October 31, 2014

Ride the White Horse


The White Horse Tavern (via Wikipedia)

The White Horse Tavern (via Wikipedia)

This week would have marked the hundredth birthday of Dylan Thomas had he not drank himself to death at the age of 39 at The White Horse Tavern. Yet, The White Horse Tavern survives and is still serving. Some even consider it one of the preeminent loci of literary alcoholism, which is not surprising seeing as that Anais Nin, Hunter S. Thomson, Norman Mailer and James Baldwin (who were probably arguing about something with someone, though probably not each other) were all known to booze within the Tavern’s walls.

But, now, the White Horse is a very different place than it was in the 1950s when Thomas was drinking his last. It is filled with noisy televisions and button-downed professionals. Few if any writers frequent the bar for more than novelty (though some might try to upholding Thomas’s tradition of drinking 18 drams). The sad fact is: with faces lining the bar illuminated by smartphones, it’s unlikely to find anyone reading let alone writing at the White Horse these days.

Not to sound like too much of a Luddite, but…the proliferation and portability of screens has nudged the public space for writing gently into that good night. Crack open a book on the subway, and one’s eyes are constantly pulled toward brightly-colored Tetris variations. Open a notebook at the White Horse or any other bar, and nonplused glances and jibes will abound. The act of writing has been banished to the most private corners of one’s apartment, or, for a lucky few, to the office. The idea is not novel: the space public writing has disappeared.

Perhaps it is nothing to be mourned. Virginia Woolf considered writing to be an intimately private activity. And one could always write in the public library, if the construction of the Rose Reading Room is ever finished. But one has to wonder if “And death will have no domain” would have a slightly different meter had its composition not been greased by the taps of the White Horse, but by a homely pot of tea. My question is this: how does the lack of public space for writing effect writing itself? Does a diversity of sensation and stimuli in public space not inspire many writers, fertilizing their work?

Thomas wrote to his wife of New York: “I have no idea what on earth I am doing here in the very loud, mad middle of the last mad Empire on Earth.” So, on the centenary of Thomas’s birth, we ask, how loud and mad have our public spaces become?