And the sun also rises…..

I am detained momentarily by Waterstones decision to give Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast the full ‘rediscovered classic’ marketing treatment.

The book – an autobiographical memoir of Hemingway’s time in Paris in the years after the end of the First World War – is a rich evocation of a battered city getting back on its feet in the aftermath of the carnage of the great conflict.

A moveable feast book

 

As anyone familiar with Hemingway’s work will be aware, drinking and the culture of drinking is deeply ingrained within this homage to a giddy, exhilarating time in the Nobel prize-winning writer’s journey.

And, as our alcohol industry begins to count the cost of the Government’s revised guidelines for booze consumption and more normalised habits are resumed following the gimmicky ‘Dry January’ pressures, I wonder what Hemingway would have made of it all.

Hemingway-drinking

At least by rooting himself in various European capital cities in the 1920s, Hemingway escaped the worst of the Prohibition laws which pervaded his US homeland from 1920 to 1933.

Al-Capone-mugshot

Promoted by the “dry” crusaders, a movement led by rural Protestants and social Progressives in the Democratic and Republican parties, and coordinated by the vigorously enthusiastic Anti-Saloon League, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the banning of hooch in the States nearly 100 years ago bears worrying resemblances to the current witch-hunts we are seeing perpetrated in some quarters over here.

we want beer march during prohibition

As someone who participated in a wholly dry January, I can see (and feel, more to the point), clear benefits from laying off completely for a month. But we also need to be aware of how well timed government PR can be used as a stick to beat and shame the extremities of so called drunken Britain.

Drunk_woman_vomits

Our A&E wards continue to creak and shudder under the weight of the weekend binge boozers imbibing like there is no tomorrow, and the drain on the country’s finances is severe. So something clearly has to be done.

Around 80 per cent of all weekend admissions to A&E are alcohol abuse related. That is not why our NHS was set up. And it is not why we send our young people through seven years of complex medical training.

So I am all for radical moves to try to head anti-social drinking off at the pass. And I would be more than happy to see outlets promoting ultra-strong, impossibly cheap alcohol to be castigated for the part they pay in encouraging the appalling sights we endure on our streets and in our hospital wards as a direct result of exposure to dirt cheap rocket fuel.

old style pub

But as I see more and more for sale signs outside local neighbourhood public houses, and the culture of supermarket driven home drinking sales soaring at the inevitable cost to local pub culture, I kind of miss the way it used to be.

One of my clients recently opened a new craft beer brewery, based in a lovely part of Shropshire and marketing home grown ale at reasonable prices to reflect modest margins.

But the Government’s gloomy announcement at the beginning of the year, that we are all going to Hell in a hand cart if we have more than five pints/ a bottle of wine a week or thereabouts, coupled with the rigours of dry January had a major impact on business in this critical first quarter of the business cycle.

“Not so long ago demand for craft beer was insatiable. Now beer and wine suppliers are really feeling the pinch. It is literally as if the tap has been turned off.

“The timing could not have been worse and it is particularly difficult for the small independents,” said my client, the tone of resignation hanging like a pall of dark cloud over a Sheffield coal pit.

I think back to my national newspaper reporter days, hunched over a keyboard, invariably swathed in reams of dense tobacco smoke while fellow reporters twitched and paced around in anticipation of ‘lunch’ – a euphemism for a three hour drinking session interspersed with a pork pie and a packet of crisps, perhaps, but lunches on the publications where I cut my journalist teeth were primarily liquid.

old newsroom

As a financial writer I was privileged in that my invite to lunch usually came from City-based fund management firms, bankers and players. Fast buck merchants, as one of my former colleagues would have it.

I wonder what the team who came up with the current abstemious alcohol guidelines would have made of those sessions in the late 80s-90s?

Those stories you have read about drink soaked hacks, slurring and stumbling back from epic sessions on the sauce, sometimes ending in clumsily thrown punches following some perceived insult or other, are, I can report from my front-line experience, by and large true.

After months of attrition, I decided to trade the lunches for the sobriety of the gym. I took up marathon training. It worked, more or less, as I managed to evade the worst excesses that characterised that era of heroic Fleet Street drinking.

I suspect that the carnage I witnessed from the microcosmic realms of the newsrooms were replicated in other notoriously heavy drinking industries, such as insurance and, back in the day at least, private banking.

Postcard A Happy New Year 1912

There were many stories, and I shall not detain you here with them, although I can share with you my encounter with the senior news editor of a major Sunday newspaper which occurred early on in my career.

It was a Friday morning, and I was assigned a ‘Royal number’ – which is newspaper code for fact checking and reporting on the financial comings and goings of a prominent member of the Royal Family.

The story – if I got it right – was destined to be the splash (front page) for that coming Sunday. I just had to qualify various issues which the newspaper’s legal team was understandably twitchy about.

news-scoop

Dozens of rapid fire phone calls later, I wrote the story and filed it. I thought it was good.

Minutes later, I was aware of a large, thick set man in his late 30s, hovering behind my chair, breathing very heavily. And reeking of alcohol. Ah, Friday afternoon. Late. Probably just back from the pub. Correct, Andrews.

Did you, he snarled, waving a wad of closely printed A4 pages under my nose – write this, this CRAP??? Now ferocious, his intonation rising to a bellow, the news editor then proceeded to go berserk. I feared he would punch me.

What’s the problem, I asked. You don’t rate it…?

Fortunately for me, my entirely sober desk editor intervened on my behalf, claiming my work to be one of the better financial stories they had encountered for many a long month.

I was, reader, vindicated. My story led the Sunday section, and was followed up by the rest of Fleet Street and TV news after publication. We were not sued, and my reputation as a splash breaking journalist was beginning. I became pretty good mates with the legal team on the newspaper after that initial incident, and, as I rose through the reporting ranks, the trickier, hard to break major financial stories were invariably assigned to me.

North_face_south_tower_plane_strike_9-11

And while nothing was perhaps quite as hard as reporting on the state of the world stock markets in the immediate hours following the September 2001 plane strikes on the World Trade Centre, toughing it out with a drink-hammered national newspaper editor will always stay with me.

I wonder how Hemingway would have dealt with it? I think I can guess….


And as the day fades to night - Bernie K and the N4 Crew

gym equipmentJames Dean Rebel Without a CauseYOU don’t go for a workout at a gym these days. Not if you are in the City of London, at least.

No, head for 1Rebel in the Square Mile – it’s a ‘destination’, rather than a gym, they say – and you’ll be hammering out Rebel Reshapes or Rebel Rides with Jean, or maybe Vivi, or one of the many other gorgeous ‘personal trainers’ on hand to separate slickers from their hard-earned.

1Rebel, gleaming, flash and sleek, rather than shabby and sweaty – which is how I prefer my gyms – comes with a glittering price tag.

At £20 a pop for half an hour’s pumping on a spin bike, a bloke with a French accent shouting at you, 1Rebel is at the front line of the so called ‘feeder’ businesses which infest the City.

The financial community, the money men and women, are prime targets for the hangers on, the flotsam and jetsam which attach themselves, barnacle-like, to the underbelly of the financial district. And the wholesale narcissism sweeping through the reflective edifices in 2015 provides rich pickings.

Investment bankers who back in the day would be hitting the wine bars bang on the nose of 12.30 are now more likely to be reflectively downing a kale smoothie and wondering if they can crack their 40 minute 10k time on the run home from the office.

And whether they can blast out a quick Rebel Reshape with Jean and the crew before the markets open the following morning.

The City, currently enjoying an unprecedented period of growth, generates significant wealth for the UK.

Lloyd's logo

According to Brookings Institution, London boasts the fifth largest city economy in the world, after Tokyo, New York City, Los Angeles and Seoul with an estimated GVA of £309.3 billion in 2012 (latest data available), and a per capita GVA of £37,232. By way of comparison, London’s economy is roughly the same size as that of Sweden or Iran.

With the vast majority of that wealth being delivered by the financial services sector, and most emanating from a three mile radius of the London Stock Exchange, we can expect to see plenty more of the 1Rebel-type set ups spring up.

Easy pickings are on the doorstep.

IT was a different kind of economics for the gunslingers who hung out in the sweat-stained ‘gym’ perched more or less precisely in the centre of north London’s Finsbury Park in the mid-80s.

dumbells

Well ahead of the so-called Big Bang changes ushered into the City in 1986, I was scratching a living as a freelance writer, filing copy to any organisation which would have me. It was a hand to mouth yet exciting time, when I never knew where the next buck was coming from.

The dominant economic narratives of the day for me were the exchanges which took place in that tiny, grimy work out space in London’s then very down at heel N4.

Like most areas in the capital outside of the traditionally posh addresses – the Mayfairs and Knightsbridges and Kensingtons – which have always been affluent, one way or another – Finsbury Park was a dump.

A seething cesspit which made downtown Detroit look glamorous, as the annoyingly good looking American actor who frequented the gym and had a small part in the expensive TV series Tender is the Night (1985) memorably observed.

F Scott Fitzgerald autograph

The actor would invariably be among the dozen or so mostly black faces peering out from the gloomy interior. The rank stench of ancient sweat ingrained deeply in the walls and embedded into the pores of the grips on the free weights and primitive multi gym set up.

My routine in those days would be to pester news desks for commissions, file articles and features I had on the go, before hitting the gym for a lengthy work out.

gym equipmentWe were all mostly on nodding terms, and would from time to time help one another to bench press the heavier weights. None of the regulars worked 9 – 5. Some of the guys had literacy issues. I remember composing letters to landlords, helping them work out bills they did not understand. That kind of thing.

We were a community of sorts. We got along well.

Along with listening to the handsome American actor grumbling about how dirty and tired London – and Londoners, I presume – was, I would nod in silent assent when Bernie K (we never knew what the K stood for), but everyone referred to him as Bernie K, talked about how hard it was to make a living in a London which was on the verge of great change.

The age of the Yuppie was imminent. And there was no place for Bernie and his crew in their narrow focus universe.

Man, Bernie K would quietly observe as we gently jogged around the warm up track ahead of hitting the weights, s’getting harder and harder to make a living in this town. Think maybe I’ll be one of them trainers…

Trainers? The only kind of trainers I knew of back then were the trainers you put on your feet before doing the road work.

Man, you know…one of them personal trainers…those white dudes over there – Bernie K nodded his glistening shaved head in the direction of the City.

Dudes are paying dudes to train with them, said Bernie K, flashing a huge grin at me while simultaneously twirling a finger around a temple, the universal language for nutcases.

Bernie K, who looked like a scaled down Muhammed Ali, rippling, precision defined abs, sharp as a pin, could not get his head around why anyone would hand over hard cash for a training session.

Motherfu**ers got more money than the good sense they came into this world with, he said.

In 1985, when the notion of a personal trainer did not really exist outside of the smarter LA gyms, Bernie K had a point.

The ramshackle crew who frequented the Finsbury Park recreation ground in that summer of 1985 paid 30p a pop for use of the track and ‘gym’.

If there was a shower room, I never noticed it. There were no ‘celebrity DJ playlists’ such as 1Rebel advertises.

Our accompanying sound track was invariably supplied by Jones, a massive black guy and integral member of Bernie K’s crew. Jones particularly liked to work the heavy bag which hung ponderously in one corner of the cramped space.

He showed me how to put compelling combinations together on that bag. How to develop rhythm and technique over timed three minute, hard hitting sessions. How to dance around the bag as it swung towards you. Hit it man. Think of it as a muffaf***er you don’t like, Jones would advise.

Jones, 6 5’, buzz cut, heavily pock marked features and always chuckling with one of those infectious laughs, had the biggest arms and chest I had ever seen on a man.

Grahic of man in suit with shades

Enormous strength, honed and chipped in that stinking, fetid gym for which we paid 30p for the day. He carried an early style boom box cassette player everywhere he went, blasting out LL Cool J at bone shaking volume. I can still hear it.

It’s now 30 years since that summer faded into 1985s grey autumnal mists, and I often wonder how Bernie K, Jones and the rest of the crew fared as the London we knew as young men gradually gave way to the dominance of the City and the gentrification of the streets we once owned.

Misty countryside

What I do know is that, like me, they would have a good laugh at the 1Rebel £20 Destination Reshape sessions. And the ‘celebrity’ playlists.

Yo, I hear Jones cackling down the years. Yo, you want to train?? Man, you just get on and work that bag bro’.