In which The Author has a dream
Dad would have been 85 on Tuesday, so I’ve spent this evening revisiting two of his favourite films. He was brought up in the Golden Age of the Silver Screen, when Hollywood was turning out hundreds of movies a year. It must have been a great time to be a young man (teenagers weren’t invented until the mid-1950s, remember), with Saturday morning features, cartoons and serials showing in the half-dozen cinemas which Aberdare boasted in the inter-war years.
It’s hardly surprising that I grew up watching some of Dad’s favourites whenever they were on TV – which, back when we had only three channels to choose from, was fairly regularly. I don’t know how many times we watched Goodbye, Mr. Chips (the version with Robert Donat and Greer Garson, of course) or The Dambusters. In this way, Dad turned me onto the classics of the black and white era.
Our tastes overlapped considerably, and if you read this blog regularly you’ll realize that my musical references and film references would be what you’d expect from a much older man. When The Ink Spots come on the jukebox in the Prince, you’ll sometimes find me singing along with the guys in their seventies. It’s timeless stuff, after all.
Similarly, I turned Dad onto The Kinks, The Doors and Caravan. He never got into Soft Machine or The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but some of Miles Davis’ stuff did it for him as well. As our shared collection of videos and CDs grew, we would spend our evenings or weekends watching Tom Jones (the 60s romp with Albert Finney), Billy Liar, or an episode of Inspector Morse.
Our tastes in music and TV collided wonderfully in The Singing Detective
, as you’ll see. Other times, we’d listen to a couple of editions of Round the Horne
or Hancock’s Half Hour
(see No Laughing Matter
.) In return, I introduced Dad to some of the modern masterpieces – most notably Pulp Fiction
, which Dad discovered when he was in his late sixties or so.
I’d borrowed it from my brother, who had borrowed it from one of his work colleagues. She’d bought it on the grounds that it starred John Travolta, and therefore ‘it must be about dancing.’ She was rather disappointed with her purchase and passed it on to my brother, thinking it was probably more his scene. In turn, I borrowed it one Sunday and took it home, planning to watch it on my day off. When I got home from the pub, Dad was still up, listening to the radio. He asked me what the film was (it was a VHS in those days, of course.) I said I didn’t think it would be his scene, but he said he might have a look at it anyway.
When I arrived home from work on the Monday evening, the first thing Dad said was, ‘You’ve got to watch that film – it’s fucking amazing!’ The world’s unlikeliest Tarantino fan had been converted. We memorized whole chunks of the dialogue, and when it was quiet in the Cross Inn on a Tuesday evening we’d play Jimmy and Winston Wolf (with Dad in the senior role, of course.)
We performed another daft improvisation after we’d both had a successful run on the BBC Wales phone-in quiz Elimination. Dad went on the show first, and won his daily heat – I listened to it on my break in the goods-in department of Dillons, with Laurie, Nick, Clive and Alun G. cheering him on when he won his heat. (It must have been early in 1998, now I think about it.) A couple of months later, when I had the week off, I decided to have a go as well. I went a stage further, and won £50 of Kingfisher vouchers in the weekly final, which came in handy when I moved into my house.
The daily prize was a huge BBC Wales branded golf umbrella – mine was red and Dad’s was green. After mine arrived, we walked into the Cross Inn together, singing Flanagan and Allen’s song ‘The Umbrella Man’ and doing an impromptu dance routine. If it hadn’t been for Dennis Potter’s exploration of his childhood memories, we’d never have thought of it.
(Oddly enough, Keira has just put a status on Facebook about losing her umbrella earlier today. Mine vanished a long time ago, when I left it on a bus. I don’t know what happened to Dad’s. It probably ended up on a bus as well.)
Anyway, tonight I decided on a Michael Curtiz double-bill: Yankee Doodle Dandy followed by Casablanca. Dad loved them both, and I’m grateful to him for turning me onto these classics. They’re very different films, of course, but at the time when American audiences were coming to terms with being thrust into another war, they acted as much-needed morale boosters.
The first time I watched Yankee Doodle Dandy, BBC2 was showing a season of Cagney’s films on Saturday afternoons. I was used to him as a terrierish roughneck in Angels With Dirty Faces or White Heat, so the first time I saw him as a song-and-dance man it was a revelation. We didn’t manage to get it on VHS, but thanks to the miracle of torrents, I’ve got a copy on my hard drive.
It’s an energetic, lavish musical biopic of the Irish-American composer and actor George M. Cohan, told in flashbacks during his audience with Franklin D. Roosevelt. The songs are great, the story is heart-warming, and even though the patriotism is ladled on with a heavy measure of added sentiment, it all hangs together wonderfully.
Casablanca is painted in darker hues, and reflects the way in which the war is looming on the American horizon. The story centres on the complex relationship between a cynical, embittered bar-owner, an idealistic fugitive from the Nazis, and the woman they both love. It’s played out against a background of intrigue and corruption in Morocco, where European refugees have gathered in the hope of escaping to freedom in America. When C— and I were planning Operation Moviegoer, I told her that it was fairly near the top of the list.
She said, ‘Isn’t that a war film?’
I replied, ‘No, it’s a love story – it’s the love story. The war is just in the background.’
I’ve always admired Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of Rick, the proprietor of the eponymous Café Americain in which the film takes place. At first glance, he seems to be out for himself, and couldn’t care about anyone else. As far as anyone in Casablanca’s concerned, he’s turned his back on his past. The Germans have a file on him, however, detailing his anti-fascist activities in Europe before the war broke out. There’s more to Rick than meets the eye, obviously. When his friend the prefect of police asks him why he decided to settle there, he gives a characteristically deadpan reply.
‘I came here for the waters.’
‘But – we’re in the middle of the Sahara Desert.’
‘I was misinformed.’
Even so, Rick isn’t as amoral as he appears at first glance. He refuses to accept a cheque drawn on Deutsche Bank, and tells the unwelcome visitor that he’s lucky to get served at all. To my mind, one of the greatest scenes ever filmed takes place when a party of drunk German soldiers start singing a patriotic song, and Rick leaves his office to see what the fuss is about.
The story goes that, during the filming, Bogart was as drunk as a fart. He had to be coaxed back onto the set, where he appears moodily backlit on the landing overlooking the bar. He gives a single determined nod in the direction of the house band, and they strike up La Marseillaise. Everyone in the bar begins to sing, drowning out the Germans, and conclude with a cry of Viva la France! When you realize that many of the extras were in fact refugees from the Nazis, you see why that particular scene is so powerful. They weren’t acting – they really meant it!
However, it’s only in the last few minutes of the film that Rick reveals his true colours, and comes ‘back to the fight.’ And watching those films back to back tonight, it reminded me that for many years I’ve had a dream for years of running a pub. Maybe watching Bogart’s performance sowed the idea in my mind. If I win the Lottery, that’s what I’m going to do.
I don’t mean managing a Wetherspoon pub, toeing the Head Office line and serving beer in plastic mugs and plastic food to plastic customers. With no disrespect to friends of mine who’ve done it, that’s just working for The Man, and Goddess knows I did that for long enough.
I want to run a place like Rick’s Café Americain, with a solid base of customers who like to drink, sing and dance, play cards, have a meal, and listen to live music. I’d have a jukebox with the best selection of tunes anywhere in the world. We’d have cabaret nights, comedy nights, maybe even the odd fetish night, and turn the clock back twenty-five years, to a time when The Carpenters Arms, the Depot and Aberdare Railway Club were the places to be at the weekend.
When I was in my early twenties, Aberdare was known as ‘The Las Vegas of the Valleys’, with at least half a dozen places open until the small hours on Friday and Saturday nights, all of which were rammed to the rafters with people having a good time, spending money, and partying like it was 1999. You try telling the young people that these days – they won’t believe yer!
The biggest problem we have nowadays, I think, is that youngsters don’t have anywhere to go where they can learn how to drink. There’s a famous old paper in the field of symbolic interactionism called ‘Becoming a marihuana user’ by Howard S. Becker; it’s on how people learn to get stoned. (It’s in Jodi O’Brien’s edited book The Production of Reality (5th ed., 2011, Sage Pubs) if you want to read it for yourself.)
Becker argued that getting stoned was socially-determined behaviour, and you have to be taught how to do it by experienced people. Similarly, you’re not going to know how to handle alcohol if your only exposure to it is a shared bottle of illicitly-procured vodka under the bypass bridge on a Saturday evening. Most of the people who were drinking in The Carpenters at the time I’m talking about were about my age, or a bit older. Some of them had learnt the art of drinking and/or smoking in The Iron Bridge or The Commercial in Aberdare. (Both of those pubs were underneath the new road by the time I started drinking in town, when I came back from university.)
On the other hand, some of them were quite a bit younger. I don’t think anyone ever got refused a drink in The Carpenters for being underage. I met Kristy in there, for fuck’s sake, and she was only fifteen at the time. (She always looked older than her actual age, being very tall for a girl.)
The point is that we were almost a self-policing community. If anyone started behaving like an arsehole, everyone else would step in to sort them out. Granted, we all went through our stupid phase of just getting as pissed as humanly and/or financially possible whenever we could, but most of us settled down and turned into mature and responsible adults. The ones who didn’t were never going to change anyway.
In my opinion, the relentless clampdown on underage drinking has unexpected and unwelcome side-effects. Sure, we’ve all woken up the morning after the night before feeling as though we were going to die from alcohol poisoning. I don’t think many of us ended up in A&E, though – and certainly not on a schoolnight when we were in our very early teens.
Because of pubs like The Carpenters, where a blind eye was (mostly) turned to underage drinking, the thrill of tasting forbidden fruit was watered down – rather like the beer in another popular pub of that period, in fact. Now, the newspapers and phone-ins are full of horror stories of hospitalized kids who’ve drunk half their blood volume in Jägermeister before morning break. The constant police presence, the spread of ID cards and ‘Prove your age’ policies has had the opposite effect on young drinkers from that which was intended to happen.
Instead of spending their time with older people who’d learned how to drink (pace Becker’s paper), today’s youngsters are getting horrifically pissed together, and not managing the experience responsibly. By the time they’re old enough to get served legally, the hit has worn off. By hanging around with the wrong crowd, they’ve got turned onto drugs as well, and are bringing those into the pubs where they’re definitely not welcome.
Some of my friends (who are hitting fifty this year) went out on the razz to mark their O Level results, when they were sixteen. They’ve all lived to tell the tale. Now, even the A Level results crowd have trouble getting served in some places. I don’t see any reason for such a dramatic cut-off. After a while you get to know your own limitations. Believe me. I know.
I once woke up on a settee in a house in Treforest, after my friend Alan’s birthday party in the Students’ Union of the Poly of Wales. We’d gone for food after leaving the bar, and had walked for what seemed like several hours before ending up in a house somewhere. It was a Saturday morning (I wasn’t working that day, obviously) and there was no sign of anyone stirring in the house. I was afraid to open the front door, because I had absolutely no idea where I was. For all I remembered, we might have walked to Church Village or somewhere equally weird. As it turned out, the house was in Oliver Street, about twenty yards from the lane beside the campus. Goddess knows why it had taken us so long to get there. It must have been some weird function of time and takeaways.
I hope that explains one of the unspoken policies of my ideal business venture. So long as it wasn’t blatant, my bar would be reasonably tolerant of underage drinking. We might even have a little ‘smoking area’ out the back as well, but that would be as far as the blind eye would turn. If anyone started doing anything harder, he or she would be turfed out in fairly short order.
The live music aspect speaks for itself, I hope. There’s nowhere decent for bands to play in Aberdare these days. So many of my young friends are struggling to find venues to showcase their music (never mind places to rehearse) that a decent stage and sound system would be a prerequisite of the opening package. I’d also install superfast wifi and a couple of PCs so that people could use it as a cybercafé during the days. It would be a hell of an improvement on the pisspoor setup in Aberdare Library, that’s for sure.
Very importantly, it would be open to members only, like a proper private club. I’d be able to refuse admission to the Nazi scum who populate the pubs of Aberdare (and, I suspect, most Valleys towns) these days. Like Rick himself, I’d take great pleasure in instructing the door staff to turn those fuckwits away on sight, and to sling out anyone heard indulging in hate speech.
For less serious infractions, I’d probably reintroduce Daphne’s Yellow and Red Cards, which we all fondly remember from The Carpenters. A Yellow Card was usually enough to dispel any trouble. I don’t remember anyone getting a Red Card, but it must have happened, I suppose. There were enough bloody idiots going there at one time.
Most importantly, the place would be called Terry’s Bar. Rick named his place after himself; I’m not that egotistical, personally. It would be great to see the faces of new customers, when they realize that it isn’t a fake Oirish pub after all – it’s just a decent pub with a decent bunch of regulars. If anyone asks why the jukebox isn’t full of rebel songs, and why the barmaid doesn’t draw a shamrock in the Guinness froth, I’ve got my answer ready:
‘It’s my bar, and I named it after my Dad. If you don’t like it, fuck off!’
Dad – here’s looking at you…