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

Brave And Chilly Spring

April is the cruellest month … Gipsy Hill, 11 April 2021.

Sam Hancock, The Independent, 13 April 2021:

London’s Soho was busier than ever on Monday night — although some of those enjoying the reopening of pubs admitted there was “very little” social distancing being adhered to. Police patrolled central London as crowds flocked to Old Compton Street, signalling the end of certain lockdown restrictions and the reopening of pubs and bars’ outdoor areas across England. Several West End streets were even closed to traffic between 5pm and 11pm, to create outdoor seating areas as part of measures implemented by Westminster City Council to support hospitality businesses. Pictures and videos being shared online show people packed onto tables, while dozens more stood on the streets raising a glass to England officially entering into stage two of Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown.

The spring-like peep out of lockdown has everyone on edge. And attempts to enjoy a freezing al fresco drink inevitably emphasise the painful distance between Before Covid and our current Covid Era. Personally, I have no plans to book a slot to do my Captain Scott impersonation (‘this is an awful place …’) in an arctic pub garden, and don’t fancy drinking amidst desperate Soho crowds pretending it’s VE Night. It’s indoor spaces that I miss. My mind wanders to cold spring evenings in former times; when the pub garden turned chilly in twilight, you would retreat to the cosy public bar, to the gleam of polished mahogany and the crystalline brightness behind the counter. You’d take your drink to a spot next to the wooden partition that separated you from the customers in the saloon, and fragments of their conversation drifted in and out of your hearing:

‘Nah, it was John Wayne they filmed in this pub. Him and that Richard Attenborough, played policemen they did. Filmed it here, I should know, I was in it wasn’t I?’

‘Do you know what my son said to me the other night? He phones up and he says: :”Dad, can I come round? I need to borrow fifty pence”‘.

‘I don’t know whether she knew or not, but let’s put it this way: she got very good at getting blood out of carpet.’

‘My dad knew him, he was staying at a hotel in Kensington Gardens, very dapper and polite he was, you’d never guess he had bodies dissolving in a tank in Crawley’.

Before lunch I’d been in the witness box and they were jumping all over me, felt like a right wanker. And I was looking at doing four years. Anyway, after lunch the jury was ready to come in and everything and then the prosecution said the CCTV didn’t work. That’s their case dead in the water. So I was acquitted. I’m thinking of compensation. Go after them I will, yeah. I’ve got letters about my loss of hearing.’

Here, I’m selling this phone. It’s fucking immaculate, no scratches on it or nothing, I mean I did manage to drop it in the slop bucket behind the bar, but you’d never tell.

‘From Muscat he was, yeah – one of those places where they don’t wear things on their feet.’

The Victorian pub interior is an inviting place, an urban parlour, a place where plumbers give racing tips to bankers, where visitors from exotic lands fall for boys from Penge or girls from Hainault, and where addled regulars share unlikely stories (‘it’s true, I swear, I was there’) with anyone who will listen. Britain’s peculiar drinking culture might have been a source of appalled wonder for foreign tourists but London’s lugubrious, booze-only boozers offered easy access to the interior life of the city. In an earlier time, I would bewail the rise of the gastro-pub as a factor eroding the democratic nature of the institution: tables take up room, families colonise the bar space and the social or solitary drinker is marginalised. ‘The decline of the pub’, I would say to anyone who would listen, ‘as a place to just drink is making the city colder and less knowable than before’. (And thus I became someone else’s loquacious pub bore.) Well, what did I know. Now, if I could, I would cheerfully walk into a gastropub and order the most pretentious thing on the carte du jour just so I could be in an interior where people have come to gather. Even a hipster bar is good for overheard remarks:

So what does a full-time anarchist do? Do you celebrate Christmas?’

But if Monday night demonstrated anything, it’s that Londoners need to drink. The manifest ills of drinking are well rehearsed, but the social value of documents such as Life and Labour of the People in London are often compromised by their authors’ failure to empathise with hard-pressed city-dwellers, or to fully understand their need for release. London is an ongoing experiment in urban life: a 2,000 year-old Roman settlement that became the first industrialised city, the first world city, the first mega-city. Londoners have had to suffer the sharp end of history so it’s no wonder that they developed a craving for booze – as a stimulant, a palliative, a tradable commodity, or simply a safer beverage than Thames water. And, call me old-fashioned, but I think that public drinking is healthier than private drinking: if there are people around you, there’s always someone to tell you that you are overdoing it, or simply being a tit. (Altogether now: ‘What good is sitting alone in your room …’ etc.) But I’m looking forward to getting inside pubs, not lurking outside them. And who knows? Maybe it will be all over by Christmas.

The other milestone this week was, of course, the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. I did, as it happens, have a few encounters with him over the years but I didn’t fancy contributing to the tsunami of news coverage, or the grinding of axes by op-ed toters. Those stories will have to wait.

Working Class Family’ by Ralph Steadman, circa 1969. Via Ralph Steadman Printshop.