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:


… 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

Drunk And Disgruntled In The Kitchen

Contemporary still life: cookbook with wine and acid-reflux medication.

Further to an adventure in house sitting that I wrote up in an earlier entry, I recently came into possession of a new cookbook. This is Rachel Roddy’s An A-Z of Pasta, which bears the subtitle: ‘Stories, shapes, sauces, recipes‘. I don’t really need another Italian cookbook, I have the encyclopaedic Silver Spoon collection, the River Cafe books, plus admirable tomes by Alistair Little, Mary Reynolds, etc. (My cooking is inexpert but, on a good day, brutally effective.) But I came to own the Roddy book by default, as it belonged to the friend in whose house I was staying and I left it lying where her determinedly chewy French bulldog could get his chops round it. The result is plain to see. So I bought a new copy for my friend and took the mauled edition home. 

I was looking forward to consulting the book during the long winter nights but it turns out that I’d got Rachel Roddy mixed up with Felicity Cloake, whose Guardian food columns I enjoy very much. No, Rachel Roddy is a different Guardian food writer and, it says here, is ‘one of the best food writers of our time’, which is no small claim. But after a week in the company of this book my enthusiasm for using it as a practical kitchen guide, or indeed anything else, has dwindled; in fact I began to wish that Robin the Frenchie had eaten the whole thing. The recipes aren’t the problem: it’s the prose. Ms Roddy describes herself as a food writer rather than a chef and this is significant. Staples of Italian home cooking are given the full Guardian Lifestyle treatment, a sort of gastronomic gentrification. One recipe begins with the sentence: ‘Leeks go softly.’ (Go where? Is that an injunction to the vegetable?) Another is characterised as ‘A beige woolly sock of a dish’, whilst another features chickpeas and chestnuts that ‘get on so well, like affectionate old friends …’. A serving of pasta is a ‘soulful bowlful’, or is covered with a sauce like ‘an expensive pashmina‘; Neapolitan basil has ‘head-girl mintyness‘, whereas sage has ‘moleskin mustiness‘, and we are treated to a description of a Roman pasta shop smelling ‘hopeful and sappy, like fresh sawdust and a clean baby.’ (This last one reminded me of an old Reeves and Mortimer sketch, wherein a stand-in for TV wine guru Jilly Goolden described a wine’s bouquet as like ‘two newts holidaying in Tangiers’.) And pity the poor adjective … We are warned that garlic can turn into ‘a bitter bully’, but reassured that tins are ‘trusty’; fingers are ‘knowing’, linguine stirred into a sauce ‘tangles’ with it, whilst elsewhere sauces go ‘slumping’, and we are invited to ‘snuggle’ a chicken into a pot, etc., etc.. To employ an adjective of my own: this book is as fey as fuck. 

As for Roddy’s ‘stories’, they have limited entertainment value. No-one in her book eats shellfish and gets the runs before an appointment at a swanky Milanese fashion house, thus blocking the toilet and flooding the entire reception area (as once happened to a long-lost acquaintance of mine; the poor girl was entreating the furious women on the front desk with cries of ‘Mea culpa!’). No-one lets out an inadvertent but catastrophic fart at the end of a good lunch with the girlfriend and prospective in-laws (who, as one, turned on their heels and left). No-one’s dog eats the Christmas lunch – boeuf en croute – just before it goes in the oven. The ‘stories’ in Roddy’s book are of the I sit in Raffaela’s kitchen and watch her knead the dough sort, presented with a cloying reverence in line with the aspirational tone of her project. To paraphrase a fatuous advertising slogan: this is not just food … this is Middle Class Food. (Incidentally, there is also – on page 172 – a fabulously Ill-judged Holocaust reference, a misguided attempt at gravitas that has no business in a book like this.) This would have been a far better book if she’d just stuck to the mechanics of food preparation rather than the fetishisation thereof, especially as her forays into local colour are as flaccid as overcooked bucatini. But it set me thinking: could I do better? Could I cut it as a food writer? What highlights from my culinary experiences can I inflict upon my public? Well, there’s the time I upchucked chateaubriand on the Northern line, following dinner at Chez Gerard and a bout of alcoholic poisoning, whereupon I got home in a state of near collapse and narrowly avoided setting fire to the curtains. That was an experience I will treasure, always. Or the tureen of stew lovingly prepared for the family by my elder sister whilst on holiday at a Mallorquin villa, and into which my grandfather sneezed, explosively, as it was being placed on the table. A cherished memory of generational togetherness. Then there’s the memorable night at a Battersea tandoori house where a waiter sprayed UHT cream foam all over my lamb passanda just as I was about to eat it. A truly singular serving suggestion. Or all those flickering, purple nights in Brockley, like the one when we threw a ten-egg Spanish omelette on the floor whilst trying to flip it, or the curdled romantic evening which saw me throw a frying pan in the general direction of a dinner date as she was flouncing up the stairs. (I missed.) Such quiet joy in the warm company of good friends! 

One failed culinary experiment worth recounting is an encounter with game birds in a south-east London setting. I had been gifted a brace of pheasants (long story) and my young wife and myself followed the rules and hung them for a week in the basement of our small terraced house in Charlton. We’d done a deal with a local butcher; he’d draw them if we plucked them. A week passed. We went into the basement and prepared to pluck the corpses. Suddenly, the room took on the aspect of a particularly sinister crime scene. Gingerly, we pulled at a few feathers; a space of bare flesh was revealed. My beloved let out a noise, a sound impossible for me to describe, and practically screamed: ‘Why doesn’t it look like it does in Sainsbury’s?!’ We were as green – literally and metaphorically – as the pheasants in front of us. So we called Tim. Tim was a neighbour of ours, a fifty-ish 1970s relic, an ex-fashion photographer and full-time bon viveur. He knew a thing or two about game. He came round very quickly, his presence announced by his distinctive aroma: an admixture of Givenchy Gentleman and Glenfiddich. He wasted no time, he took the birds in his hands (which I suddenly noticed were enormous) and proceeded to tear the plumage from their flesh with an atavistic fury that was genuinely unnerving. In less than a minute the pheasants slightly resembled something you might see wrapped in plastic on a supermarket shelf (well, in an Albanian hyper-mart perhaps). The following day was Saturday: we left the birds with the butcher who told us to come back in an hour. When we returned we were accompanied by Tim, who was taking a close interest in the proceedings. The butcher gave us a dubious look and said ’How long have you had these?’ A fly crawled out of one of them. Turned me up, to be honest. I won’t charge you. Do you want ‘em?’ We looked a bit sick but Tim eagerly grabbed them and took them home. On Sunday we were invited over to inspect – not eat – the birds as roasted.  He reported that the legs were a bit dodgy but that the breasts were lovely. ‘I reckon they were shot up the arse.’ It’s a real pity Tim is no longer with us; another one lost in action. A cookbook written by him would have been an event worth celebrating. 

There is an issue with class and food here, but I will get more into that another time. For now I leave you with a traditional Roman invitation, something a shy boy might say to a blushing girl to indicate his sincere intentions: Sei mai stato da una Mietitrice prima?*

(*Have you ever been to a Harvester before?‘)

Everyone’s a critic these days …

An A-Z of Pasta is published by Penguin Fig Tree.

Oh Bondage …

An original Corgi edition of the ‘Goldfinger’-tie-in Aston DB5. About £750-odd now. I had one, when I was six. If only my parents had hidden it from me; a determined child can do a lot of damage with a hammer and a few fireworks.

‘Bond tensed in the darkness and reached for his teeth.’

The above sentence was written by the late Alan Coren and comes from a satire he wrote for Punch magazine in the 1980s, a meditation upon the fate of fictional heroes in later life. Coren’s piece came to mind whilst I was watching No Time To Die, the latest 007 saga and the final outing for Daniel Crag in the role. I confess that I only went to see the film out of a sense of duty, knowing that I was going to be writing this post, as I am not a big fan of the Eon/Bond franchise. However, I will also confess to having slightly enjoyed No Time To Die, against what felt like my better judgement. 

By way of prologue we get a seemingly endless pre-credit sequence – actually two pre-credit sequences, opening with the secret backstory of Bond’s girlfriend – detailing the carnage of Bond’s emotional life by means of a romantic trip to Italy interrupted by the usual chases and ultra-violence. This climaxes with Bond’s novelty Aston Martin DB5 transforming itself from vintage grand tourer into every schoolboy’s fantasy weapon. (How do you think Bond insures his various Astons? Can you imagine what his premiums are like? And the DB5 is a government vehicle, isn’t it? So why is he on holiday in it? Wouldn’t Accounts be asking why he didn’t hire a Fiat?) Anyway, after the credits we get to see Bond in retirement in Jamaica, a nod to Ian Fleming’s love of the island: a solitary fifty-ish gent who lives a simple life consisting of yachting, fishing, brushing his teeth under a waterfall, and meeting CIA and MI6 agents in local bars. And we’re off again. The screenwriting seemed improved this time; the addition of Phoebe Waller Bridge to the credits is clearly significant, as there are flashes of real wit that stand out from the standard lumpenbond dialogue (it would not be a Bond film without the odd line thudding on deck like a harpooned albatross). But the story is a strange mixture of elements; this time, SPECTRE threatens the world with a doomsday bioweapon stolen from a British government lab, picturesquely situated in a skyscraper in the middle of London, as opposed to hidden away in the depths of Wiltshire. This sinister nano-bot virus can be genetically tailored to target individuals or entire populations, inducing fatality – with grotesque physical symptoms – within moments. (This aspect of the plot reminded me of a similar device in The Satanic Rites of Dracula, wherein Christopher Lee – as he unhappily described it – played the lord of the undead as ‘a mixture of Howard Hughes and Dr. No‘.) This genuinely nasty idea sits rather oddly with the slapstick violence of the action set pieces, although Ana de Armas’s brief appearance in one of them, playing a  gauche spy, was an opportunity to exercise some of the aforementioned wit (especially Ms Armas’s nonchalant dispatch of the regulation vodka martini, a welcome acknowledgment of the absurdity of that fixture of 007’s world).

Daniel Craig inCasino Royale

Daniel Craig’s fifteen-year turn as 007 has been an opportunity for the film-makers to give Bond sensitivity and depth, which is where the rot sets in. Of course, the entire 007 project is an adolescent fantasy. Ian Fleming made no bones about this. Fleming’s biographer Andrew Lycett suggests that Bond is the kind of agent Fleming would have liked to have been, rather than the largely desk-bound operative he was at the Admiralty during WW2. That said, Commander Fleming was uniquely positioned to research methods of covert warfare which he later elaborated upon in his novels. Contacts in the Ministry of Supply furnished him with details of gadgets issued to agents in the field: hollow golf balls or shaving brushes, gas pens, shoelaces that could be used as saws, and so on. The germ of Casino Royale appears to have been a visit to a casino in Estoril in 1941, whilst en route to a diplomatic meeting in Bermuda. Fleming was intrigued by the idea that it would have been quite something if the nondescript Portuguese businessmen he had played (and lost) against had really been Nazi agents. And elements of Thunderball were derived from his knowledge of the Italian Navy’s submersible operations around Gibraltar in 1942. As to Bond’s sexual predilections, these seem to have sprung directly from Fleming’s id. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming puts these words into the mouth of his female narrator: ‘All women love semi-rape … It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made the act of love so piercingly wonderful.’ (And, it should be noted, there is a startling scene in the 1965 film of Thunderball where Connery’s Bond forces himself upon Molly Peters‘s masseuse, a rape treated as a bit of prurient/comic business). Fleming was, it seems, keen on sado-masochism, although the various desires recorded in his letters to Ann Rothermere, his lover and, eventually, his wife, sound comically suburban rather than genuinely perverse. Elsewhere he referred to Bond as a ‘blunt object’ and not a hero, although he seems to have been conflicted as to the true morality of his own creation. The fetishisation of good living in Fleming’s novels obviously reflects the author’s enjoyment of the high life; but Bond is a spy, so his catalogue of lifestyle snobberies makes him rather conspicuous, which you would have thought would been a liability in his profession. In the novels he drives a 3.5 litre ‘blower’ Bentley, which is almost as ludicrous as the fully weaponised Aston Martin DB5 Sean Connery drives in Goldfinger, and which has been resurrected for Daniel Craig’s use. But on the whole it is futile to pick holes in Fleming’s project, as it is Never-Never Land. John Betjeman, in a letter to Fleming, compared Bond to Sherlock Holmes: ‘The Bond world is as real and full of fear as Conan Doyle’s Norwood and Surrey and Baker Street. I think the only other person to have invented a world in our own time is Wodehouse.’ That makes sense but it becomes problematic when fantasy leaches into reality.

Ian Fleming

Personally, I cannot stomach the novels. I enjoyed them when I was twelve, but a recent attempt to read one I was unfamiliar with (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) ended at the start of chapter two. I quite like some of the films. For all the antediluvian sexism of Connery-era Bond the cartoonish nature of the enterprise was offset by the loving treatment of travel and high living, as well as the swirling gorgeousness of John Barry’s scores. By the 1970s, with Roger Moore essaying 007 as a man in a safari suit whose gait suggested a slight case of piles, the film-makers simply opted to parody Britain’s post-imperial delusions; hence Bond becomes the protagonist in a series of hi-tech pantomimes which, whatever their merits as cinema, seemed appropriate treatment for the material. I remember watching Octopussy in a cinema in New Orleans in 1983, and being the only audience member to get Roger Moore’s very British joke at the expense of BBC TV’s dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse. Moore’s 007 even dresses up as a clown at one point; one can’t imagine Daniel Craig’s special agent plumbing such depths. But Octopussy doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a joke (starting with its title). The trouble, it seems to me, is when the 007 franchise is adduced as indicative of national character: that Bond represents Britain. This was put into queasily explicit form at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, when Daniel Craig was drafted in to play Bond alongside HM The Queen, who was playing herself. A funny idea, except … the absurdity seemed out of place. A piece of entertainment had fused with an idea of national identity in a way that now seems rather worrying. I write this at a time when the British Government’s position over the Brexit agreement re: Northern Ireland has moved into the realm of macho fantasy, a mendacious confection as absurd as the machine guns and bulletproof glass fitted to Bond’s Aston. No sane person would want to disinter Bulldog Drummond, the proto-Blackshirt forerunner of Bond, who worked off his post-Great War energies by beating up uppity foreign villains; but I can’t be alone in thinking that 21st Century Bond caters to a similarly delusional notion of British supremacy. We’re still celebrating VE Day in a world that no longer needs us.

There is one aspect of No Time To Die where the screenwriters missed a trick. The fiendish techno-virus was overseen and kept secret by Bond’s boss, M. Bond is certainly unhappy about this turn of events but it seems to this viewer that, rather than maintain the status quo, it would have been refreshing to have seen Bond going for M’s throat, then following the trail right to the top. After all, we currently have a Prime Minister who possesses many of the essential qualities of a Bond villain, and it would have been satisfying to have seen a ‘Borisfeld’ immolated in some suitably resonant context. Killed by his own hair, perhaps.

N.B.: A dry martini is made with gin, and is stirred, not shaken. (The drink goes watery if you shake it.)

See also: A Drunk At The Flicks