“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





23 November 2012


The Exeter photographed by Ned Meldrum in Counter Meal - recipes and stories from great Australian pubs, Funtastic 2005

Wowser Prohos Come And Go
Waves Of Dries Ebb And Flow
But The Exeter Still Runs Pure 

So. The proho dries are on a rise.  Don’t panic.  They come and go.  Dry waves wear out through public boredom and the need to keep the wheels of the economy well greased.  In more ways than one, the Exeter is the ideal location for the contemplation of wowserism.  Lean your bows against her rubbing strakes, get the ebullient landlord Kevin Gregg to set one or two up for one, and ponder.

Blue-green biker: the author arrives at the Ex to contemplate abstinence.
Even the name Exeter has form. The ancient Gaelic word for water is uisge. Whisky is a corruption of usque-baugh, the water of life.  The Old Welsh Celtic for current of water is wysg; water is gwy or wy.  The Welsh take a wys, not a piss. And they tend to get, shall we say, on it.  They have a river Wysg, commonly mispronounced by the English as Usk.  As also happened with a river in Devonshire, this name was mispronounced by the Romans, who called both rivers Isca.  The Devonshire stream gradually morphed into the Exe.  It quite naturally flowed through the place which became Exeter. 

Former Exeter publican, Nicholas Binns, with the late Gabriella Bertocchi, photographed by Victoria Straub in 1996

Although his quote came from the lugubrious Peter Ustinov character in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, my esteemed colleague John McGrath glanced nicely through the edge of this history when he called a previous Exeter publican, Nicholas Binns, on the occasion of his retirement, “a river to his people.” 

The Earls of Exeter traditionally lived in Cecil House, opposite the Savoy Hotel on the Strand.  It was on this site that the mighty Exeter Hall was raised and opened in 1831.  This quickly became a meeting-place for non-conformist protestants, the Anti-Slavery Lobby, the opponents of the Corn Laws, the suffragettes, and, well, the YMCA. As its main auditorium  sat 4000, it was also a favourite concert hall for the likes of the revolutionary French composer, Hector Berlioz.

 It was in these rooms that the fathers of this British colony held a meeting at which it was first decided to establish the South Australian Company. Flushed with this proud recent history, our forebears named a suburb and two pubs after it.

As wowser uprisings follow waves of over-indulgence like tides, Exeter Hall also became a favourite hangout for the proho dries of the day.  Enter one George Cruikshank (left), a second-generation political satirist, cartoonist, illustrator and drunk.  The nineteen-year-old Cruikshank had watched his father Isaac perish in a coma after downing a whole bottle of spirits in a drinking competition in 1811, but seemed to take more competitive challenge from this than purposeful consideration of its folly.  He spent the years between this and his 55th swinging in constant exacerbation between merry drunkenness and extreme and audacious creativity. His biographer, Robert Upstone was to call Cruikshank’s 1819 toon of the Prince Regent (later George IV) farting in the parliament’s face “one of the most deliberately offensive and provocative images ever produced.”  Even after the Crown paid him £100 to desist, our man was quick to be back at his feverish assault.

Between public bouts of carousal and long absences from society and sobriety -- “surely no man drank with more fervour and enjoyment, nor carried his liquor so kindly, so merrily” wrote a contemporary -- Cruikshank produced some 10,000 illustrations, etchings, paintings and designs.  He illustrated two books for Charles Dickens -- Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist – and his annual Comic Almanac always sold out.

But at the age of 55, Cruikshank produced The Bottle, a series of eight prints portraying the collapse, through their abuse of alcohol, of a fine lower-middle-class family.  This sold over 100,000 copies in a few weeks. It was reproduced on tea sets and dining plates.  He followed this up with The Drunkard’s Children the next year.  These highly profitable enterprises led to Cruikshank morphing rather quickly, through a new-found moderation in his attitude to the booze, to outright evangelical wowserism.

“An admired, theatrical, highly-effective speaker” writes Upstone, Cruikshank “lectured  tirelessly on temperance … a mass movement … a following of around three million being claimed out of a total population of around 20 million ... The temperance movement, however, were a generally compassionate group, not usually targeting drinkers for anger but instead the distillers and politicians who benefited from the poor’s weakness. ”

William Hogarth, Gin Lane, engraving 35.7 x 30.5cm., London 1751

Cruikshank himself was becoming increasingly perturbed at the links he saw between alcohol and crime.  “There are a number of besettling sins connected with drinking,” he preached, “such as robberies, brutal assaults, garottings, house-breakings, suicide and murder … if we could do away with intoxicating liquors altogether, we might wheel out that dreadful instrument the gibbet … and make a bonfire of it.”

To illustrate his frustration, Cruikshank had a big idea in 1859.  He envisaged The Worship of Bacchus, a a terrifying epic work in oils, encapsulating the decay of Britain in the mood of Hogarth’s Gin Lane with respect to Pieter Breughel the Elder’s surreal The Triumph of Death. Powerpoint and the movies were still a long way off, but Cruikshank dreamed, if you like, of a huge still version of Mickey Rourke doing Charles Bukowski with a cast of thousands in Barfly, delivered, with associated promotional billboards and brochures, live to a hall near you.

The Triumph Of Death - Pieter Bruegel The Elder (c.1525-69), oil on panel

Cruikshank began pencil sketching and watercolouring immediately, but his impatience led to him working harder on the big oil than on the initial watercolour and consequent prints, which would pay his income while he toiled away at the big picture.  This bungling with the schedule caused a delay in the making of the prints, so there were no sales when they were most needed, and anyway, public interest was waning. 

“I have not the vanity to call it a picture,” he told a temperance gathering of the finished work in 1862, “it being merely the mapping out of certain ideas for an especial purpose, and I painted it with a view that a lecturer might use it as so many diagrams … In the centre of this mass is a madman … it may indeed be said that madness prevails over the whole of this mass of worshippers; for excitement from strong drink and drunkenness is in fact temporary insanity.”

When he launched The Worship of Bacchus for public view in August of that year, nobody came.

Exeter Hall, The Strand, 1905. It was demolished in 1907 to make way for the Strand Palace Hotel, which survives to this day.
Mortified, Cruikshank moved the work to Exeter Hall.  As if once again forecasting the movies, it was propped up on the stage.  Even at a monstrous 236 x 406 cm. the work would probably have looked small in that huge empty auditorium:.  However, it turned out that our man’s giant dry vision itself had shrunk not just in the social change from Georgian to Victorian taste, but, as critic Francis Turner Palgrave noted “his high tragic power has been exercised mainly against those abuses by which the poor and the helpless suffer. His sympathies are clearly those of a man of the people for the people; and this excludes drawing room popularity.”

For drawing room, read the private parlours, sitting rooms and counting-houses of the distillers, brewers, lawyers and politicians on the make. There was far too much money at stake, and the public remained very thirsty.

The Worship of Bacchus, etching after the oil painting (236 x 406 cm) by George Cruikshank, London, 1860-2 ... click image for closer look 

After a century hidden away, The Worship of Bacchus was restored and exhibited by the Tate Gallery in 2001, where it resides to this day, and, given the current form of the ascendant wowser wave, initially attracted much more supportive fame than it ever did in the artist’s time.

These waves, however, really do come and go.  Hannah at the Tate tells me that unfortunately, the work is back in the vaults, and Cruikshank’s bio is no longer in the bookshop there, so you’ll just have to trust my account or make the hits I suggest below.

Cruikshank went to his grave leaving a document a lot more pertinent to the nature of the colleagues moored beside you there at the bar.  Buoyed, he professed, by his obsession with fitness and teetotalism, he lived into his 86th year. His will looked well after his widow, Eliza, but provided even more proficiently for a woman called Adelaide Archibald.  This secret mistress lived just around the corner from Cruikshank’s marital home.  Of all the contents of Adelaide’s house, Cruikshank bequeathed to her “all such furniture books wines and household effects belonging to me” adding wry irony to what could have been the perfect acronym for the lass: AA.

For household effects read their ten children, for whom Cruikshank had stacked up capital in trust.

Adelaide’s relationship with her Exeter rarely gets more simple than this.  While the proho dries, the wowsers, and the busybody interferists will always come and go, order a double, and draw it so slowly you can fully digest the fact that there are always more old drunks than old doctors.  And many, indeed, are both.

The Worship of Bacchus is so big and intricate that no normal browser can handle it in any detail.  I have selected the best links to it here:

The Guardian’s Steve Bell takes us to visit The Worship of Bacchus in the vaults of the Tate Gallery.

Fine detail of Bacchus from the British Journal of Psychiatry

Medium and very high resolution images of the etching which was printed for general sale.

One of my all-time favourite prohos is the American evangelist Billy Sunday, whom I was taught to revere without much idea of what he was like. Turns out he was like this (official clip). Although he enjoyed the support of the Almighty, even Billy lost his battle gainst the mighty thirst of America.  You can also see him preaching on prohibition on this scratchy old doco.

The top half of Adelaide's premier thirst emporium, The Exeter Hotel, 246 Rundle Street, East End, drawn by Millie The Kid (Amelia Dickins) at 17 years of age in 1987. And oh yes, just in case you're wondering, that's my grandfather, Pastor Teddy Seymour, below. Having married his daughter, my father, Pastor Jimmy White, followed in Teddy's street-preaching footsteps, being active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Lord's Day Observance Society as well as being close buddies to the likes of Rev. Ian Paisley, Pastor Wally Betts, Dr. Bob Jones Jr., and Dr. Carl McIntyre.  After that dry ebb, I'm a Mercurial wave of the opposite, thanks to Bacchus and Pan.


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