Tuesday, February 03, 2004

we were very, very drunk: alcoholic bohemia and memories of the BBC
Some coverage of Hutton has harked back to the time when BBC political reporting consisted of a man in a dicky bow asking the minister if he would be so kind as to explain his policy to the viewers and listeners, followed by a hushed and reverent silence as the great man held forth. The Beeb’s cultural output on the old Third Programme was just as formal to the listeners but somewhat more riotous behind the scenes.

I know this because my mother was employed by the BBC in the late 1950’s as a kind of bouncer. When I say “bouncer”, what I mean is production secretary in radio drama, her formal title. She got the job after an interview in which her “strong North Midlands accent” was formally noted. Perhaps the interviewers thought that a big northern lass was just the thing for what they had in mind.

It wasn’t a normal secretarial job. Typing didn’t much enter into it. Nor did office work generally, though she had fond memories of trotting up the front steps of Broadcasting house on Portland Street, to have the lift in the foyer held open for her by Sir Hugh Carleton Greene himself; a good man, she always said, putting his Toryism down to a congenital deformity rather than a conscious choice of evil.

Shortly after this she would leave the drama department to track down her producer in one of the various local pubs in which he preferred to nest and plan his programmes. Having located him in one of maybe five pubs he favoured, she would then be given her main job of the day. A list would be produced of the various minor literary types who were due that day to turn up in the studio to give talks, act in radio plays or take part in other acts of wilful culture-mongering. Beside each name on the list would be the time he – it always was a he – had to be at a studio. Then a taxi would be called and she would set out after her quarry, who would at that time be getting pissed in any one of the dozens of pubs and backstairs drinking dens in Soho or Fitzrovia.

There’s a general impression that the fifties were an age of buttoned down conformity, before the sixties came along and gave birth to the counterculture in all its druggy glory. In fact, the fifties were just as countercultural, but the bohemian types of those days didn’t have the wide array of drugs to choose from that their successors enjoyed. They were stuck with alcohol, and made the best of it. From my mum’s account, everybody with any creative impulse did their best to be pissed all of the time. And it’s a constant feature of other memoirs of the period…

“…acquaintances were often rated exclusively by their habitual drinking volume. So-and-so could ‘put it away (drunk a lot of the time), or ‘drank like a fish’ (drunk almost all the time) or – this usually said with an air of gravity – was a ‘very heavy drinker’ (blotto ad inf). The word ‘alcoholic’ was reserved for people shackled to their hospital beds, screaming at the pink mice nibbling their toes…”

Yes, they were titans then. Boho London is arguably the only environment in which the introduction of cocaine actually improved the general level of health. And it added extra urgency to mum’s job. She not only had to track down drunken literati in time for them to go to air, she had to get hold of them before they became completely incoherent.

By and large she succeeded, but it was a hectic life. One moment she would be scanning a late Victorian gin palace from end to end, remembering always to look under the tables. The next she would be racketing up some back stairs, past startled Maltese gangsters and into some hellish bottle shop, eyes alert for paralytic literary gents. She fended off the used car dealers of Warren Street and bantered with the screaming queens of Piccadilly. Eventually, she would return with her haul of dissolute belletrists and herd them into the right studio. Then it would be time to venture forth again.

Fast forward to a seventies childhood in the Potteries, to where my mother eventually returned. Plonked down by in front of BBC2 to imbibe culture, she would then undermine its effects with a soundtrack:

“I remember him, he was drunk all the time…

“The last time I saw him he’d passed out in front of the French Pub…

“I loved Stevie Smith, but the only time we met she was being sick into her handbag…”

Mum always meant to set these experiences down in a memoir, but never got round to it. For what it’s worth, here they are now.