The past, as I feel I must have said before, is another country: they eat and drink things differently there. I’ve been rereading Anthony Powell’s Afternoon Men. which has been reprinted in a new edition, with a foreword by Ed Park. That's it above with a spanking new cover: some of the previous covers have been frankly lacklustre.
The title, as Powell indicates since it appears in the book’s epigram, comes from Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy - … “as if they had heard that enchanted horn of Astolpho, that English duke in Ariosto, which never sounded but all his auditors were mad, and for fear ready to make away with themselves … they are a company of giddy-heads, afternoon men …”
So yes, in general terms, it’s not hard to grasp what an afternoon man is, somebody with time on his hands who has nothing better to do in the afternoons than drink. This applies to women in Powell’s novel too. For what it’s worth, I’m one of those people who finds that afternoon drinking is a one-way ticket to deep melancholy, if not downright suicidal depression.
But I suspect there’s more lurking in that title. Afternoon Men was published in 1931, when British licensing laws were in full force, and pubs had to close in the afternoon. Strict opening (and more importantly closing) hours had been introduced in Britain in World War One to ensure that the workers went back to the munitions factories after lunch. So if you wanted to get a drink in the afternoon in London in 1931, or in fact in the afternoon in London right up to the mid-1980s, you had to go to some private drinking club, whether high or low. In my mercifully limited experience, private drinking clubs, especially in London, whether high or low, whether in the afternoon or any other time, are deeply melancholy places. It's hard to imagine the suave Mr. Powell hanging out in them, but no doubt he did, regarding it as "material."
William Atwater, Afternoon Men’s “hero,” finds himself in some kind of drinking establishment (not in the afternoon, I think, though it’s not absolutely specified) waiting for his “date” to arrive. The bar is empty expect for two young men who “looked like perhaps quietly dressed pimps.” The young men talk to the barman.
“How’s George today?”
“How’s yourself, sir?”
The first one said, “That was a good one you mixed for me on Thursday, captain.”
“One of our specials, sir?”
“That Old Etonian.”
“It’s a good cocktail, sir.”
“I should think it was a good cocktail, George.”
“Feel a bit lit after it, sir?”
The young man leant across the bar, and said:
“I’ll tell you this, George. I was squiffy after two of them. It’s a fact.”
He said it confidentially, as one might say: “The gift of tongues descended on me last night after months of fasting.” Atwater ate the chips.
An Old Etonian cocktail, I now know, is made with 1.5 oz gin , 1.5 oz Lillet blanc, 2 dashes orange bitters; 2 dashes Crème de Noyaux. In other words, it’s a rather sweetened up martini, tasting of almonds. Ah me. The Old Etonian cocktail may have looked like this (the image is from cocktailhunter.com):
We can say with some certainty that the two men who looked like perhaps quietly dressed pimps were not Old Etonians. Anthony Powell, of course, was. I suspect it might be considered bad form for a true Old Etonian to drink an Old Etonian cocktail, but I’m not an expert of these things. Atwater himself in the scene above drinks Martinis, and insists that they be dry, although as we know, even a 1931 dry martini was likely to be much sweeter than today’s version.
The woman Atwater is waiting for, Susan Nunnery, rings to say she isn’t coming, but Atwater meets her a few days later at a party she throws.
Susan was standing by the door holding a cocktail shaker in her hand.
“Hullo,” said Atwater.
“Have a drink,” she said.
She gave him a drink. It was not very strong and quite nasty.
Timeless stuff, eh?.
I discover incidentally, that the Italian edition of Afternoon Men translates the title as Oumini Da Cocktail, (The Cocktail Men) and lord knows it must have been a tricky thing to render into Italian, but that title very subtly, and somehow crucially, misses the point. I suppose Teste vertiginose (that’s babelfish’s translation of “giddy-heads”) would have been out of the question.