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

London Airs

Denmark St., with Centre Point looming behind, in 2015.

I have written about old St Giles before: as a dreadful ancient slum, Victorian London’s most fearful rookery, a festering warren inhabited by the poor, according to Charles Dickens, ‘like maggots in a cheese’. Did I mention that there was once a gallows roughly where Centre Point stands now? Seems fitting, especially as the phrase ‘one for the road’ derives from the custom of halting at St Giles to give a final drink to doomed convicts en route from Newgate to execution at Tyburn. (The Bowl and The Angel are both mentioned as pubs known for this charity.) In the 1660s St Giles became notorious as point of origin for the Great Plague, and the areas woes went on and on. Crumbling, fragile Denmark St., laid out in the 1680s, still survives, squeezed by the towering 1960s bombast of Centre Point and an assortment of wind- swept plazas that form an inner-city desert. You would be hard pressed to realize it now but this bit of town was once a mecca for British popular music. The Astoria Theatre, at the northern end of the Charing Cross Rd., was one of the most important clubs for breaking rock bands until it was sacrificed on the altar of Crossrail. A few yards to the north, on the southern reaches of the Tottenham Court Road, in an Irish dancehall (The Blarney, long since bulldozed), you would once have found the pioneer psychedelic club UFO, a short-lived temple to progressive music and expanded consciousness. For a few months in 1967 you could go there on a Friday night to lose your mind to the sounds of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd or Soft Machine, who were the resident bands, and the hallucinatory light shows (pioneered by Mark Boyle, amongst others) that constituted a new form of art installation.

Billy Fury and manager Larry Parnes.

And you hardly need me to tell you that Denmark St. (‘London’s own Tin Pan Alley!’) used to be London’s music business quarter. In the fifties, this was the fiefdom of Larry Parnes, impresario and Svengali-figure, manager of Tommy Steele, Georgie Fame, and improbably-named singers like Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Johnny Gentle (these latter supposedly – urban myth alert – re-named by Parnes according to sexual type). Parnes was so risible that he was mocked by Muir and Norden in a famous Peter Sellers sketch, and the 1958 musical Expresso Bongo by Wolf Mankowitz (father of music photographer Gered) satirised Parnes’s domination of the contemporary pop scene. Expresso Bongo was promptly made into a film, wherein the satire was largely ditched in order to make it a star vehicle for Cliff Richard; this seems, somehow, entirely appropriate. Other local fixtures included songwriter Lionel Bart, the jingle genius Johnny Johnston (Softness is a Thing Called Comfort, Beanz Meanz Heinz, and five thousand other commercial ditties), and all the other personalities of the pre-Beatles universe. In the later sixties, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Donovan, Bowie, Hendrix all came here to record, in studios (e.g. Regent Sound, at no.4) carved out of 17th-century basements. The likes of David Bowie and Paul Simon came to schmooze publishers and hang out at the Giaconda coffee bar. Ten years later it was the turn of the phlegm-flecked protégés of Malcolm McLaren (the seventies version of Larry Parnes, plus value-added Situationist bullshit) The Sex Pistols, who rehearsed and lived here for a while. And, whilst he is unlikely to get a blue plaque, the mass-murderer Dennis Nilsen spent the early 1980s working in a jobcentre that used to be on the corner of Denmark St. and the Charing Cross Road (where, at one year’s Christmas staff party, Nilsen served his colleagues punch in a large pot he brought from his home, the same pan he used for boiling his victims’ heads).

Barbara Windsor and Lionel Bart during dress rehearsals for ‘Twang!!’

Wandering a bit further east from Denmark St., past Renzo Piano’s aggressively bright St. Giles Central development, you find Shaftesbury Avenue, St.Giles High St., and Bloomsbury St. converging in an unlovely funnel of tarmac. On the other side of the churning traffic lies the Shaftesbury Theatre, a crumbling Edwardian edifice stranded amidst the one-way system. The Shaftesbury is a survivor, narrowly escaping demolition in the 1970s, during the interminable run of the hippie operetta Hair, which ran from September 1968 until July 1973, when the theatre’s ceiling caved in. The owners, EMI, wanted to redevelop the site but the actor’s union Equity managed to get the building Grade 2 listed and it has since established itself as a successfully venue in a blighted location. The Shaftesbury also played a role in the downfall of local hero Lionel Bart. After rising to prominence as a writer of hits for Larry Parnes’s stable, Bart’s zenith was the celebrated musical Oliver! which opened at the New Theatre (now the Noel Coward theatre) on St Martin’s Lane in June 1960. A few years later, hubris struck as his under-prepared Robin Hood satire Twang!! – that’s two exclamation marks – had its chaotic London premiere at The Shaftesbury in December 1965. Reviews were terrible and the show closed after five weeks. Ignoring the wisdom that one should never invest your own money in your own show, Bart threw his fortune at the mess to try to keep it running and lost just about everything. At one point he sold his Oliver! copyrights to Max Bygraves for something like loose change. (As some of Oliver!‘s numbers were re-workings of old London street cries, this is another eventuality that has a pleasing inevitability about it.)

If 1840s St Giles was the ultimate in city squalor, its 21st century incarnation is the very model of a modern townscape: a sterile concrete tundra, safely contemporary, safely cheerless. Around 1900, London suffered the destruction of Wych St. and environs to create ‘new’ Aldwych and Kingsway, the loss of which it is hard to overstate. That particular act of civic philistinism didn’t just obliterate some of the prettiest streets in the capital, it cauterized life on the streets – which is exactly what it was intended to do, removing ‘unwholesome’ theatres and booksellers and erasing one of London’s cultural centres. The destruction of the area around Denmark Street is the contemporary equivalent. How do we characterise it? A few years ago, I saw chalked graffiti on the hoarding in front of the remains of the 12 Bar club that summed it up …

(Speaking of the Shaftesbury Theatre, there used to be a strange wine bar beneath it, The Grapes, which boasted an Escher-drawing of an interior and small, inadequate tables. It is now another branch of the London Cocktail Club. Some years ago I got into trouble there in a memorable episode which I describe here. A cautionary tale of sorts.)