A pint of plain is your only man

I first published this post in February 2014. But I thought I’d re-post it in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, 2016. If nothing else, scroll down to the video at the bottom to see Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners recite Flan O’Brien’s grand old poem.

“The Workman’s Friend”

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A pint of plain is your only man.

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.

In time of trouble and lousey strife,
You have still got a darlin’ plan
You still can turn to a brighter life –
A pint of plain is your only man.

— Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan)

illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

As far as drinking is concerned I am a very simple man.  I like my “pint of plain,” a glass of whiskey every so often, and a bottle of wine.  That’s about it.  I’ve never tasted a margarita or any of its offshoots, the great variety of martinis does not interest me, and anything blended or frozen seems more a dessert than a drink.  And if a pint of Guinness is not available, I drink whatever stout is …or a simple lager.

So, I took my trash to the curb last Thursday night, a raw and a frozen night, and afterwards walked the three doors down to the corner taproom.  Across the bar, two people were downing shots of a “Fireball.”   The woman on my right told me it was a cinnamon flavored whiskey.  “It tastes just like Big Red chewing gum,” she said.

Now that’s the problem right there.

I don’t want my whiskey to taste like cinnamon chewing gum.  I want my whiskey to taste like whiskey.  There are vodkas now that taste like cupcakes and chocolates, and mixed drinks that capture the delights of a sweet shop.  I know what is going on.  But I’m against it.  It’s the infantilization of alcohol and it is a very lucrative business.

So fast forward a few days and I am in another city sitting in the hotel bar.  I have no obligations for a good four hours, so I sit in a snug with a good book and a large glass of Jamesons.  Life feels very good.

There must be a convention of sorts at the hotel because a number of similar young men come walking in,  all at once.  I’ll have a “Black and Blue” says the one.  Make mine a “Black Apple” says another.  The bartender guessed that the “Black and Blue” was a Guinness and Blue-Moon.  And he was told that the “Black Apple” was Guinness and Cider.  (I later learned that a “Black Apple”  is also called a “poor man’s Black Velvet” which is a century-old mix of Guinness and champagne.)

But there was something in me that bristled at their orders.  Leave a drink alone, why don’t you, I wanted to say. Why must you always be fussing with it?

Maybe I am getting old. (Actually no “maybe” about it!) And maybe I am getting crotchety.  But for me, as the wonderful Flann O’Brien once wrote, “a pint of plain is your only man.”

Here’s Ronnie Drew and the rest of the Dubliners reciting Flann O’Brien’s poem, with pints of plain in their hands:

At Swim-Two-Birds, Guinness, and Finn McCool’s Arse

Giant's Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway
–Carved out by Finn McCool

In the mid-nineties, the Guinness company ran a contest that entailed writing an advertisement within a certain number of words.  First prize for the winning ad was a pub in Ireland, and you could see the pubs themselves on-line. (Winning this prize is the impetus of the plot of the novel The Night Swimmer)

Anyway, I remember my entry and remember loving its major image…150 orphans playing handball against the wide girth of Finn McCool’s arse.

Obviously I didn’t win. (I arrogantly told myself that I didn’t win the contest because it was run by American advertisers who didn’t pick up on the allusion!)

ATSWIMTWOBIRDS And I remembered that ad because the image came from Flann O’Brien’s novel,  At Swim-Two-Birds. And last week I began a post with a poem “The Workman’s Friend” that came from the same novel. That post got me nostalgic for O’Brien’s work. A man of many pseudonyms, O’Brien is best known for the comic novel At Swim-Two-Birds, although my funnest memories are of The Third Policeman and The Poor Mouth, the latter which O’Nolan wrote in Irish as  An Beal Bocht under the pen name Myles na Gopaleen. (And both of which I first read in Connemarra and Sandymount respectively.)

At Swim Two-Birds is a rich novel of basically three stories, a meta-fiction in which a character created by the protagonist writes a novel from which his characters gang together with other characters in the novel to avenge their creator.  It starts with a university student, who spends more time in his bed and in the pubs than in the classroom. Besides drinking, the student is also writing a novel about a man named Dermot Trellis, a middling writer of Westerns. It is his characters who intermingle with each other, who plot against him, and who attempt to live their lives apart from their author’s intentions, after they drug him.

All of this is mixed with a great deal of Irish mythology and ancient poetry (wryly translated by O’Brien himself). From McCool to Mad King Sweeney, from pookas to fairies, an entire ancient world enters this most modern of novels and interacts with O’Brien’s and Trellis’s fictional creations.

To say there is a circularity to the plot is perhaps inaccurate, and certainly understated.  It is more like a mobius strip in another dimension.  One thing turns on another to make way for other things that reflect on something else. This jibes very much with the Greek epigraph which translated means “For all things change, making way for each other.”  For yes, indeed, one character after another makes way for one other character after yet another.

But most memorably, it is laugh-out-loud funny.

So I began re-reading At Swim-Two-Birds again this week and  I started thinking of comic novels in general.

I feel they are best enjoyed by the young.

Think The Gingerman and Catch-22. Think Tom Jones and Confederacy of Dunces. Think Lucky Jim and Reuben, Reuben.  Each presents a hero who is outrageously set up against the straight-laced establishment, whether it be the military bureaucracy, the world of academia, or society in general.  And each hero takes part in the most outrageous antics–antics that only a young soul could aspire to and believe in.  It was once said that an uncle of mine in the army tried to received a medal buck naked, much like–and before–Yossarian in Catch-22. (Unlike Yossarian, he was thrown in the brig.) For my 21st birthday, a good friend of mine wanted to rent a kangaroo suit for me to go bar hopping in, as Sebastian Dangerfield did in The Gingerman.  I still chuckle at the peccadilloes that the Scottish poet Gowan McGland gets himself into in the uptight Connecticut suburbs in Reuben, Reuben. (Apparently, the plot was based on Dylan Thomas’s drunken stay in the town in the 1950s.)

But these antics and nose-thumbings are the actions (and dreams) of younger men.  And, also, the world has changed.  I remember once reading The Gingerman on a bus and being accosted by a woman who yelled that Sebastian Dangerfield was the most misogynistic character in all of literature.  I had to admit she was right. In fact, I’d go one further: he is one of the most despicable anti-heroes of all time.  Yet, he is still extraordinarily funny.

But, young or old,  the truth of  all comedy is a certain sadness mixed with the high-jinx. Perhaps the perception of each changes with age–but they both are undoubtedly there. They both need each other.

And so, once more I am churning through At Swim-Two-Birds, and I am still laughing out loud.  I just hope that there is no one on my bus protecting the interests of characters who are thought up by characters who are thought up by characters.  Cheers.