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

Distant Laughter

The Goons in 1956: L-R: Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe. From a cuttings scrapbook in the Secombe family archive.

Anyone who does a job of work and at the end of the day has nothing tangible to show for it, apart from his salary, has every reason to feel insecure. All the average comic is left with at the end of his career are some yellowing newspaper cuttings, perhaps an LP or two, and a couple of lines in The Stage obituary column.’ Harry Secombe; Preface to The Hancock Companion, Roger Wilmut, 1979.

David Secombe writes:

Comedy is a fragile thing. It is dependent on context. Watching flickering footage of ʻturnsʼ from the nineteen-thirties, forties or even fifties can be a baffling experience. It is usually like watching Arthur AtkinsonThe Fast Showʼs brilliant parody of period stand-up, wherein Paul Whitehouseʼs Askey- like comic performs a routine of senseless catchphrases and arbitrary physical tics to rapturous houses. Anything from the past that still retains the power to make modern audiences laugh is rare indeed.

My father was Harry Secombe, who is remembered for three things: The Goons, his Dickensian turn as Mr. Bumble in the film of Oliver!, and singing hymns on Sunday night TV. (The latter is not comedy, except inadvertently.) He left a considerable archive of personal and show-business memorabilia, a voluminous assemblage which I have been trying to manage for about forty years. The material comprises letters, notebooks, posters and promotional materials, press cuttings, cartoons, paintings, scripts, 16mm home movies and broadcast material, audio and video tapes, and an avalanche of photographs, of him and by him. There used to be a whole room devoted to this stuff at the top of my parentsʼ house. Looking at the material now is a slightly disorientating experience: leaving aside the weirdness of seeing a close relative treated as public property decades before you were born, it is like seeing history through the prism of one manʼs career. He was really big in the fifties and sixties; he seemed to be everywhere. How did he fit it all in? Very often the press photos (there are thousands) show anonymous faces, beaming crowds, my father grinning manically if not desperately, or doing totally incomprehensible things in indecipherable situations. He poses for ill-conceived LP covers. He stands next to armies of unidentifiable people in unidentifiable locations; or with unlikely celebrities in unexpected contexts. (For instance, a celebrity canvas of The Last Supper alongside the likes of Stanley Baker, Bernard Bresslaw, Alfred Marks, Lionel Bart, John Gregson, etc., with Richard Harris as Judas Iscariot and ʻrugby starʼ Clem Thomas as Jesus Christ. The artist was Andrew Vicari, and I invite readers to look him up because his is such a strange story.)

Study photo for Andrew Vicari’s 1960 version of The Last Supper. Richard Harris is well into character as Judas Iscariot, while Bernard Bresslaw’s Simon the Canaanite is ripe forCarry On Calvary‘.

The photos and cuttings and home movies are mute souvenirs of occasions my father turned into anecdote. I grew up in a large house in suburban Cheam, a landmark property (it was on a main road opposite a bus stop) decked out with the trappings youʼd associate with late 1950s showbiz success. Notable features included a white baby grand piano, a panelled, Danish-style study with a built-in hi-fi and screen for showing movies (a room I still aspire to recreate), and a bar for entertaining. The bar was equipped with an implausibly extensive array of booze (including undrinkable display-only beverages like Bols Gold Liqueur) arrayed on glass shelves behind a counter dressed with miniature Doric columns. My fatherʼs favourite drink was Pernod: a perfect match for the décor. He was a fabulous raconteur and the bar was a little theatre for him to trot out his party pieces: Mike Bentine farting in polite company was a favourite story, as were the ones about his chaotic stint as a junior clerk in a colliery office when he was fifteen (touchingly, he kept a post-war letter from the same office, offering him his pre-war job back), as well as countless soldierʼs tales. When I was young my father hosted an annual charity cricket match on the sports ground opposite the house, and the bar was the focus for the evening’s socialising, with all manner of personalities barnacled around its embossed leatherette finish. The sheer glamour and excitement of those times is so remote now; that was the mid-late seventies, but it was a throwback to early sixties style. Who has a bar in their house now?

My fatherʼs career was sparked by the fact that at the warʼs end he couldnʼt believe he was still alive; and the archive reflects the intoxicating excitement as his career gathers pace and begins to shape the post-war moment. The Goon Show catered to an audience that had survived the war only to find themselves stuck in the drab fifties. ʻYouʼve no idea how grey the fifties was‘ my father said, and the decade had been conspicuously good to him. The fifties seems impossibly remote now, an impoverished era when opportunities for fun seemed to be on ration along with just about everything else. The fact that the Goons made it onto the BBC at all is a kind of miracle, and itʼs no wonder that contemporary audiences were either deliriously thrilled or utterly baffled. But young people loved it. The Beatles were awestruck when George Martin told them, during Abbey Road sessions for their first LP, that heʼd produced records for The Goons. (Jane Milligan has a nice family photo, taken in the 1970s or 80s, of George Harrison kneeling in homage at Spikeʼs feet.)

But all things fade. The house in Cheam was pulled down in the early eighties, shortly after my father sold it, and somehow an era went with it. I am always happy to hear The Goons repeated on Radio 4 Extra, and today the BBC broadcast The Last Goon Show Of All, a 1972 reunion special which, perhaps, has a slightly rueful quality, given that the seventies werenʼt working out as well for the participants as the extravagant success of the fifties and sixties seemed to predict. Ten years later, Peter Sellers was dead and my father started doing those Sunday night religious TV shows which killed off any chance of a return to comedy. (He was teetotal by then too.) That the Goons remain funny is largely a testament to Milligan’s genius; but Spike knew he was supremely lucky to have Peter and Harry on hand to people his enchanted world. But there is something unnerving about hearing joyous studio laughter coming from beyond the veil: a kind of memento mori I suppose. Thereʼs my dad laughing on the radio: in his prime, decades younger then than I am now. Anyway, to mark my fatherʼs centenary, the archive is being shipped to The National Library of Wales, and I am sure that they will take very good care of it. I leave you with a portfolio of unexplained images, snapshots from another era, another world, and if you have any idea what is going on in any of them, please let me know.

David Secombe is a writer and photographer.

Drunk Artist Round-Up

Francis Bacon by John Deakin, early 1950s.

There’s Francis Bacon in all his sinister pomp, as photographed by his friend John Deakin in the 1950s. Deakin was a very talented photographer, contracted to Vogue no less, but also a shabby, unpleasant drunk. He was so careless with his archive that by the time of his death his surviving prints and negatives were largely trashed. This was a pity as he was a Soho insider and his portraits of the principals of fifties Soho are very fine – although, in some cases, the fact that the prints are damaged gives the images an additional power: an authenticity borne of nihilistic carelessness on the part of the artist.

Like his some time friend and artistic rival Lucian Freud, Bacon used London lowlife as the raw material for his art and made it universal. But, naturally, the Soho scene of the forties and fifties was full of artists who failed to be anything other than local curiosities, ‘characters’ even, their art failing to transcend their immediate environment, and whose fate is to be remembered as footnotes in memoirs of the time. But some of them were talented, whilst others deserve to be remembered precisely because they were such specific products of the milieu. John Minton fits both categories. He was a teacher at the Royal College of Art and a prolific book illustrator but also a painter of real ambition. (He was also a man of means, as he was an heir to the Minton china dynasty.) A conspicuous fixture at The Gargoyle Club, to which he also contributed a mural to offset the works by Matisse, he would enter with a motley entourage of rough trade and proceed to dance extravagantly to favourite tunes like I’m Going To Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter. But for Minton The Gargoyle was more than just a place to dance: it was one of the few places where he could be openly gay without fear of being adversely judged.

John Minton: Self-Portrait, 1953.

The poet Ruthven Todd recalled Minton at The Gargoyle, ‘… his long sad clown’s face, lashed by breakers of dark hair, as he danced a frenetic solo on the otherwise unoccupied dance floor. His arms and legs were flying this way and that … Clapping and encouraging him was a ringside audience of the faceless nonentities whom he gathered as an entourage as a magnet does rusty filings.’ Minton felt marooned by the shift away from figurative painting and towards abstraction that happened in the later fifties – and the soaring success of his friend Francis Bacon, fleshy embodiment of the zeitgeist, probably didn’t do much for his morale either. His work was seen as decorative, illustrative, lightweight. One week of his appointment diary is blank except for one word scrawled across both pages: ‘DRUNK’. He killed himself in 1957, at the age of just 40.

Similarly, the tragic story of the demented, kilt-wearing, Scottish painters Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun, universally known in Soho as ‘The Two Roberts’, is a cautionary tale of the fickle nature of artistic success. They were lovers, and shared a studio and an energetic social life in all the usual Soho and Fitzrovia hang- outs, as well as hosting parties at their studio in Kensington. But whereas John Minton inspired protective affection, the Two Roberts could be a social nightmare. In their cups they were fearsome, dancing the Highland Fling one minute, performing Scottish folk songs or reciting ballads, then abruptly threatening fellow punters to buy them a drink, or offering a handshake whilst concealing broken glass in an outstretched hand. As for the art itself, it didn’t really survive the period: both worked in a sort of sub-sub-Picasso idiom (that link is to a Colquhoun canvas, here’s one to a MacBryde) that was eclipsed by the passing fad of the ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of the fifties, and then the more durable fashion for abstract art. In addition to artistic redundancy, a succession of misfortunes overtook the pair. A retrospective exhibition was destroyed by vandals who broke into the studio on the eve of the private view; and Colquhoun expired at his easel, just 47, in 1962. MacBryde carried on as best he could, only to die a few years later in a bizarre traffic accident in Ireland, hit by a car as he was dancing a jig in the street outside a pub.

The Two Roberts: Robert MacBryde, left, and Robert Colquhoun. Picture Post, 1949.

Without wishing to sound callous, it is doubtful that posterity would remember MacBryde or Colquhoun at all if it weren’t for the ghastly vividness of their social lives and their impact on others within their circle. By contrast, Minton, has become more appreciated in recent years due to the numerous book jackets and illustrations that he executed with such fluency and skill. He might have been a ‘minor’ painter but his attractive and atmospheric book designs have helped to define our image of cultural life in fifties Britain. As for John Deakin, the surviving photographs are testament to a powerful, forensic talent for portraiture: a sort of guttersnipe Bill Brandt. His work seems to anticipate some of the bolder experiments of Richard Avedon, and its rediscovery offers a valuable record of the period. But Deakin the man is perhaps best remembered not at all: remembrances of him by acquaintances indicate a thoroughly repellent personality, a cadging drunk who turned out to be a wealthy miser. He was commissioned by Bacon to do a session of nude photographs of Soho scenester Henrietta Moraes, photos intended for use as the basis of a painting, and Henrietta discovered that Deakin had been selling additional prints to sailors in pubs. After Deakin’s sudden death, Francis Bacon found himself tasked with making formal identification of Deakin’s body and noted that in death Deakin was able to do one thing that he was never able to do in life: keep his mouth shut. And there are other artists who outstayed their welcome. Gerald Wilde was another ‘mad artist’ of the period, another fixture at the Wheatsheaf, the Caves De France, etc., a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism in the forties whose work was highly rated but whose drunken persona would try anyone’s patience. According to Daniel Farson, Bacon once held him in high regard but later on regarded him as ‘a dreadful bore’ who had once turned up at his studio at four a.m. demanding money for drink. As for himself, Bacon knew that he was lucky, hitting a raw nerve of the century and surviving to occupy Greatest Living Artist status. But his patience and good manners had limits. There’s a nice story about him at the Colony Room, politely refusing a rather insistent young artist’s repeated invitations to visit him at his studio, until Bacon finally had enough and said ‘I don’t need to see your paintings, I’ve seen your tie.’

See also:
Francis Bacon In The Colony Room
Spies and Queens at The Gargoyle Club
Rathbone Street Pubs