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Book Review: I Went to the Worst of Bars Hoping to Get Killed. But All I Could Do Was to Get Drunk Again


Book Review I Went to the Worst of Bars Hoping to Get Killed. But All I Could Do Was to Get Drunk Again By Ciaran Og Arnold Reviewed by Colin Pantall Photobooks based around bars, clubs and pubs figure large in lists of the best photobooks ever made. The mix of music, alcohol, and confined spaces all mix to create worlds that follow their own orbit.

 
The worst of bars, the best of books
A Review by Colin Pantall

I Went to the Worst of Bars Hoping to Get Killed. But All I Could Do Was to Get Drunk Again
Text by Ciaran Og Arnold.
Mack, 2015. 76 pp., 43 color illustrations, 6¼x8¾x½".


Photobooks based around bars, clubs and pubs figure large in lists of the best photobooks ever made. The mix of music, alcohol, and confined spaces all mix to create worlds that follow their own orbit. Books such as Café Lehmitz, Billy Monk, and Krass Clement’s Drum all feature small communities in closed spaces. Making meaningful pictures in these kinds of environments is a rare skill. There is horrible light, little control, and pictures have to be taken (or set up) amidst a background of visual noise; all the time there has to be a distillation of experience that preserves some sense of what it is like to be in this club, this pub, this bar. It’s not easy.


In Drum, the limitations of space and community were echoed by the limitations of time. The book was made over one night, on 3 and a half rolls of film and several pints of Guinness. It shows rural Irishmen drinking in a bare-walled bar, a pub made simply for drinking and not much else. In the book, Clement focusses on one man, a lonely man who sits alone, who never talks to anybody, whose gaze will never be met.

It’s an image of Irish hospitality that is as far from the advertising ideal that the Irish Tourist Board would have us imagine. The Guinness isn’t quite so foamy, there’s no traditional music, or laughter from bright-eyed young things, oysters aren’t slipping off the seaweed and it’s all in a black and white world where no-one’s dancing.

I Went to the Worst of Bars Hoping to Get Killed. But All I Could Do Was to Get Drunk Again. By Ciaran Og Arnold. MACK, 2015.

A few years back the English luxury clothing brand, Burberry had become the design of choice for some of the less reputable sections of the English soccer-going public. Whenever footage of soccer hooliganism was aired on TV, there would be a sea of Burberry caps (made under licence) bouncing around the TV screen. Burberry had become a ‘chav’ label.

So Burberry ran a campaign that would re-assert its profile as a classy label. It succeeded admirably, increased its turnover and stopped being associated with the most frightful of poor people. Actually, it’s still an incredibly naff label worn by incredibly frightful people, but the people are rich and that is all that matters ultimately.

If Ireland ever gets sick of having too many tourists coming to kiss the Blarney Stone and drink in Temple Bar, it could do worse than doing as Burberry did and run a negative campaign designed at reducing tourist numbers. So rather than having bars filled with warm light and smiling faces, they could get Krass Clement’s murk-filled interiors to kill the market.

I Went to the Worst of Bars Hoping to Get Killed. But All I Could Do Was to Get Drunk Again. By Ciaran Og Arnold. MACK, 2015.

But what if there is still a semblance of touristic life left, if a few visitors (sheep farmers from Yorkshire maybe?) still come who find the notion of Drum’s desolate pub and lonely old man attractive? Then you need something even darker, grimmer and danker.

And that’s where Ciarán Óg Arnold’s first book comes in. It’s set around the bars of a small Irish town in County Galway and it’s horrible. You don’t want to go there. No harps or flutes or Riverdancing here. There is just desolation and hopelessness dipped in testosterone and left to brew until the fists go hard and the eyes flash mad.

I Went to the Worst of Bars Hoping to Get Killed. But All I Could Do Was to Get Drunk Again. By Ciaran Og Arnold. MACK, 2015.

It’s a great book (it was published by Mack for winning the Krasna Krauz first book award) with a very long title taken from a Buskowski story; I went to the worst of bars hoping to get killed. but all I could do was get drunk again.

The book was shot in Arnold’s hometown of Ballinasloe, a place hard-hit by Ireland’s economic implosion. Like many others, Arnold found himself out of work and out of luck in a place where one of the few things that emotionally incapable young men can do is get drunk and fight. And that is what the book shows, dead end lives in dead end towns where drinking, desperation and depression come together in a grey-lined raincloud of a book.

I Went to the Worst of Bars Hoping to Get Killed. But All I Could Do Was to Get Drunk Again. By Ciaran Og Arnold. MACK, 2015.

There are different kinds of pictures that run throughout the book. There are pictures that show the surrounding area. It’s bleak, empty streets and empty country shot on cheap film that makes the grass, the sheep and the flowers look worn out and shabby. There are bar interiors, grainy tables with grainy banquettes under grainy red light that make you want to leave before you even arrive. But this is a book about men and their failures, their incoherence, and their inabilities; there are the defeated, drunk old ones who smoke and stare and point madly at the cameras, and there are the young ones. They square up on Ballinasloe streets, hands and fingers side of frame urging restraint, saying “go easy” but to no avail. We see fighters with their fists up and we see them come together, caught in embracing clinches that are half love and half hate.

And then on the sidelines are the women, all dressed up with nowhere to go, and from Arnold’s offering, no real good choices to go there with. The book is summed up by one picture of a young girl with her hair tied back and her eyes big and red. Disappointment is written into her face and is etching its way onto her mouth. There’s not much hope here for anyone and she knows that things aren’t going to get any better. Maybe that’s why everyone leaves.

I Went to the Worst of Bars Hoping to Get Killed. But All I Could Do Was to Get Drunk Again. By Ciaran Og Arnold. MACK, 2015.
The pictures in the book are bad and ugly, like Richard Billingham’s (an inspiration for Arnold) but without the glamour. And the book is rough as you like, a small soft-covered number with coarse paper where, in keeping the subject of the book, the blacks don’t go beyond a dark and dirty grey.

That’s Arnold’s Ireland and in photobook world, I’ll take it very happily. In the, er, real world though, I’m off to a different Ireland; a coastal one that comes complete with plates of oysters, frothing Guinness and where the band starts playing as the sun goes down. Ah, the crack of it all.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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