The Social Influence Of The “Bar” by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

A great American writer has lately given a terrible account of “The Social Influence of the Saloon” in his country. The article is very grave, and every word is weighed, but the cold precision of the paper attracts the reader with a horrible fascination. The author does not so much regret the enormous waste of money, though he allows that about two hundred millions of pounds sterling are spent yearly in the States on strong drink; but he mourns most because of the steady ruin which he sees overtaking the social happiness of his country. The saloon is subtly corrupting the men of America, and the ghastly plagues of selfishness, brutality, and immorality are spreading with cruel swiftness. The great author’s conclusion is more than startling, and I confess to having caught my breath when I read it. He says in effect, “We sacrificed a million men in order to do away with slavery, but we now have working in our midst a curse which is infinitely worse than slavery. One day we shall be obliged to save ourselves from ruin, even if we have to stamp out the trade in alcohol entirely, and that by means of a civil war.” Strong words–and yet the man speaks with intense conviction: and his very quietude only serves to emphasise the awful nature of his disclosures. As I read on I saw with horror that the description of the state of things in America accurately fits our own country. We do not talk of a “saloon” here, but “bar” means the same thing; and the “bar” is crushing out the higher life of the English middle-class as surely as the saloon is destroying American manhood. Amid all our material prosperity, amid all the complexities of our amazing community, an evil is at work which gathers power daily and which is actually assassinating, as it were, every moral quality that has made England strong and beneficent. Begin with a picture. The long curved counter glistens under the flare of the gas; the lines of gaudy bottles gleam like vulgar, sham jewelry; the glare, the glitter, the garish refulgence of the place dazzle the eye, and the sharp acrid whiffs of vile odour fall on the senses with a kind of mephitic influence. The evening is wearing away, and the broad space in front of the bar is crowded. A hoarse crashing babble goes steadily on, forming the ground-bass of an odious symphony; shrill and discordant laughter rises by fits and starts above the low tumult; a coarse joke sets one group sniggering; a vile oath rings out from some foul-mouthed roysterer; and at intervals some flushed and bleared creature breaks into a slavering laugh which has a sickly resemblance to weeping. At one of the side-tables a sodden brute leans forward and wags his head to and fro with ignoble solemnity; another has fallen asleep and snores at intervals with a nauseous rattle; smart young men, dressed fashionably, fling chance witticisms at the busy barmaids, and the nymphs answer with glib readiness. This is the home of Jollity and Good-fellowship; this is the place from which Care is banished; this is the happy corner where the social glass is dispensed. Alas for the jollity and the sociability and all the rest of it! Force yourself to study the vile spectacle, and you will soon harbour a brood of aching reflections. The whole of that chattering, swilling mob are employing their muddled minds on frivolity or obscenity, or worse things still. You will hear hardly an intelligent word; you will not catch a sound of sensible discussion; the scraps of conversation that reach you alternate between low banter, low squabbling, objectionable narrative, and histories of fights or swindles or former debauches.

Middle-aged men tell interminable stories about money or smart strokes of business; youngsters wink and look unspeakably wise as they talk on the subject of the spring handicaps; wild spirits tell of their experiences at a glove-fight in some foul East-end tavern; amorous exploits are detailed with a fulness and freedom which would extremely amaze the ladies who form the subject of the conversation. In all the nasty confusion you never hear a word that can be called manly, unless you are prepared to allow the manliness of pugilism. Each quarter-hour sees the company grow more and more incoherent; the laughter gradually becomes senseless, and loses the last indication of pure merriment; the reek thickens; the dense air is permeated with queasy smells which rise from the fusel oil and the sugared beer; the shrewd landlord looks on with affected jollity, and hails casual friends with effusive imitation of joy; and last of all “time” is called, and the host of men pour into the street. They are ready for any folly or mischief, and they are all more or less unfitted for the next day’s work. Strangely enough, many of those wretched fellows who thus waste time amid sordid surroundings come from refined homes; but music and books and the quiet pleasant talk of mothers and sisters are tame after the delirious rattle of the bar, and thus bright lads go home with-their wits dulled and with a complete incapacity for coherent speech. Now let it be remembered that no real friendships are contracted in those odious drinking-shops–something in the very atmosphere of the place seems to induce selfishness, and a drinker who goes wrong is never pitied; when evil days come, the smart landlord shuns the failure, the barmaids sneer at him, and his boon companions shrink away as though the doomed man were tainted. Monstrous it is to hear the remarks made about a lost soul who is plunging with accelerated speed down the steep road to ruin. His companions compare notes about him, and all his bodily symptoms are described with truculent glee in the filthy slang of the bar. So long as the wretch has money he is received with boisterous cordiality, and encouraged to rush yet faster on the way to perdition; his wildest feats in the way of mawkish generosity are applauded; and the very men who drink at his expense go on plucking him and laughing at him until the inevitable crash comes. I once heard with a kind of chilled horror a narrative about a fine young man who had died of delirium tremens. The narrator giggled so much that his story was often interrupted; but it ran thus–“He was very shaky in the morning, and he began on brandy; he took about six before his hand was steady, and I saw him looking over his shoulder every now and again. In the afternoon a lot of fellows came in, and he stood champagne like water to the whole gang. At six o’clock I wanted him to have a cup of tea, but he said, ‘I’ve had nothing but booze for three days.’ Then he got on to the floor, and said he was catching rats–so we knew he’d got ’em on.[1] At night he came out and cleared the street with his sword-bayonet; and it’s a wonder he didn’t murder somebody. It took two to hold him down all night, and he had his last fit at six in the morning. Died screaming!” A burst of laughter hailed the climax, and then one appreciative friend remarked, “He was a fool–I suppose he was drunk eleven months out of the last twelve.” This was the epitaph of a bright young athlete who had been possessed of health, riches, and all fair prospects. No one warned him; none of those who swilled expensive poisons for which he paid ever refused to accept his mad generosity; he was cheered down the road to the gulf by the inane plaudits of the lowest of men; and one who was evidently his companion in many a frantic drinking-bout could find nothing to say but “He was a fool!” At this moment there are thousands of youths in our great towns and cities who are leading the heartless, senseless, semi-delirious life of the bar, and every possible temptation is put in their way to draw them from home, from refinement, from high thoughts, from chaste and temperate modes of life. Horrible it is to hear fine lads talking familiarly about the “jumpy” sensations which they feel in the morning. The “jumps” are those involuntary twitchings which sometimes precede and sometimes accompany delirium tremens; the frightful twitching of the limbs is accompanied by a kind of depression that takes the very heart and
courage out of a man; and yet no one who travels over these islands can avoid hearing jokes on the dismal subject made by boys who have hardly reached their twenty-fifth year. The bar encourages levity, and the levity is unrelieved by any real gaiety–it is the hysterical feigned merriment of lost souls.

[Footnote 1: This is the elegant public-house mode of describing delirium tremens.]

There are bars of a quieter sort, and there are rooms where middle-aged topers meet, but these are, if possible, more repulsive than the clattering dens frequented by dissipated youths. Stout staid-looking men–fathers of families–gather night after night to sodden themselves quietly, and they make believe that they are enjoying the pleasures of good-fellowship. Curious it is to see how the fictitious assertion of goodwill seems to flourish in the atmosphere of the bar and the parlour. Those elderly men who sit and smoke in the places described as “cosy” are woeful examples of the effects of our national curse. They are not riotous; they are only dull, coarse, and silly. Their talk is confused, dogmatic, and generally senseless; and, when they break out into downright foulness of speech, their comparatively silent enjoyment of detestable stories is a thing to make one shiver. Here again good-fellowship is absent. Comfortable tradesmen, prosperous dealers, sharp men who hold good commercial situations, meet to gossip and exchange dubious stories. They laugh a good deal in a restrained way, and they are apparently genial; but the hard selfishness of all is plain to a cool observer. The habit of self-indigence has grown upon them until it pervades their being, and the corruption of the bar subtly envenoms their declining years. If good women could only once hear an evening’s conversation that passes among these elderly citizens, they would be a little surprised. Thoughtful ladies complain that women are not reverenced in England, and Americans in particular notice with shame the attitude which middle-class Englishmen adopt towards ladies. If the people who complain could only hear how women are spoken of in the homes of Jollity, they would feel no more amazement at a distressing social phenomenon. The talk which is chuckled over by men who have daughters of their own is something to make an inexperienced individual redden. Reverence, nobility, high chivalry, common cleanliness, cannot flourish in the precincts of the bar, and there is not an honest man who has studied with adequate opportunities who will deny that the social glass is too often taken to an accompaniment of sheer uncleanness. Why have not our moral novelists spoken the plain truth about these things? We have many hideous pictures of the East-end drinking-bars, and much reproachful pity is expended on the “residuum;” but the evil that is eating at the very heart of the nation, the evil that is destroying our once noble middle-class, finds no assailant and no chronicler. Were it not for the athletic sports which happily engage the energies of thousands of young men, our middle-class would degenerate with appalling rapidity. But, in spite of athletics, the bar claims its holocaust of manhood year by year, and the professional moralists keep silence on the matter. Some of them say that they cannot risk hurting the sensibilities of innocent maidens. What nonsense! Those maidens all have a chance of becoming the wives of men who have suffered deterioration in the reek and glare of the bar. How many sorrowing wives are now hiding their heart-break and striving to lure their loved ones away from the curse of curses! If the moralists could only look on the mortal pathos of the letters which I receive, they would see that the maidens about whom they are so nervous are the very people who should be summoned as allies in our fight against a universal enemy. If our brave sweet English girls once learn the nature of the temptations to which their brothers and lovers are exposed, they will use every force of their pure souls to save the men whom they can influence from a doom which is death in life.

May, 1887.

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