As befits the time of year, or rather the end of it, I’m thinking about what has passed. Not to bore with a list of my highs and lows, I’m simply posting my writing high. This piece appeared in Gin & It, the short lived sister publication to Fire & Knives. Both sadly folded this year, but seeing this piece in wonderfully bound print was my high.
I visit my fair share of galleries but often feel a fraud. My mind wanders into places where perhaps it shouldn’t be if I were truly appreciating the art. Transfixed by a single colour or an image in the periphery, I soak up the small details. It’s rare that I can say that I fully understand the abstract as I’m more about the literal. An exhibition ends with my loitering by the gift shop, my wife emerging 10 or 20 minutes later.
A discussion on what we’ve seen follows and then I invariably say, ‘Fancy a quick drink?’ That was London. Standing in The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne I’m repeating the routine, moving from painting to painting, lingering at each long enough not to not betray myself as a complete philistine. Until I reach The Bar.
Not an actual bar, mind, but John Brack’s painting, described as ‘stepping away from the gum tree idyll to an urban, postwar view of Australian life’. Painted in 1954, it’s a depiction of what became known as the Six O’Clock Swill. Across New Zealand and many Australian states, public bars in taverns and hotels would be forced to close at 6pm. The temperance movement had campaigned hard from the late 19th century against the demon drink and took further hold during the first world war when it was widely thought that home-front temperance (albeit not complete) was another step closer to victory.
Brack nods towards Manet’s A Bar at the Folie-Bergère but the grey, sallow- faced drinkers and ageing barmaid staring out from The Bar tell me it’s far from Montmartre. The men are oblivious as they smoke and drink; she, by contrast almost Technicolor in her mustard blouse, grips the bar, a thin sliver of a smile on her lips and darkly ringed eyes that tell their own story. It’s gritty and austere but doesn’t tell the full story of the Six O’Clock Swill.
It’s a familiar scene throughout British pubs to see a last-orders rush. You slake a pint to get in another, or simply line up your next with your unfinished, to beat the bell and the landlord’s call. One more drink before closing time and then the wobble home. The Swill was so much more. Men hurriedly clocked off work and headed for hotel bars where they’d dive into a destructive race to inebriation. It was a culture of hard drinking, and the environments were modified accordingly. Where bars
through and what remained were tiled for the proceeding Seven O’Clock Sluice.
Up to ten bar staff would sate the punters’ thirst as the clamour grew, filling glasses with spigot guns on hoses. Rapid and dextrous service was essential, and technique was honed both sides of the bar to ensure that drinking was maximised in the allotted time. Men would line up their drinks five at a time to be inhaled before closing, placing them between their feet for safe keeping – a crowd of men protecting their amber nectar like male penguins guarding their eggs. They’d become adept at fending off jostles and wayward feet as spillage could mean joining the bidding at the bar once more. The apparent compromise of the Six O’ Clock Swill, far from promoting a degree of temperance, supporting family stability, and getting men home to their wives (women, with the exception of barmaids, all but absent from pubs), instead fuelled a culture of
speed drinking that bound the working man’s ability to drink to the hands of the clock. Either that, or togooutofthe law and turn to ‘sly grog’ – bootleg liquor or alcohol sold without licence. A correlation between the this culture and incidences of domestic violence has been made many times: it’s not to say that these would not have happened without the Swill, but it’s fair to say that it was a source of misery for many families. Those teetotal campaigners became known as ‘wowsers’, an expression of a deep-rooted contempt held by drinkers for individuals who felt it their duty to inflict their own morality on the public.
With a thawing of post war austerity, and factors such as the new wave of European immigration, the Swill started to fade as State bodies reformed licensing laws and allowed bars to stay open late into the evening. New Zealand and South Australia were the last to fall, hanging on until 1967. The public bar became more than just a beer trough; it was now a place that husbands would gladly take their wives.
Almost 50 years on and the Swill is a memory only for some, but the wagging finger of the wowser (as opposed to a sensible dialogue) is still alive and well. It’s a Friday night and as I ascend the escalators at Sydney’s King Cross station, a billboard with bold, oversized letters spell out
‘BINGE DRINKING. WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO YOURSELF?’ The message is plastered from the concourse to the street. An exuberant teen well into her binge yells her response: ‘Getting f***** up.’ It seems the hangover of the Swill is still pounding in our heads. If (the now late) Brack were to re-imagine The Bar and our drinking habits today I wonder whether the cue taken would be from Hogarth not Manet and with a nod towards Gin Lane.