When younger, people sometimes told me ‘drinking’s not ladylike’ or ‘you shouldn’t drink’. Drinking’s one solution to ‘the personal problem of existence’. A method of ‘physiological change’ a ‘safety valve’, an accepted loosener of constraints associated with the formal and informal rules that govern our being in the world. [i] Boozing promotes conviviality, feelings of warmth and friendship but doing it lots has been linked with violence together with health effects such as stroke and heart or liver disease. [ii] In Scotland, a country famed for drinking, the Scottish Parliament have just been allowed to enact legislation aiming to curb consumption by setting a minimum price for alcohol. [iii]
Alcohol is foundational to UK contemporary art, lubricating the openings or previews that often precede visits to the sites celebrated in Timothea Armour’s ‘The Last Hour!’. Taking its name from the final chapter of the ‘The Pub and the People’ Mass-Observation study published 1943 [iv], this curatorial project similarly avoids the “drink problem” to focus on the pub as social institution. The titling summons the agreeable last hour of nightly service alongside a grim prophecy of decline as chain pubs increasingly take over independents. [v]
Making it to Collective, this, the final day of the exhibition, the portacabins on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill are closed. Sheets of ‘The Last Hour!’ mask the windows, this newspaper available from a red (now weatherproofed) box and all pubs within a one mile radius. Reminiscent of a shop shut for repurposing, the newsprint on the windows—off-white with a black print, red accent and colour images—forms content, context and backdrop for mirror written words projecting out from in. Partial narratives trace across the glass, themes drawn from the paper’s stories laced with pictures: ‘gender – nostalgia’, ‘work – class’, ‘behaviour – talk’. Strategic gaps permit a partial view inside, floating lit up ethereal images of a fresh pint, a clean ashtray, a shiny but ancient telly.
Reflecting this assemblage’s tang of nostalgia, smoking in ‘wholly or substantially enclosed’ public spaces has been banned in Scotland since 26 March 2006. [vi] One of the newspaper’s stories exploring the ‘authenticity’ of British pub culture – styles of the past still play out in the present. Others concern the definition of ‘pub’, the art of pub management, a bartender’s reminiscences, and practical direction for ‘what to do if you’re worried about losing your local’. Almost centrefold there’s ‘An attempt to map pub ownership within a mile radius of Calton Hill’. [vii]
This map implicates the pubs where newspapers have been distributed. Drinkers in those pubs might find a copy, framing themselves relative to others. In keeping with convention, the site of map production, Collective, is central. Some papers escape the mile: sent to Leeds, left on a train, given to Linda—moving in uncontrolled ways, understandings of intent altering with place and person. The mile around Collective is largely within Edinburgh’s UNESCO world heritage site. [viii] Disneyesque, conjuring images of folksy ‘traditional’ pubs: wood, tiling maybe, single malts, live music only…
Perhaps something close to the aesthetic of ‘The Ivy’ in London’s Nunhead/ Peckham Rye, the star of Sarah Turner’s film ‘Public House’ showing at Cameo Cinema today. Owners Enterprise Inns [xi] gave the community five days’ notice of closure, trying for a ‘vacant possession’ sale to a developer. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) had already applied to English Heritage to list this as ‘An historic pub interior of regional importance’. [x] The community got together, exercising their ‘right to bid’ for ‘assets of community value’, becoming the first to purchase a community building using the Localism Act 2011. An acclaimed victory of community over gentrification.
The film, made collaboratively with some of the pub’s many users, features documentation of poetry and swing dance practice and performance, alongside kids moving around at play. Ethereal recordings of members of the community responding to 30 questions documented in ‘The Last Hour!’ layered into the footage. [xi] Questions range from the prosaic, ‘When did you first visit this pub?’ to the sensory, ‘What’s your favourite pub smell?’. The final, number 30, is telling: ‘Could the pub be more diverse? In what way (age, race, class, gender, sexuality…etc)?’ There are lots of children, women and men, but, Carling is out and craft beer is in, those featured are startlingly white. What is this community? Who are ‘the People’? [xii]
In Edinburgh, ‘A Mass Observation Field Trip’ (offsite event née pub crawl), could help to explore these questions. The mapping permits investigation of the sites of the newspaper’s distribution. Participants do more than ‘ground truth’ the data: small groups visit pubs, recording occurrences, later sharing findings en masse. Does ‘getting’ or ‘capturing’ the atmosphere require (even partial) inebriation? Pub crawls, a form of alcotainment constrained by location and (potentially) specialist subject. The lawyer’s crawl: choose a landmark legal case, go to the site of that case and narrate it, have a drink in the nearest pub. Repeat. Narratives of lawlessness become increasingly loose.
Despite no “drink problem”, wellbeing is present in ‘The Last Hour!’ through ‘Yoga for Bartenders’. [xiii] Bartenders may blossom but in yogic terms serving alcohol means they trade in ‘tamas’, a ‘negative and obstructive force that resists change, [embodying] darkness, not feeling, attachment, depression, lethargy, dullness, heaviness, stagnation and ignorance’. [xiv] This description echoes the guilt, shame and death like feelings that may accompany an alcoholiday [xv]—a necessary day of rest after excessive drinking. Happily, such symptoms can be alleviated by twisting postures (such as Marichyasana C) that stimulate blood flow to the abdomen. The alcoholiday, more than ‘a partial release of accumulating tensions’ [xvi], a grounding ‘break’, you (hopefully) wake up and the world is different.
This is also ‘the last hour’ for Collective’s tenure in this temporary space just outside The City Observatory’s grounds. They make another, shorter, move to the Old Observatory House prior to permanently relocating to The City Dome. Walking around, it’s blustery, the portacabin’s short term dereliction infiltrates Calton Hill, surroundings tatty before the transformation. Stone buildings with gravitas, a visible seat of learning, garnished with bottles and cans: some stashed, some absentmindedly placed at the foot of a bench, evidence of pre-loading perhaps, intoxication enhanced by the crisp air and the scenic view.
The Last Hour!, Collective Edinburgh, 23 September-5 November 2017
Satellites is Collective in Edinburgh’s development programme for emergent artists and producers based in Scotland.
Anna McLauchlan is a teacher and learner who currently lectures in critical human geography at the University of Leeds.
Thanks to Frances Stacey, Georgia Horgan and Timothea Armour for discussing the exhibition and to Barry Burns and Timothea Armour for commenting on an earlier version of this text. A massive thank you to Alice Bain, Laura Edbrook and Daisy Lafarge of Map for their exceptional editorial support in the production of all five texts associated with Satellites.
[i] Mass-Observation, 1943, The Pub and the People: A Worktown Study. Victor Gollancz Ltd, London. Quotes take from pages 336 and 337.
[ii] Detrimental health and other effects of alcohol are widely documented and then translated into guidance, for example NHS, 2017, The risks of drinking too much.
[iii] Following a challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association this legislation was recently upheld by the UK Supreme Court. Scottish Government, 2017, Minimum Unit Pricing.
[iv] Mass-Observation, ‘The Pub and the People’.
[v] Anonymous, 2017, When is a pub not a pub? In Collective, 2017, The Last Hour! [Newspaper] 22 September – 5 November. pp.1-2.
[vi] What does ‘substantially’ mean? Smoking, Health and Social Care (Scotland) Act 2005.
[vii] Collective, ‘The Last Hour!’, at pp.10-11.
[viii] UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization], 2012, Old and New Tows of Edinburgh.
[ix] Enterprise Inns plc, now known as ei group plc, ‘are the largest pub company in the UK, owning over 4,500 properties, predominantly run as leased and tenanted pubs.’ ei group, 2017, – ‘About Us’
[x] CAMRA, 2017, Pub Heritage Historic Pub Interiors. LONDON, GREATER - Nunhead, London SE15, Ivy House.
[xi] Collective, ‘The Last Hour!’ at p.17.
[xii] This echoes questions raised by Sally A Marston, 1990, Who are ‘the people’?: gender, citizenship, and the making of the American nation, Environment and Planning D, 8, pp.449-458. In the Scottish context, minimum pricing for alcohol will increase the price of cheaper drinks such as Carling bought in bulk but will not impact on more expensive craft beers.
[xiii] Collective, ‘The Last Hour!’ at p.9.
[xiv] This interpretation, reflecting orthodox approaches, is taken from Mark Kan, 2013, The Complete Yoga Tutor: A structured course to achieve professional expertise. London, Gaia, p.75. In observances known as niyamas drinking alcohol goes against saucha (or shaucha) cleansing the body and being pure in word and deed. However many yoga practitioners drink alcohol, some have incorporated into their teaching (for example by David Sye), and it has an ambiguous role in tantric rituals.
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈalkəhɒlɪdeɪ/ U.S. /ˈælkəˌhɔlɪdeɪ/, /ˈælkəˌhɑlɪdeɪ/
A day on which ordinary occupations (of an individual or group) are suspended as a result of a hangover due to severe intoxication from alcohol the previous day or night before; a day of cessation from work as a consequence of previous alcohol intoxication. Incapacity to participate in formal work may turn this into a day of recreation or amusement. Often accompanied by feelings of shame or dread.
Adapted from entries for ‘alcohol’ and ‘holiday’ from Oxford English Dictionary, 2017, Oxford University Press. Also the name of a Teenage Fanclub song from 1991.
[xvi] Mass-Observation, ‘The Pub and the People’ at p.337.