was dictated to by God.


But other authors they think less of. Vidal on Hemingway: “No other culture could have produced him and not seen the joke“ isn’t even a good joke. It certainly wasn’t Cyril Connolly’s view. He credited Hemingway with the death of what he called Mandarin writing

Next to quotations, I love ghost stories. My favourite comes in John Evelyn’s seventeenth century diary. He says that when a ghost who appeared was asked if it was a good spirit or a bad spirit ”it disappeared with a most melodious twang”.


Aubrey’s friend was the theologian Sir Thomas Browne. He went so far as to say that if you didn’t believe in spirits you must be an atheist; because, after all, angels were spirits.


Goldie Hawn is no atheist. I read that she decided to marry her live-in lover when the ghost of her mother appeared in the bathroom and said it was high time they got married.


My mother was given different advice. On hr wedding day my grandmother told her: "I would rather be carrying you out feet first than see you marry that man."


The house I lived in Wales was haunted by a blacksmith in a top hat. And by a piper. A Scottish regiment, the Lovat Scouts, was stationed in the house during the war. Alas, I neither saw nor heard either.


But I did see the previous tenant of a cottage we had. He was a deceased rabbit catcher called Bob. And I saw him quite clearly just before breakfast one morning. I subsequently heard him quite often bumping into things. I found it comforting to have evidence that Heaven is licensed to purvey intoxicating liquors.


Few quotations are more apt that the one which inists that when an Englishman speaks another Engliushman holds hi in contempt. Not only the English


In Edinburgh my Morningside aunt used to shudder whenever she heard a Glaswegian accent; and Dubliners can be pretty scornful of people from the West of Ireland


It’s not just received pronunciation that sets people apart. It is smart to speak Estuary English, which is a semi cockney in which no word keeps its final letter and ‘H’ is non-existent.


In the Fifties I couldn’t get a job on the BBC in Manchester because of my Lancashire accent. Over the years, whisky and marrying above myself have refined it - only to find myself in a world where you can hardly hope for a job in broadcasting if you haven’t got a regional accent.


I do not know enough about America to know whether Americans have similar problems of class structure based on pronunciation, but I doubt it. I am sure, though, that even there some regional accents are more acceptable than others. They certainly are in other parts of the UK. In Wales this doesn’t apply because now there is a snob culture in language itself.


But I have been reading about an England where Brummie, Belfast and Glaswegian are socially unacceptable but Estuary English, Yorkshire, Received Pronunciation and refined Scots, Welsh and Irish are in.

I remember as a young man being in a smart rowing club at Kingston on Thames and being laughed at -literally -because I said I was going for a bath, rather than a ‘barth’. With hindsight, I suspect it was evidence of a tribe protecting itself from foreigners.





It was a concept more suited to the pen of Jonathon Swift, the great 18th century fantasist and inventor of societies.


The commentators (and oh for the days when newspapers stuck to the facts) warn that we face an invasion of the angry unemployed from Eastern Europe now we are closing down the factories we so magnanimously opened there to welcome them into the Greater Europe.


The notion that, after thousands of years of fighting each other and grabbing chunks of each other’s kingdoms, politicians, the most power crazed of communities, would settle down into one harmonious whole, hurling gold coins at each other and proffering the products of each country’s industry to grateful neighbours, is ludicrous.


There was just an indication of flaw in the plan when, rather than succour the world’s poor, the Community preferred to create vast wine lakes and mountains of cereals. One might have been warned when, consistently, year after year, the audit commission it had itself set up refused to pass the Community’s accounts. Scandal followed scandal. At one time or another most of the Heads of Departments have been caught with sticky fingers. The ruined face of the planet, bombed and shelled back into the Stone Age, did little for the Community’s reputation as a peacemaker. More money was wasted building two headquarters in adjoining countries, to end the squabbles about where it should be sited.


There were many advantages to the Community. Chiefly those enjoyed by the Community servants.


Since the purpose of bureaucracy is to increase power, the Community welcomed to its heart other communities, recent enemies made poor by the doctrines of Communism.


By this time most sensible people had begun to look on the EU as we do the weather. It’s a damned nuisance but there is nothing we can do about it.


The recent failure of the Capitalist system, through the incompetence and corruption of governments and financial communities, could have been the EU’s shining hour. Now was the time for the richer or wiser kingdoms to help its most recent lame followers.


The result: Gordon Brown, the Tartan |Messiah, proposed more vast sums be doled out to Latvia, Hungary and Romania, but flew off to America without saying where the money was to come from.


An EU Summit of 27 bad tempered leaders in Brussels meanwhile observed the collapse of the so called tiger economies but rejected a resolution to give an immediate hand-out of £170 billion.

It became obvious that the Western EU countries would rather prop up their own economies by feather bedding their own industries and closing down the outposts they had established beyond a suddenly restored Iron Curtain.


Feren Gyurcscany, the Hungarian leader, warned that “a significant crisis in Eastern Europe would trigger political tensions and immigration pressures’. He even quoted figures.


“There is a central European and Eastern European population of 350 million, of which 100 million are in the EU. A 10 per cent increase in unemployment would lead to at least five million people unemployed within the EU.”


It’s enough to make the Statue of Liberty blow out her lamp. Although, in fairness, most ordinary people would have warned that get-togethers only work in fine weather.