Writers and Their Bars

It’s part of the common perception of writers that they all have their favorite bars and pubs, places where they meet other writers and where they allow themselves to let it all out. Maybe after hours of solitary, focused labor over a computer. The mystique of writers—unlike whatever mystique civil servants, physicians, or company executives have, as an illustration—demands that they drink and suffer and both annoy and astonish everyone else in equivalent amounts. You can take tours in Paris and find the bars where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James Joyce drank. It won’t be cheap, and there’s no guarantee any of the aura is left, quite the opposite in fact. There’s always the hope for some that they might fall in with a celebrity and be discovered.

Writers drink for the same reasons everyone else does. But maybe there are occasionally the beliefs held by the writers themselves that drinking can help with the work, can help loosen up the inherited rectitude and conventionality that stifles expression and that new, stunning story. I don’t believe that writing works that way. Too much hard work is involved. But there is something of magical thinking involved. Almost an atavistic belief in magic potions or a “soma” that links one to divine revelation. Potions do exist, though the kind I’m familiar with are about physical healing and taste like something you’ve found in your old gym bag. Hardly on a par with a good scotch or a fine wine.

All the films of the past twenty-five years or so that depict writers show them drinking heavily and taking drugs. Footage of someone typing just doesn’t cut it.  Adaptation 2002; Naked Lunch 1991; Barton Fink 1991; Factotum 2006; Hammett 1982; Capote 2005 ; Leaving Las Vegas 1995.   If the films happen to be about a real figure, as in Hammett or Capote, we have the secondary pleasure of trying to understand how the behavior might explain the achievement. Or, maybe we all just love gossip.

Some bars and pubs do seem to have a seductive atmosphere.  I remember how many bars there were in Madrid with gorgeous walnut or mahogany or oak, with brass and copper fittings, and lighting that carried the comforting message that here you could tell all in warmth and sympathy. Thank God that few ever took up that suggestion, but basking in it was allowed. All of the bars had a history with the faces of writers, painters, bullfighters, actors, and of soccer stars covering the walls in autographed posters. Other bars had a darkness in them that was deep and melancholic even at high noon. How much cultural history is written in shots of whiskey and glasses of beer?

All the cities we dream of have bars associated with writers. Gallagher’s Bar in Brooklyn with Pete Hamill; The Crossroads Bar near Fenway Park in Boston with Richard Yates; the Eagle & Child Pub in Oxford with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; Sloppy Joe’s Bar, somewhere ( a fight is developing over which bar has the right to the name) in South Florida with Hemingway; the Vesuvio Café in San Francisco with the Beats like Kerouac and Ginsberg; the El Floridita in Havana with Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Ezra Pound; the Spaniard’s Inn in Hampstead Heath, London, with Byron, Shelley, Keats; the Café Wepler in Paris with Henry Miller; the White Horse Tavern in New York with Bob Dylan, Mailer, James Baldwin, and Hunter S. Thompson; the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore with Kipling, William Golding, Somerset Maugham,  and Joseph Conrad; the Pont Royal Bar in Paris with Camus and Sartre; Harry’s Bar, Venice, with Hemingway, Capote, Noel Coward, Orson Welles; the Algonquin Club in New York with Dorothy Parker and Nathaniel Benchley. We could keep listing, and with each bar and each name, stories would make their entrance.

What about Vancouver? The Yale Hotel Pub used to be a gathering ground for writers in the 1970s and 80s, as did the Alcazar Pub, now deceased. Occasionally, the Sylvia Hotel Pub was used, particularly for out-of-town writers, and now the trendy Alibi Room among the film and t.v. writing crowd seems to be favored.  Do you know of any others? What’s your favorite drinking establishment in Vancouver for its atmosphere and its sociability?

Or, is there a fear that once the secret is out, it won’t be long before the seekers come and then the tour buses.

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