Tag Archives: Alcohol

Time to take the booze out of Behan

Brendan Behan at the Jaeger House, NYC, September 10, 1960. Pic: Phil Stanziola NYWTS

Brendan Behan at the Jaeger House, NYC, September 10, 1960.
Pic: Phil Stanziola-NYWTS

IRISH writer Brendan Behan died almost 50 years ago.

The photograph on the right offers some clues as to why.

With a few under his belt (and one down the lapel of his shirt) the writer clasps a microphone stand at a ceili in the Jaeger House ballroom in Manhattan. It’s 1960.

According to the original caption Behan’s just been asked to sing. Again. And that probably wasn’t the last song of that particular night.

Two years earlier Borstal Boy, his critically lauded coming of age tale, had been published to positive reviews.

Less than four years after this photograph was taken Behan would be dead, passing away in a Dublin hospital days after collapsing in a city pub. Diabetes, compounded by years of heavy drinking, led to his demise at age of 41.

In the five decades since his death, on March 20, 1964, the fact of Behan the writer has, slowly and deliberately, been incorporated into the myth of Behan the character, the Irishman, the drinker, the artist living life on the edge and falling off it.

A bit like the millions who claimed to be in GPO on Easter Week every man and his dog, of a certain vintage, had his own beer-stained Behan anecdote.

These slowly slipped into popular culture, to the extent that those who never met the writer – like Shane Macgowan – could dream about their own boozed-up encounters with him.

I spoke to one Dublin author recently who compared Behan to another Irish celebrity and alcoholic (or celebrity alcoholic), George Best.

He argued that it’s time to drop the ‘Brendan the boozy broth of a boy’ myth and return to what established Behan’s reputation in the first place.

'Ireland's own boy-o.' US edition of Borstal Boy.

‘Ireland’s own boy-o.’
US edition of Borstal Boy.

For me this is his 1950s’ writing, specifically Borstal Boy, the autobiography which exposed the mundane pointlessness of terrorism; and the play The Quare Fellow, his humanist meditation on capital punishment.

Both works are full of compassion, anger, humanity and – for want of a better word – Irishness.

One thing they lack is the preoccupation with alcohol which marked Behan’s later works and life.

Official Ireland will commemorate Behan next month with the launch of a stamp in his honour. Expect plenty of media coverage of around the anniversary of his death.

As it approaches the best way to remember this Dublin writer is simply to read his work, the best of which stands with the finest of all Irish writing.

Not least of this is his famous account of arriving back in Dublin after being released from jail, which closes Borstal Boy:

The next morning I stood on deck while the boat came into Dun Laghaire, and looked at the sun struggling out over the hills; and the city all around the Bay…

There they were, as if I’d never left them; in their sweet and stately order round the Bay – Bray Head, the Sugarloaf, the Two Rock, the Three Rock, Kippure, king of them all…

…and the framing circle of the road along the edge of the Bay, Dun Laghaire, Blackrock, Sandymount Tower, Ringsend and the city; then the other half circle, Fairview, Marino, Clontarf, Raheny, Kilbarrack, Baldoyle, to the height of Howth Head…

‘Passport, travel permit or identity document, please,’ said the immigration man beside me. I handed him the expulsion order…

‘A hundred thousand welcomes home to you.’

‘Thanks.’

‘It must be wonderful to be free.’

‘It must,’ said I, walked down the gangway, past a detective, and got on the train for Dublin.*

'The road along the edge of the bay.'  Dublin, April 2013.

‘The road along the edge of the bay.’
Dublin, April 2013.

_____

*Brendan Behan, Borstal Boy (Arrow, 1990), p 370

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‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch’

Scott Fitzgerald the screenwriter, 1937. Pic: Carl Van Vechten

Scott Fitzgerald the screenwriter, 1937.
Pic: Carl Van Vechten

In December 1940 a hack screenwriter died in the sitting room of his girlfriend’s home in Hollywood.

Alcoholic, in poor health, receiving little credit for his work and dropped from a contact by MGM a year earlier, he would spend his last days working on a draft of an uncompleted novel.

When his body was later taken to Maryland for burial just 20 or so people showed up to his funeral.
—–
The screenwriter, Scott Fitzgerald, had described himself as a ‘hack’ – in his final years at least.

Writing freelance movie scripts was some way from his previous work and promise, which included, in The Great Gatsby, one of the closest realisations of the Great American Novel.

Fast forward 70 years and the latest screen adaptation of the book earned $300m at the box office this year, with $200m more expected in re-runs and DVD sales.

Fitzgerald The Hack made it big in Hollywood after all.
—–

'I shouted across the lawn.' 1443 North Hayworth Avenue, West Hollywood.

‘I shouted across the lawn.’
1443 North Hayworth Avenue, West Hollywood.

This week his ghost was all around.

En route to LA in recent days I watched – and greatly enjoyed – The Great Gatsby. Days later my wife and I found ourselves at a hotel in West Hollywood, minutes from Fitzgerald’s last residence, at 1443 North Hayworth Avenue.

The street’s settled, well-manicured homes are the very opposite of the glare and bustle of nearby Hollywood Boulevard.

Passing the property and aware of the last, ill and unhappy days of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century I couldn’t help but think of Nick Carraway’s lament for the doomed Jay Gatsby.

“They’re a rotten crowd…you’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

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Stout with the old…

It's not you Arthur. It's us.

It’s not you Arthur.
It’s us.

GUINNESS is Irish?

Pull the other one. The other tap that is. The one that contains lager.

Because the stout is off.

If, as predicted by some, drunken hordes stumble around Dublin tomorrow most won’t be fuelled by the black stuff.

Most of them will be putting back lager and/or wine. Or vodka. Or a cocktail of the above.

They’re less and less likely to be sinking pints of stout.

Which is why, in a roundabout way, the country’s spent the past week getting very animated about Arthur Guinness Day.

Diageo, who own Guinness and pack a hefty marketing punch, want to reverse the drinking trend.

For the past five years they’ve sponsored music events around the world, a commemoration based on a ruse based on the Guinness founder’s birthday.

This year’s no different, except there’s more outrage in the mix.

From doctors to folksingers, Government ministers to irked pub regulars, the backlash has been considerable.

A lot of ungrateful Irish are refusing the invite to Arthur’s birthday bash.

Nonetheless pints will be raised at 17.59 tomorrow, and A&E admissions will, it’s claimed, rise by a third this evening.

All a-board? Pic: Dean Molyneaux

All a-board?
Pic: Dean Molyneaux

Then, glasses washed, tills cleared and hangovers underway Ireland will rise tomorrow and get on with it.

The to-ing and fro-ing surrounding Arthur’s Day will peter out in the coming days, as most discussions of Ireland’s drinking do, until the next crisis is reported.

And Guinness will resume it place as the top of taps, as planned. Right?

Yeah right.

Whether or not we see Arthur’s Day again, or a variation of it, the stricken love affair between the Irish and their ‘national drink’ is unlikely to be repaired anytime soon.

Sales of Guinness in Ireland were down five per cent in the year to June last and are expected to fall further. “Another very tough year,” is the official Guinness line.

Pub-owners in Ireland might describe it in less charitable terms. Sales in Ireland have been falling since 2008 and show no signs of stopping.

The Guinness Storehouse may be Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction but most of the 40m pints Diageo plans to pump out each year at the adjacent St James’ Gate facility won’t be sipped anywhere near the Liffey, they’ll be sent abroad.

The brand remains a behemoth in Ireland, no doubt. One in three pints sold here is a Guinness.

Calling time? Guinness drinkers in its heyday.

Calling time? Guinness drinkers in the stout’s heyday.

But the problem – for Diageo – is that the Irish are drinking less and less of these pints, and frequenting less and less bars.

A generation have done the once-unthinkable – they’ve called time on the Irish pub. Bars here closing at the rate of almost one a day, according to the drinks’ industry.

The Irish haven’t stopped drinking though. We’re just doing it at home. And not with Guinness.

If Arthur’s Day continues – despite this year’s controversy – it risks becoming more and more of an anomaly – a rare day when Irish pubs are actually full of drinkers.

In a decade’s time the occasion may be seen as less of a public order or health menace and more a quaint reminder of the way we used to do things, way back when.

Arthur? Who was he?

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The high-bouncing gold-hatted Gatsby?

The veranda of a villa on the island of Capri, October 1924. A man and woman sit side-on to one another, each holding a glass.

‘Another gin?’

‘I am quite drunk. Yes. How about Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires? It contains both.’

‘No. It requires a title for the ages. No ash-heaps.’

‘On The Road to West Egg?’

‘The road that passes by the ash-heaps? You’re fixated on dust.’

‘I am fixated on the title. It must be good, rather than fair or bad.’

‘I’m sick. I’m in pain. We are supposed to be celebrating. Decide. Please’.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (gin not pictured). Pic: Kenneth Melvin Wright (Minnesota Historical Society)

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (gin not pictured).
Pic: Kenneth Melvin Wright (Minnesota Historical Society)

‘The High-Bouncing Lover.’

‘This isn’t one of your short stories. It must be magnificent, memorable. Yesterday it was gold hats. Today it’s bouncing.’

‘Something magnificent then. Under the Red, White and Blue. Remember the flag of light-bulbs in Harbor Hill last year?’

‘I’d forgotten. It must be something memorable. Extravagant. Tremendous.’

‘I had a line about the night when the lights fail at his mansion. His career as Trimalchio ends, I wrote. There’s a title: Trimalchio.’

‘You are drunk.’

‘Too obscure, perhaps. Trimalchio in West Egg?’

‘You can place him where you want. No one will be able to pronounce it. It must be something great.’

[Silence]

‘Another gin?’

‘I am quite drunk. Yes.’

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