What a Laughing Garreteer Can Learn from Withnail & I

Although it might at first glance seem to be a guide about what not to do, the cult film Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1986) offers wise advice about positive steps that can be taken when one is strapped for cash. Our two eponymous heroes do not realise that a lack of funds is not an excuse for squalor. Their viewers, however, can pick up some useful tips on living the good life in tough times.
[Spoilers warning: If you’ve not seen the film, please do so before reading this.]

Quality Counts
How would we imagine Withnail without his iconic flowing overcoat and his Savile Row tailoring? He may be an alcoholic unemployed actor who is living off his dole payments but Withnail mostly dresses well. See if your local charity shop can offer modern alternatives. Look for good cloth and classic cuts. A trip to the dry cleaner or a session with some wool-friendly hand wash may just rescue a vintage piece.

‘I’, too, realises the importance of a brush-up and keeping up appearances. His symbolic haircut at the end of the film reveals his awareness that he is leaving his world of dingy living and poverty behind as he prepares for his new job.

How would our heroes get to the country – even if by mistake – without a trusty old Jag? It may be lacking a few parts but the car does not break down. Drunken driving is not recommended – we’re not in the Sixties anymore! But the point remains, if you must buy, buy as best you can. And then look after your purchase.

When Things Get Tough, Go to the Pub
The warm environment of the local pub has been a haven for centuries. But chose your pub with care: Withnail and ‘I’ make the mistake of going in to a pub where they’re not welcome with dire consequences. (‘If you hit me it’s murder!’, etc.) They are, of course, desperate since they can’t afford to turn on their heating (a situation most Garreteers will be able to relate to!) so their judgement is impaired (or was that because of the lighter fluid cocktail?).

Their later country pub visit has a better result. The landlord likes the cut of their jib so drinks are on the house! And they get a seat next to the fire. Even a frightening encounter with the local poacher means the later appearance of some food for the pot.

The British pub is an institution. As our heroes demonstrate so well, finding the perfect pub is a process of trial and error. To find one that’s right for you try Beer in the Evening or FancyaPint and read some reviews. (The LG will revisit the theme of pubs in a forthcoming article on ‘value added’ pubs and how you can make the most of your evening or weekend.)

Avoid tea shops. They don’t sell wine of any type.

‘Brush up Your Shakespeare’
Who better than the Bard to help express your deepest human emotions and to enrich your cultural life? He may be preaching his Shakespearean soliloquy to a pair of rain-drenched wolves, but Withnail has found the perfect words to say how he feels.

Hie thyself to a charity shop and get copy of the Complete Works or borrow a DVD of a classic production from your local library for a cheap and cultured night in.

Look after your Garret
Even the most miserable accommodation can be cheered up by a good clean and a bit of provisioning. Think of how that cold dreary country cottage was transformed when Uncle Monty appeared with a dust pan, some logs for the fire, and a hamper of food. Your garret is your kingdom so do it up as best you can and keep it tidy.

Keep your sink clear of washing up. Forks are only for eating. Use the right receptacles for you meals. Coffee should not be served in a soup dish. Keep your standards up – even a garret should be sparkling. It may be humble but it is your castle.

This also works for self-catering holidays. Take along some basic cleaning supplies and at least enough food and drink for your first holiday meal. Planning ahead might mean that you won’t have to find and kill a chicken, meet the (possibly hostile) neighbours, or eat your shoes.

Take a Walk in the Country/Go Fishing
Fresh air has long been recognised as a cure for the doldrums. If the weather permits, take yourself on a hike. If a pub (see above) is involved, even better.

But do not exchange your Wellington boot money for drinks. The boots will be a far better investment.

If you are trying to live off the land, do try to get or borrow the right equipment for the job. Shooting at fish is not efficient.

Ask Your Friends for Help

Can your friends lend a hand by letting you borrow something you need? Not everyone has a rich Uncle Monty to tap but most of us will know someone who will be happy to help in times of trouble. It might just be the case that a conversation can lead to mutual benefits.

Favours don’t have to be the size of the loan of a cottage. Maybe your friend has an unwanted piece of furniture that would suit your place or a television or a computer going cheap due to an upgrade or a house-move. Maybe your friend’s allotment is bursting with fruit or vegetables that you could transform into preserves on the condition that you can keep some of the results. If you don’t ask, you don’t know.

Watch the Film
Withnail & I is a film that only gets better with repeated viewing. You can pick up a copy from a well-known online shop for as little as 1p (plus postage). For more on the film see the BFI at Screen Online where some clips are available (including ‘Fork it!’, ‘Of course he’s the farmer!’, and ‘The finest wines available to humanity’.)

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