On The Patience Of Bar Staff

The late Glyn Edwards as the pub landlord in ITV’s ‘Minder’.

I have never worked behind a bar. I suspect that if I had I would not be writing A Drinker’s History of London. I have drunk enough in public to wince at fragmentary memories of erratic behaviour that must have drawn the disdain of bar staff; and perhaps the most painful recollections are the ones where I made an arse of myself in places where I was a regular. But the staff in those establishments were never less than welcoming to me; in fact, I am fortunate enough to have encountered very little unpleasantness from anyone behind any bar anywhere. I think they take one look and identify me as a harmless oaf. However, the famous ‘barred’ list from the Half Moon in Herne Hill describes the essential qualities of troublesome punters with concise and admirable precision:

MICKEY TWO SUITS
VITRIOLIC QUEEN …OOHH IT’S NOT HOXTON
THE GLASWEGIAN
THE GINGER TWAT DRUNK
THAT BLONDE BITCH
CRAZY LINDA
ADAM THE DEAF GUY
STARING PERVERT

… and so on. One imagines that lists similar to this one sit behind the bar of every pub in Britain. Like those who work in the emergency services, bar staff are obliged to engage with the less appealing aspects of humanity; this must do something to you as a person. Bar staff themselves come in all flavours: friendly, taciturn, knowing, chaotic, self-absorbed, shouty, flirtatious, officious, hesitant, hostile – and, on just one occasion in my experience, drunk. Irascible landlords of legend include Norman Balon, proprietor of The Coaches And Horses in Soho, whose snarl of ‘You’re barred!’ became a media catchphrase and was turned into graphic art by the great Michael Heath. Last summer I encountered an interesting contemporary variant of the species when I went with a colleague to a pub in Smithfield: the landlord was inordinately proud of his COVID-19 one-way system, enforcing it with comic rigidity even when the pub was empty. At closing time I chose to leave the deserted bar by the ‘IN’ door and heard a furious and indignant cry follow me out into the street: ‘Wrong way!’ – to which I replied, with glee: ‘I KNOW!‘ But today I am concerned with the more urbane type of barkeep; more Gaston of ‘The French’ than Norman of ‘Norman’s’. Those imperturbable professionals who facilitate their patrons’ addictions and endure their conversations with neither stern disapproval or false bonhomie. These men and women are the quiet heroes of our drinking culture.

A souvenir of Seventies London: Tom Baker tells Jeffrey Bernard about a typical day and is photographed by the great Ken Griffiths in The French House with Gaston Berlemont behind the bar. Sunday Times Magazine, 1978. The type is small but is just about legible and I urge everyone to read it.

Fiction offers some well-observed examples. In Evelyn Waugh’s novella Work Suspended (published in 1943 and set in the period just before WW2) the narrator, Plant, is taken to a seedy club off Wimpole Street by ‘Atwater’, a man who recently ran over and killed Plant’s father. Before they enter, Atwater explains that he is known at the club as ‘Norton’.

The room into which he led me was entirely empty. It was at once bar, lounge, and dining room, but mostly bar, for which a kind of film-set had been erected, built far into the room, with oak rafters, a thatched roof, a wrought iron lantern and an inn-sign painted in mock heraldry with quartered bottles and tankards. 
‘Jim!’ Cried Atwater.
‘Sir.’ A head appeared above the bar. ‘Well, Mr Norton, we haven’t seen you for a long time. I was just having my bit of dinner.’
‘May I interrupt that important function and give my friend here something in the nature of a snorter’ – this was a new and greatly expanded version of Atwater the good scout. ‘Two of your specials, please, Jim.’ To me, ‘Jim’s specials are famous.’ To Jim, ’This is one of my best pals, Mr. Plant.’ To me, ‘There’s not much Jim doesn’t know about me.’ To Jim, ‘Where’s the gang?’
‘They don’t seem to come here like they did, Mr Norton. There’s not the money about.’
‘You’ve said it.’ Jim put two cocktails on the bar before us. ‘I presume, Jim, that since this is Mr Plant’s first time among us, in pursuance of the old Wimpole custom, these are on the house?’
Jim laughed rather anxiously. ‘Mr Norton likes his joke.’
‘Joke? Jim, you shame me before my friends. But never fear. I have found a rich backer; if we aren’t having this with you, you must have one with us.’ 
The barman poured himself something from a bottle which he kept for the purpose on a shelf below the bar, and said, ‘First today,’ as we toasted one another. Atwater said, ‘It’s one of the mysteries of the club what Jim keeps in that bottle of his.’ I knew; it was what every barman kept, cold tea, but I thought it would spoil Atwater’s treat if I told him.
Jim’s ‘special’ was strong and agreeable.

… and the pair proceed to spend the rest of the afternoon getting smashed. 

Another personal favourite of mine is Ambrose, the hotel barman who features in Alan Ayckbourn’s Private Fears In Public Places, and who has been co-opted as ‘best friend’ by the alcoholic Dan. This is how the pair are introduced, at the start of Scene Two: 

Dan: Very quiet today isn’t it Ambrose?
Ambrose: Very quiet, sir.
Dan: Why’s it so quiet? Do you know?
Ambrose: No idea sir. Tuesday, possibly. 
Dan: Oh yes. 
Ambrose: Always slow on Tuesday for some reason, this hotel.
Dan: Wonder why that is?
Ambrose: no idea, sir.
Dan: You’d think, Tuesday. People would be up and about by then. I mean, Monday. You can understand a Monday. 
Ambrose: Oh yes.
Dan: Being the day after Sunday, you know. I mean, Saturday night and all that. You’d expect that on Mondays. But Tuesday – I can’t think why – [slight pause.] Did you say it was Tuesday?

(Ayckbourn’s London-set play was turned into a film by, of all people, Alain Resnais, he of Last Year In Marienbad, to create an interesting Anglo-French, London-Parisian, cultural hybrid. Dare I say it evidences deeper emotions than the original play?)

Dan introduces his date to the hotel barman in Alain Resnais’s French language film of Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Private Fears In Public Places’, 2007.

I think that the reason these two examples resonate with me is down to the uneasy feeling that I am that man: the man on the ‘civilian’ side of the bar, boring the likes of the exemplary, impassive Bernard (of ‘Le Tartin’ and ‘Manouche’) and others of his trade. I do not know – and do not want to know – what Bernard really thought of me, my friends, my dates. But, for all his good manners, I think I can guess. And I still wince at the elaborate courtesy of the Polish landlord of that pub in Waterloo, the one where I fell asleep after an afternoon of drinking with colleagues. I awoke at the start of the evening session, long abandoned by my companions, to feel the landlord gently patting me on the shoulder as he said, with evident concern, ‘You can’t sleep here.’ Even more tragic in recollection is the flirting; the hopeless, desperate attempts at banter with hordes of pretty barmaids in pubs in practically every postcode in London. Now, way too old to be a plausible flirt, I have been forced to retreat to a position of gnomic detachment: sitting alone at a corner table, ostentatiously reading a small-talk defying tome (Our Bones Are Scattered, Andrew Ward’s epic account of the Cawnpore massacres, remains the ultimate conversation-deterrent), I resist commonplace saloon-bar chat in case that nice girl who is collecting the empties says something and I immediately make an arse of myself yet again. Mind you, Christmas is coming up and – Omicon variant notwithstanding – I fully expect to engage in festive drinking that could well result in preposterous and embarrassing loquacity on my part. You have been warned.

See also: An Evening With Harold Pinter
and: Wine Bar Nostalgia

Vanished Pubs of The Old Kent Road

Doomed gin palace, Old Kent Road, 1989.

‘The most noticeable feature in the Old Kent Road is the number of public-houses, each with its swinging sign and drinking-trough for horses.’ From The Old Kent Road chapter in Old and New London, Edward Walford, 1878.

The Old Kent Road remains one of the strangest of all London roads, as well as one of the oldest; it incorporates part of Watling Street, that Roman highway which went all the way from Dover to the wild Welsh Marches. A walk along The Old Kent Road today – a fairly short trot between New Cross and the Bricklayers’ Arms roundabout – is impressive by virtue of the vast contrasts in tone and scale. On the one hand you have the residue of the massive gasworks, the acrid colours of the retail sheds, relics of failed residential developments (especially The Aylesbury Estate, which looms like an abandoned supertanker above the artificial water meadows of Burgess Park), the yawning dual-carriageway and the endless stream of traffic thereon … yet there are occasional bright spots amidst the post-industrial wastes. Repurposed evangelical churches in former office units or light engineering premises promise to ‘set the captives free‘, whilst neighbouring buildings are home to equally anomalous nightclubs. The rare and beautiful Licensed Victuallers’ Almshouses (1827) still graces Asylum Road, even if it is now offset by a supermarket car park, and unexpected oases of genteel villas and terraces form tributaries off the churning thoroughfare. And there is real street life to be found along the OKR’s northern stretch, with busy independent shops which proliferate as you come within sight of the Bricklayers’ Arms roundabout. That end of the Old Kent Road has a strangely foreign quality; on a summer afternoon one could almost be in an unreconstructed suburb of Miami or Los Angeles, whereas on a winter afternoon one is reminded of Cleveland or Detroit. This may have something to do with its untended nature; even the Holloway Road doesn’t look this abandoned by civic authority. Perhaps any road in any city, left to its own devices, ends up looking slightly American.

Where Henry boxed and David rehearsed and generations of Londoners drank … the building that was The Thomas a Becket, now a Vietnamese restaurant, ‘Viet Quan’, November 2021.

Like the Strand, The Old Kent Road is a ghost of what it once was.The Bricklayers’ Arms roundabout takes its name from the railway goods depot that drove the development of local industry from the 1850s onwards, making this bit of Southwark a sort of land-locked counterpart of the great Victorian docks. Given its industrial vitality and importance as a route into town from the coast, it’s no wonder there were so many places to drink, as Walford observes in Old And New London. But you are hard pressed to find a boozer hereabouts today, although there are visible ruins of a lost drinking culture. On the western side of the crossroads of the OKR and Albany Street is an ornate Victorian building which was once one of the most iconic (there, I’ve said it) of all London pubs: The Thomas a Becket. Like The Angel in St. Giles, this was one of those pubs that preserves a link to an older London, although it’s hard to feel anything but dismay at the present condition of the locality. The Thomas a Becket premises occupies a site associated with an ancient hostelry, St. Thomas à Waterings, which catered to the needs of pilgrims setting off for Canterbury; it was the first stop on the way out of London and is referenced by Chaucer. (Given its city limits location, this crossroads was also a place of execution, especially notable for politically-motivated disembowellings under Henry VIII, killings that would have happened more-or-less where the big Tesco stands today.) The Victorian pub that bore the name of the martyr eventually morphed into a place of homage for entirely 20th century reasons. This Thomas a Becket was famous as a boxers’ pub, with a gym on the first floor: Henry Cooper patronised this gym, along with various sixties gangland soldiers (also James Fox, preparing for his role as Chas in Performance). The late Dave Prowse (aka Darth Vader) was photographed meeting Muhammed Ali here. Also, David Bowie rehearsed his ‘Spiders From Mars’ band here in the early Seventies. Since the pub closed a decade or so ago the building has been variously an estate agent’s premises, an art gallery and its current iteration is as a Vietnamese restaurant – possibly a very good Vietnamese restaurant, I cannot say, but it is a pity that this pub, of all pubs, is no more.

Ghost pub …

I recently spent a couple of freezing afternoons tramping up and down the Old Kent Road. For many years the OKR was a place I engaged with on a daily basis, as I either lived near it or utilised it as a means of driving to and from town. I am still intrigued by its blasted quality, by its epic dereliction and anomalous fragments of elegance. The image at the top of the page is a photo I took in the late eighties of the crumbling facade of a Victorian gin palace, a fragment of costermongers’ Victoriana which tottered above the traffic until it was finally swept away in the early 2000s. (That photo was taken only a few years after the goods depot finally closed in the early Eighties, contributing greatly to the decline of the area.) A walk around the locality today offers evidence of other ghost pubs; the building in the photo above is one such, now re-purposed as flats. But this can be no surprise, you don’t need me to tell you that pubs are dying all over the country as we forsake social drinking in favour of thrashing our livers in the comfort of our own homes. The least worst option for The Thomas a Becket would be to be made over as a gastro-pub, but I’m guessing that the area won’t support that socially aspirant catering model. Not yet anyway; since the last time I visited the OKR a few blocks have disappeared and hoardings promising residential opportunities have appeared in their place. Dalston-type gentrification seems unlikely, but who knows? I confess that for all my disdain of the untrammelled greed that is taking its toll of so many London neighbourhoods, one can’t avoid the feeling that something needs to happen here. Unfortunately, I suspect that the big residential development proclaimed on a hoarding by the old gasworks will be as chilly and faceless as the new blocks on the site of the old Heygate estate. We’re back to J.G. Ballard again. But amidst the tundra of the Old Kent Road there is an interesting cockney survivor, a landmark on the corner with Trafalgar Avenue, where the traffic peels off towards downtown Peckham: the Lord Nelson is a mid-Victorian pub which remains defiantly open for business, although this is not automatically apparent. On a Thursday afternoon in November the pub appeared to be shut but my colleague (CJ of Sediment notoriety) persisted in his quest for a light half and we found ourselves in a genuine, time warped London boozer. A vaulted hall of a bar, a snooker table in an bleakly-lit adjacent room, a small stage bedecked with tinsel, ready for whatever live entertainments the landlord had corralled for the evening’s punters, and a small cluster of daytime regulars. Collectively, their faces bore the traces of hundreds of years’ worth of drinking in this pub. This is as authentic as it gets. And it is probably doomed. Enjoy it while it lasts. Altogether now

One Man And His Liver

Elizabeth Taylor visits the set of ‘Villain’, 1971.

I became very drunk later and shouted a lot. At E. [Elizabeth Taylor.] I don’t know what about. Just plain sloshed.
Richard Burton diary entry from 1966.

Burton arrived drunk and stayed drunk throughout the film.
From RICH: The Life of Richard Burton by Melvyn Bragg, describing Burton’s condition during the making of The Klansman.

There were some murmurings of disquiet after last week’s entry: too much food, not enough booze, I was told. As a way of making amends, I would like to take a quick look at the later career of Richard Burton, which gives us an opportunity to drink the green room dry. Not the glorious early career at Stratford or the Old Vic or on the BBC Third Programme, or his achievements on film in the fifties and early sixties (Look Back In Anger, Becket, Night Of The Iguana, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold) …. No, we’re looking at the fag end of his imperial ‘Burton and Taylor’ phase, a maelstrom of fame, excess, a sea of drink, and a lot of ‘failed art’ (to borrow John Waters’s comment on Boom! – see below). Melvyn Bragg’s affectionate biography of Burton offers a fair degree of mitigation for the shambles of his later career. Bragg adduces Burton’s problems with sciatica and problems with his many wives (and of course E.T. in particular) as significant factors, but ultimately can’t avoid the conclusion that he acted badly in so many bad films because he was an alcoholic. This is not quite the blindingly obvious assertion that it appears to be for the simple reason that some legendary thespian soaks were (past tense: who could get away with it now?) very good at staying sober – or at least appearing to be sober – when working. But Burton’s screen performances were all-too-often occluded by drink.

My interest in Burton was piqued because someone I follow on Instagram recently posted a series of fabulously lurid stills from Bluebeard, a 1972 Europudding starring Burton and a trolley’s worth of doomed cheesecake. Helpfully, as is often the case with unloved films financed by bankrupt companies and officially hidden from view, some enterprising person has posted the entire thing on YouTube. I tried watching it but didn’t get far. All you really need to know is that the filmmakers attached a blue false beard to Burton’s face, which no doubt contributed to his cosmically weary – or simply embarrassed – performance. From Bluebeard I went back a few years, to Boom!a film from 1968 which features 40-something Burton playing ‘a young poet’ alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Noel Coward, all three seemingly determined to defecate upon their reputations. (The script derives from an unsuccessful play by Tennessee Williams and was directed by Joseph Losey, thus making it a significant turd on their CVs as well.) That stupefying film seems to mark the beginning of the end for ‘Dick and Liz’, in professional terms at least; they were to remain the most famous, probably the richest, couple in the world for a few years yet. And Burton went on making bad films. The Klansman, a 1974 film about the Ku-Klux Klan, appears – if the YouTube clips are anything to go by – to be Burton’s absolute nadir. If he looks hungover in Bluebeard, in The Klansman he appears to have suffered a stroke. A reporter for The Chicago Tribune Magazine described Burton (not yet fifty) on set: The once robust and forceful face has a powdery pallor. The irises are bright blue but the white are deeply red, with only flecks of white. On his face is a dazed grin as if he’s been shocked awake under those heavy lights in the midst of surgery.’ This was hardly surprising, given that he was on at least a couple of bottles of vodka a day at that point. This clip shows Burton attempting to perform an action scene when he is clearly incapacitated and has command of only one arm. Declared in imminent danger of death, he was taken to hospital where he spent six weeks drying out; and it was around this time Taylor served him with papers for divorce. The Klansman also starred Lee Marvin, no-one’s idea of a blushing flower yet even he was struck by the recklessness of his co-star’s drinking. Marvin offered a compassionate view: ‘The man’s suffering. Who knows what it is?’ (Incidentally, O.J. Simpson also features in The Klansman; in a strangely prophetic scene, glimpsed in the trailer, he holds Burton’s character as a hostage in a car.) Burton himself offered varying reasons for why he drank, including a primal compulsion he attributed to his Celtic roots, and the gnawing suspicion that acting was, for a man, an inherently homosexual pursuit. This last seems to have been a real anxiety and Gore Vidal is quoted as hearing Burton deliver ‘an extravagant aria’ as to why he, Richard Burton, wasn’t a homosexual. Vidal claimed to cut him off with ‘Who cares Richard? Let’s talk about dermatology. Now there’s a subject!

Burton and friend in ‘Bluebeard’. There are many things that could be said about that beard but I have decided that I am not going to say any of them.

This last point is intriguing when viewing Burton’s attempts at playing gay characters. Staircase is a disastrous attempt to cast Burton and Rex Harrison as a pair of ageing hairdressers; but Villain, from 1971, is really interesting. Burton plays a Ronnie Kray-like gangster (he loves his mum) in drab early seventies London. Burton is very entertaining in a film that plays like a sort of feature-length episode of The Sweeney, and is none the worse for it. Burton’s camp menace is genuinely unnerving, and the viewer is especially fearful for pretty young Ian McShane who plays his boyfriend. It is a sort of pre-Thatcher precursor of The Long Good Friday, and in recent years its reputation has grown in stature. But the turkeys kept on coming, irredeemable dreck like The Assassination of Trotsky (Losey again), Hammersmith Is Out (which for a long time I thought was a La Cage Aux Folles-type comedy set in west London), a redundant remake of Brief Encounter, and so on. Towards the end, his drinking under some sort of control, there were occasional bright spots, like his turn in Equus, recreating his Broadway performance as the play’s psychiatrist, the title role in Tony Palmer’s biographical mini-series Wagner, and his last film was a well-received version of Orwell’s 1984. He died in the real 1984, a mere fifty- eight years old. Burton’s career is what happens when mega-success meets a monumental addiction to drink. But Burton’s diaries have been published, and they are confessional, insightful and frequently, inadvertently, hilarious. Domestic life with Elizabeth Taylor is the stuff of situation comedy. Sometimes the excess is of a weirdly suburban variety, e.g.: ‘Both E. and I went mad last night and started eating Callard and Bowsers Liquorice Fingers. I must have eaten a pound or so …‘. (This last is worthy of John Shuttleworth.) Elsewhere, the diaries can be genuinely moving. Above all, you like the man. The comments on the business of acting are invaluable; and perhaps the most touching passage is one in which he praises a fellow performer, a man who he declares – with a touch of awe – to be the best actor in the world: Michael Hordern.

Promo material for ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’; Richard Burton sharing a bottle of wine with his favourite colleague.

See also: TV Drunks