Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of those carefully time-locked London pubs where one is invited to experience a idealised ‘heritage’ drinking experience. The Cheese was rebuilt after the Great Fire and escaped the Victorians, the Blitz and post-war redevelopment and has survived into the 21st century as an authentically preserved/recreated old London boozer. The building is genuinely old, and its basement bars may once have formed part of the crypt of a Carmelite monastery. All right, the interior is a re-creation, as the pub was burned out in World War 2, an incident caused by a careless electrician rather than the Luftwaffe. At time of writing, the only beer on offer in the Cheese is Sam Smith’s, a rather dense, tawny ale brewed in Yorkshire; its main appeal is that it is remarkably cheap, but it is perhaps no coincidence that Samuel Smith Brewery Co. currently lay claim to several other historic London pubs: these include the legendary Fitzrovia hangouts The Wheatsheaf and The Fitzroy Tavern, and The Princess Louise in High Holborn.
Y.O. Cheese has a glut of writers associated with it, from Samuel Johnson (allegedly) and Charles Dickens, up to Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. It remained a writers’ pub even in the 1980s, a hangout for those journos who still worked on Fleet Street even as the newspapers began to leave. But my focus today is the 1890s, when The Cheshire Cheese was home to The Rhymers’ Club, an austere flower of the Aesthetic movement which met in the pub from the 1890s up to 1904. The likes of Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Arthur Symons, Richard Le Gallienne, Ernest Rhys and other tremulous young men would meet once a month in a top floor room and share new poems over drinks and clay pipes. (They usually met at the Cheese, but not always; other venues, including The Cafe Royal, were sometimes used for the Club’s purpose.) The group aimed at the creation of a literary salon in the contemporary Parisian style (with Stephane Mallarme and, in particular, Paul Verlaine as their lodestars), but the decidedly mixed ability of the poet-members means that The Rhymers’ Club is remembered for its ambition rather than any lasting corporate accomplishment. But there were some real talents, notably Dowson whose great ‘Cynara’ poem made its debut before the poets of The Club in 1890. The Cheshire Cheese was where Wilde came to hear John Gray, the model for Dorian Gray and quite possibly Wilde’s lover, read some lines of verse. And it was through Rhymers’ Club member Lionel Johnson that he first met Lord Alfred Douglas, a meeting that he may have regretted later. (In Richard Ellmann’s great biography of Wilde, Douglas is described as ‘even better looking than John Gray, and even less talented.‘)
The Wilde connection has probably, retrospectively, elevated the company somewhat; visiting poet Arthur Lynch characterised the Rhymers as ‘a small assemblage of poetically pious young men’, and went on to observe that on the occasion he visited the club he felt that the only real outcasts present were himself and the waiter. And the tendency of the original members who survived past 1900 and into old age to mythologise their own pasts is glimpsed in this excerpt from the memoirs of Richard Le Gallienne, here ‘fresh from Liverpool’, describing a visit to Lionel Johnson’s rooms in Grays Inn shortly after meeting him for the first time at the Cheese:
‘I hope you drink absinthe Le Gallienne – for I have nothing else to offer you.’ Absinthe! I had just heard of it. As a drink mysteriously sophisticated and even Satanic. […] I had never tasted it then, nor has it ever been a favourite drink of mine. But in the ‘90s it was spoken of with a self-conscious sense of one’ s being desperately wicked, suggesting diabolism and nameless iniquity. Did not Paul Verlaine drink it all the time in Paris! – and Oscar Wilde and his cronies, it was darkly hinted, drank it nightly at the Café Royal.
As it happened, Johnson was Lord Alfred Douglas’s cousin and was of the view that Oscar had corrupted ‘Bosie’ a sentiment Johnson committed to verse in a poem dedicated to Wilde, To The Destroyer Of A Soul. The poem opens with the line: ‘I hate you with a necessary hate.‘ Wilde made no comment on the poem; but Johnson, who was both an alcoholic and a midget, was waspishly characterised by the great dramatist thus: ‘Every morning at 11 o’clock you can see him come out of the Café Royal and hail the first passing perambulator.’
The Cheese was convenient for Rhymers’ Club stalwart Arthur Symons, who had digs in Fountain Court just off the Strand, rooms that Symons shared for a while with W.B. Yeats. Yeats left an account of an evening at Fountain Court when Dowson dropped in accompanied by a prostitute known in the poet’s circle as ‘Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’. She was called that because she charged more if she was fully made-up and well turned out. In Yeats’s account, ‘Penny Plain’ wearying of some insufferable bore’s pontificating, took all her clothes off and sat by the fire, unnerving the pompous ass who was holding court but delighting Dowson and his energetically heterosexual pals. She delighted in telling the young lions of her sexual adventures, one of which involved an old man whose fetish was to see her strangle a pair of pigeons, which he would bring to her in a little basket. She interspersed her anecdotes by disappearing into a bedroom with a writer or two, only Yeats and Symons refraining from sampling the delights on offer. Penny Plain must have appreciated the company: by this time many of the prostitutes who worked the Strand were wary of coming into the Temple, as they considered the resident writers and law students to be dangerous lunatics. By a charming coincidence, Symons’s next-door neighbour in Fountain Court was Henry Havelock Ellis who was at that time busy writing his pioneering study Sexual Inversion. (According to a friend of Ernest Dowson’s, Penny Plain didn’t do too badly in life; she ended up married to a rich brewing magnate.)
The Romantic ’90s, as Le Gallienne’s memoir has it, seemed to come to an abrupt end with Oscar Wilde’s arrest in 1895, followed by the deaths of many of the protagonists of London’s ‘Decadent’ or ‘Symbolist’ movement. Johnson lived just long enough to write a memorial poem for Dowson on his death in 1900, but was himself dead just two years later, dying in the most unfortunate – albeit appropriate – circumstances. Broke and seriously alcoholic, he suffered a drink-related stroke in a Fleet Street pub. By the time Ezra Pound visited the Cheese for a valedictory event in 1910, the Rhymers’ Club seemed to represent an idea of poetic expression that was totally moribund, and Pound demonstrated his modernist credentials by eating two red tulips during a recital by Yeats. In his poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Pound satirised the elder poets associated with the pub and the Decadent scene as a whole:
For two hours he talked of Gallifet; Of Dowson; of the Rhymers’ Club;
Told me how Johnson (Lionel) died By falling from a high stool in a pub …
Dowson found harlots cheaper than hotels …
I have, in the company of a couple of other Dowson aficionados, visited the private room at the top of the Cheese where the Rhymers used to meet. No longer panelled and lit by candles, it’s just a room for hire in a pub, done out in standard 21st century catering décor. No chance of summoning the ghosts of the great dead now. You can, however, eat dinner in the ground floor grill room – where the Rhymers had their chops before adjourning to the top floor – which retains the atmosphere of 17th century inn, even if the interior is a reconstruction following the 20th century pub fire. And Samuel Smith’s should be congratulated for the sensitivity of their management of these historic pubs. The problem is that the loving restoration reinforces the sense of theme park, that creep of ‘Heritage’ (a tainted word if ever there was one) that imprisons London. The ghosts of the past are marooned amongst the tourists and the centre of town is closed off to the truly louche and experimental. The Fitzroy Tavern and the Wheatsheaf can never be what they were in the 1920s and 40s; and where would The Rhymers’ Club meet today? A loft in Peckham or Dalston, probably. Except they’ve probably already moved to Margate. Or Folkestone.
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.
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?)
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 – omicron 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.