March 18, 2010

The Sun has Fallen into the Sack

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March 17, 2010

Up the Green!

A Journey Round My Skull is now 50 Watts

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Brendan Behan, Phoenix Park Zoo, Dublin, 1959
Brendan Behan (with snake), Phoenix Park Zoo, Dublin, 1959 via John McNabb

A Tipsy Tribute to the Leading Literary Lush of the Emerald Isle: Brendan Behan
by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

At least as well known for his boozing as for his books, iconic Irish author Brendan Behan (1923 - 1964) was a rollicking, larger-than-life Gaelic knockabout—a foul-mouthed, furry-chested stereotype of the drunken Paddy. In fact, the polemical playwright and legendary dipsomaniac once sardonically summarized himself as "a drinker with writing problems."

Behan was, at one time or another, a Borstal boy ( = reform school inmate), an I. R. A. "messenger" (he was an explosives expert with a special preference for gelignite), an inveterate jailbird, a busker, a pornographer, and a house painter. He was, at all times, a rebel and all-around hellbender. In the end, it was a bottle and not a British bullet which did him in. His death certificate cited a terminal condition of "hepatic coma, fatty degeneration of liver."

Bawdy, brawling, send-em-sprawling, pub-after-pub-crawling Behan referred to the stout which was his beverage of preference as "a pint of gargle," and thought nothing of putting away several thimbles of whiskey washed down with a gallon of ale chasers. The champion toper, when three sheets to the wind, and flush with a fresh royalty payment for one of his books, would routinely pass out money to anyone who approached him with a hard luck story, then trundle out of the tap room, a besotted grizzly bear of a man, singing in the streets, stumbling in the gutters, bumping into lampposts, and carrying on loud conversations, at all hours, with nonexistent respondents.

He was raised first by nuns, the French Sisters of Charity, whom he loved, and of whom he said. "I was their little pet"; then by priests, the Christian Brothers, of whom he said, "I hated them and they hated me." His real education came in a succession of lock-ups, where he had time to improve his mind and to plunder the libraries while molding himself into a surprisingly fine French and Irish scholar.

He was born with revolution in his blood. As Sean McCann tells it, "He came from a long line of rebels who were nurtured over a tenement fire. A grandmother of his was jailed for illegal possession of explosives at the age of seventy. A grandfather was one of the Invincibles (they murdered Lord Cavendish on a Sunday morning in Phoenix Park in 1882); both his parents fought in the War of Independence and in The Troubles; his father was interned with Sean T. O'Kelly, later president of Ireland; his uncle Peadar Kearney wrote the Irish National Anthem, 'The Soldier's Song.' Brendan was nine when he joined the junior movement of the I. R. A." Also by the age of nine, Behan was imbibing to the point of flagrant inebriation.

When he wasn't holding forth in a grog shop, he could be heard uttering unintelligibilities on radio or television. Edward R. Murrow cut out Behan from a broadcast citing "difficulties beyond our control"; on a television program where he appeared bombed with Jackie Gleason, the comedian said of him "Behan came across 100 proof—this wasn't an act of God, it was an act of Guinness." The Daily News quipped, "If the celebrated playwright wasn't pickled, he gave the best imitation of rambling alcoholism you ever saw." With tousled hair and rumpled clothes, Behan would attend performances of his own plays roaring drunk, taunting the actors, shouting epithets at them, and insulting the audience by screaming "Eejits!" ( = Idiots!")

Behan's Herculean binges got him into plenty of hot water. He was jailed in London, fined in Toronto, banned in New York. Rude, crude, and socially unacceptable, the rowdy provocateur was a brash, loutish cross between Victor McLaglin and Lenny Bruce. He swore like the proverbial stable boy, soused or sober. He was constantly censored. When he achieved fame as a writer, the liquor dispensaries and moist social establishments which once summarily gave him the boot now threw open their doors in boundless charity and warmest welcome. And all Ireland loved him.

Concerning the business of drinking, Behan opined:

--For me, one drink is too many and a thousand not enough.

--I only drink on two occasions: when I'm thirsty and when I'm not.

--In a caricature of Behan, Rowan Atkinson includes a wall poster with the slogan "Too young to die, too drunk to live."


Visit the Dublin Writers Museum


Why Don Pedro Drinks

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Two statesmen drowning their cares, Tim Bobbin [i.e. John Collier], 1772

Why Don Pedro Drinks
by José Marín Cañas
Translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

Nobody had any idea, until that night, what made Don Pedro drink. Don Pedro was a very picturesque gentleman who affected extravagant airs. He sported oversized collars and cravats in the absurdest of colors. But the truth about this grandiose fop was that he drank and, at times, in a manner immoderate and obstreperous.

Don Pedro’s flaw was an infantile and harmless conceit. The poor old sot had an atrociously fecund musical bent, and he composed waltzes, minuets, rigadoons, fox trots, marches, one steps, and other various popular pieces and, what is more, penned poetry in a calligraphic style reminiscent of Crispulo Elizondo: he delighted in exorbitantly cursive script, and he dashed off lyrical petitionary missives as accompaniments to his waltzes, polkas and other trifles – all dedicated to Senora de Fernandez, de Benitez, or de Oconitrillo, and delivered right under the noses of their husbands who stood there alongside them in their yellow shoes and ugly cashmere sweaters like big, dumb schoolboys dressed by their mothers.

That was how Don Pedro lived.

"I enrich the art of music," was all he would say in a fierce tone, when he overheard the wisecracks of some loudmouthed know-it-all, in an attempt to deflect further gibes and snipes. "There will come a day," said Don Pedro, "when my name will resound throughout the four corners of the globe along with those of Verdi, Wagner, Donizetti, and Cavallini." (Don Pedro had a queer mania for believing that Cavallini was the name of a composer, and no one pointed out to the poor man that this name belonged to a watchmaker.)

Then someone asked, "Why do you drink?"

"I am not a weakling like you," he retorted. "I drink because I want to. Yes, gentlemen. Are you listening? Because I want to. I hope my answer doesn’t disappoint you, but there are no sad stories to tell. I’m not shameless like you, you sorry riffraff! Any of you who thinks otherwise is scum! You hear me? That's why I drink. Yes, Perez! Because it cleans my kidneys. Have you got that, you assholes? Would you like me to tell why your girlfriend left you, or why your wife went with somebody else, or what kind of books they pollute themselves with? Assholes! I drink because I want to!"

In the face of such flaming oratory, no one dared interrupt.

"Alright, alright, Don Pedro, don’t get worked up."

The poor old man sat down and cooled off, thanks to the ministrations of one of the more compassionate regulars. Then, after awhile, he thrust his hand into his satchel and removed some sheets of music. Amongst all the other muck he dredged up from the unfathomable depths of his pockets, was a little photograph smudged and blotted by filth and age.

"Eh, Don Pedro, who is that?"

"My little boy, my son," he said quickly and guardedly.

"Eh, Don Pedro," Perez spouted, "This son of yours, where is he, anyway? How come we never heard about him before? Do we look like we just rode in on camels? This is a gag, right?"

"Where is he? Where is he, you imbecile? He's over there." And he pointed, ferociously, forbiddingly, his arm stiff, his eyes fixed.

* * *

Don Pedro's inexorable finger was outstretched towards the gloomy silhouette of the distant graveyard.

* * *

acf JOSE MARIN CAÑAS El infierno verde gc

About José Marín Cañas (1904 - 1980)

Costa Rican novelist, newspaperman, educator and essayist who, during his youth, held a variety of jobs including those of breadseller, stockboy at a market, and pitchman. As an adolescent, he learned to play the violin and gave serenades, performed at dances and theaters and provided musical accompaniment to silent films. He remained interested in the cinema throughout his life. A sensationalistic journalist and something of a literary experimentalist, Cañas was considered an avant-gardist in his day. His punctilious approach to composition has been likened to that of a watchmaker. He abandoned writing for thirty years, then resumed his profession during the late 1960s by contributing a regular column to a daily paper in the capitol. He served as director of the Institute of Hispanic Culture but was forced to step down from his chair in the School of Journalism at the University of Costa Rica because he lacked a diploma. He swore never again to set foot on its campus. He died at daybreak December 14, 1980, of emphysema. He never quit smoking. Among his noted books are Steel Tears and Green Hell. "Why Don Pedro Drinks" is from his 1929 collection of crepuscular tales about alcoholics, The Rum Bums (Los bigardos del ron). [Ed. note: J. M. Cañas has not previously appeared in English.]


Happy St. Patrick's Day from all of us here at A Journey Round My Skull

The top image is by John Collier, c. 1772, found at the LOC


Previously by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert:

--Soap Opera Digest: A Candybox of History's Sappiest Literary Lovers
--Poets Ranked by Beard Weight
--Interview 1
--Taedium Vitae
--Snake-O-Rama: one, two

Lions of Literature:
Leon Bloy
Adelheid Duvanel
Christopher Spranger

March 15, 2010

Wildlife Incursions into Modern Cover Design

This post now resides on my other site 50 Watts: