Why Bars Matter
‘The pub, like pubs all over the world, was a place for debate and discussion, for the exchange of views and opinions, for argument and for the working out of problems. It was a forum, a parliament, a fountain of wisdom and a cesspool of nonsense, it was a centre for the lost and the despairing, where cowards absorbed dutch courage out of small glasses and leaned against the shiny, scratched and polished mahogany counter for support against the crushing burdens of insignificant lives. Where the disillusioned gained temporary hope, where acts of kindness were considered and murders planned’.
This passage, from Alex la Guma’s A Walk in the Night, the edgiest, coolest novel ever written out of South Africa, sets the stage: the pub, bar, pleasure dome, hole-in-the-wall, zone of liberation, innovation, lust, love, addiction, despair, dumb mistakes.
Why bars matter has everything to do with being an animal. ‘Next to breathing’, says the socio-biologist Desmond Morris, ‘drinking is the most essential of all human activities … for a man deprived of sustenance will die of thirst before he will succumb to starvation’.
We drink to live, yes, but we also drink because, being human, we know the taste of death. And, of course, because alcohol unlike h2o gives us the existential kick we need to feel alive. Alex la Guma knew this all too well. A Walk in the Night has one of the most compellingly sketched drunk souls in literature, with ‘eyes … dull and damp as pieces of gravel in a gutter’. While in the annals of painting who can forget Edgar Degas’ Absinthe Drinker?
Unlike his fellow Impressionists Degas was no soak, but he certainly had the talent to see just how vulnerable humans are. His solitary drinker, upright yet fragile, her eyes locked upon some indefinable horizon, is each and every one of us, conscious, perplexed, and fundamentally clueless.
‘All alone is all we are’, is Kurt Kobain’s finest truism. And yet, while we remain mere bare forked animals, we still cling to the belief in others. Community defines us too, and no community does that better than a community of drinkers.
In the 1930s Tom Harrison set up the Mass Observation Unit (MOU). In his research he concluded that ‘Bars are the only kind of public building used by large numbers of ordinary people where their thoughts and actions are not being in some way arranged for them; in other kinds of public building they are audiences, watchers of political, religious, dramatic, cinematic, instructional or athletic spectacles’, but in bars the surveillance system crashes, the heart slips under the radar, and anything – absolutely anything – can happen.
Which is why in my hood, Observatory – Cape Town, it is the bars such as Café Ganesh and Tagores which the cops raid. Instinctively they just know that these cells are not spaces of distraction, reverence, or numbing awe, but inter-zones in which the living separate themselves from the dead and discover what it is they must become.
Bars, at their best, allow for freedom from thought control. By sustaining the ancient ritual of buying rounds bars also keep society whole. ‘In almost all drinking places, in almost all cultures, the unwritten laws and customs involve some form of reciprocal sharing of drinks’, notes Morris. A mystic glue, drinking is of course also good for the economy; never mind the couples for whom bars are the sticking point, the place to fall in love, break up, or cheat.
As the wise drunkard Ernest Hemingway remarked, ‘Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut’. Except of course that we need to blunder, act the fool, or screw up. Which is why, as another famous soak F. Scott Fitzgerald declared, ‘First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you’.
Master of the gothic horror, Edgar Allan Poe, was not a happy chappy either. ‘I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulant in which I sometimes so madly indulge’, he writes. ‘It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom’. Yes … and no. Benjamin Franklin, the greater sage, preferred to note that ‘In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria’.
But why one drinks is not the focus here; and neither is it how one drinks, rather, it is the place in which we choose to drink that’s the real story; a place as a zone of liberation.
The African Freedom Station in Westdene, Johannesburg is, for me, one such place. It’s the Senegalese sound mixed with reggae, the slow cheap food, the buchu in the whisky, the mezzanine jammed with books, the concreted alley-way and yard where the talk ticks over, and, most of all, the re-mix of people from across the continent, the planet, who are all attuned to the realisation that we were not humans on a spiritual path, but spirits on a human path.
What matters inside the African Freedom Station – built on the bones of Triomf and Sofiatown – and what matters in every other ‘freedom station’, is the human factor; people who see through skin, money, class, caste.
Stepping out at 4am, Fela Kuti still playing, I saw across the still drag two young white boys in vests, shorts, plakkies, fat brown quarts in their hands, a brazier burning between, the fire a glittering cubist puzzle of pine off-cuts. The whole scene was bathed with a fluorescent blue light pouring through the gaping door of a pawn shop. On that unpoliced night, freedom seemed to be everywhere, as surely it must also have seemed to F. Scott Fitzgerald when, thoroughly soaked, he saw the world through ‘the rose coloured glasses of life’.
Back in Cape Town where I live there are two bars in particular which match the likes of the African Freedom Station, Tagores, a tall skinny double storey just big enough for Roald Dahl’s giraffe, and Café Ganesh, which Bianca Lee Coleman described as ‘like a reverse clown car: people keep coming in but where do they go?’
Celebrating its 20th anniversary in November, Ganesh is proof that utopia can thrive on this forsaken earth. A hub for anarchists and accountants, poets and activists, it’s a place where the South African story is rewritten every night. Run by Anthony Mlungisi Baker – whose middle name means ‘to make right’ – Ganesh is the bar the hipsters and the laanies choose to slum in. Neither artisanal nor chillingly cool, Ganesh’s draw card is that it’s the place Steve Bantu Biko dreamt about; a place in Africa which would give the world ‘a human face’.
Famous for its umngqusho – meat, samp, beans – ‘spinach ka beauty’, and its crayfish samosas, Ganesh understands that food makes sense when it stops being a fetish. The kitchen has always been open, the cooking, cleaning, waitering staff indistinguishable. Unlike Cape Town’s sterile CBD, or the ‘gentrinaaied’ neighbouring Woodstock, Observatory, and its pioneering bars such as Tagores and Ganesh, was and remains a safe house. Like Tagores, a music mecca once run by Ntone Edjabe, the Cameroonian brain behind Chimurenga and Chronic, Ganesh, says Baker, is a place ‘for incendiary people’.
Even though ‘Obs is not the bohemian capital it used to be, it’s quietened down, had its wings clipped, it still retains its accepting nature,’ says Baker. It is this principle which bars that matter keep alive. For the gifted young painter Catherine Acholla it’s Mixas, the setting for her powerful acrylic portraits of bar flies.
Ask yourself which bar gives back this freedom and refuses to clip your wings. After all, you’re only human when you are uncensored and the micro-fascist in you has been nuked. Which of course is not an easy thing when, at every turn, you find your liberty in chains, your actions policed, desires aborted, and your need for others soullessly networked. If we desperately need the likes of the African Freedom Station, Mixas, Tagores, or Ganesh, it’s because we must taste life, even when mixed with the acrid aftertaste of tear gas.
Drinking is not a bad thing per se; it simply defines