Certainly, there is something particularly infuriating about a glass of beer denied.
To take one example from many… Once ten years ago, or maybe a bit longer, me and my mates went for a drink in a local pub, half of us to watch a match, and the other just for a drink – I forget which camp I was in. The pub had a good reputation among locals – it was considered an amenable place for a pint or ten. But the reputation was, as far as I could see, undeserved.
After the match was finished, the bar staff left the TV on, but changed the channel to the rather depressing UK Gold, which replays British TV ‘classics’, whose inane fare blared over the heads of the paying customers. The bar was staffed by two girls in their twenties, who lacked the buxomness and jollity of the traditional English barmaid, a role to which they did nothing to put themselves into- they were more interested in soaps, I think. Worse, they shut up shop rather early, paying heed to the letter, rather than the spirit of UK licensing law, calling last orders and time at the bar with undue haste and too quietly for most people to notice – too quietly for me to notice anyway.
And so my request for the proverbial one for the road was in vain. I went home mildly drunk, with the taste of sour beer and disappointment. How quintessentially British.
The protagonist in Irish poet James Stephens’ A Glass of Beer, however, has experienced an altogether worse denial – the withdrawal of the bar tab, resulting in something very like righteous fury.
A Glass of Beer
The lanky hank of a she in the inn over there
Nearly killed me for asking the loan of a glass of beer
May the devil grip the whey-faced slut by the hair
And beat bad manners out of her skin for a year.
That parboiled ape, with the toughest jaw you will see
On virtue’s path, and a voice that would rasp the dead,
Came roaring and raging the minute she looked at me,
And threw me out of the house on the back of my head!
If I asked her master he’d give me a cask a day
But she, with the beer at hand, not a gill would arrange!
May she marry a ghost and bear him a kitten, and may
The High King of Glory permit her to get the mange!
I wouldn’t presume to link the alcohol thirst of the poem with the poet’s Irishness (I’m half-Irish myself, and the English side of my family are much the harder drinkers), but there is a distinctly Irish feel to some of the language – that phrase ‘the loan of a glass of beer’ has a definite Irish ring to it. Stephens was in fact a good friend of James Joyce, who in fact asked Stephens to collaborate on Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which is also set in a pub, I think. In the end, Joyce wrote it himself – methinks Stephens dodged a bullet there. Joyce set himself the task of reinventing the English language – English professors still argue over whether he succeeded, but no one aside from academics or masochists actually reads it. In this poem, Stephen’s sets about the more modest task of recreating a drunken rant in three rhyming quatrains.
Our speaker releases a torrent of curses and abuses at those who denied him his drink, though not to their faces – he is a little way off the inn, on the street perhaps accosting an acquaintance or passer-by. The characterisation of the two objects of the would-be-drinker’s enemies is reminiscent of the ugly figures in those expressionist paintings that kept central European artists busy between the wars:the barmaid is a ‘whey- faced slut’, her boyfriend a ‘parboiled ape’. I think I’ve seen a few of those on the night time streets of Newcastle.
The speaker reminds me of a friend I had at university who was asked to leave a kebab take away shop for drunk and disorderly behaviour. My friend responded by saying that his rights were being trampled on and that he was going to call Tony Blair. This was odd – not the behaviour, which was unfortunately characteristic, but the way he invoked the then Labour Prime Minister: my friend was a blue-dyed Tory from the rural west midlands who loathed Blair and all he stood for. Stephen’s ranter invokes higher authorities still: first the devil, then God.
This is not to suggest that he is religious, though it gives him a graver tone than appealing to someone called Tony, I suppose, or it would if he didn’t mingle it with silly playground language like ‘lanky hank’. But this is all part of the way the poem mixes tones – vainglorious, polite, vulgar, violent, devout, devilish, grandiloquent and colloquial. It is just the tone of that kind of jokey ranting drunk who might at any minute turn a bit nasty, or – more likely – fall on his sorry face.