In this latest Bryant & May mystery, I decided to investigate the murky world of London pubs because they are such an essential part of London. They’re also being killed off. Last year saw the closure of 1,400 traditional English pubs, and the closures are accelerating fast because of rising costs, competition from clubs and bars, and the smoking ban.
I also wanted to preserve some of the quirkiest pubs in a novel; there’s one with a tree growing through its bar, one that’s split in two halves, one filled with Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, another that’s counted as being in Cambridge even though it’s in the centre of London, and each has a story.
London pubs act as places where opposites can meet and confront each other without prejudice, on neutral territory. That’s why the landlord is referred to as the host, and why rooms in pubs were used to hold local inquests, so that the deceased could be sure of a fair and impartial verdict on his death.
Walking into a pub alone is for many young English people their first act of real independence. Pubs have had a profound effect on English society, acting as every kind of salon and meeting place, from ‘coffee house’ to gin palace. We get newspapers from pubs, where gossip was first written down and circulated. And pubs still reinvent themselves. Once, where political rebellions were planned, there are now karaoke and quiz evenings, dinners, book readings and fantasy nights.
Pubs are willfully eccentric, and every one has a complex set of social codes. Some celebrate their history with rituals or commemorative events where the patrons dress up. You never tip, but you can buy the host a pint when you order another round by saying ‘Have one for yourself’. If you feel your beer glass is not full enough, you can ask for a top-up.
There are still theatre pubs, traditional pubs, readers’, writers’ and artists’ pubs, sports pubs and a thousand places where odd societies or different professions meet. Pubs are in our language; drinkers used to share the same mug, in which the level of ale was marked with a wooden peg, hence the expression ‘to take someone down a peg’. The masons who built our churches were housed at inns, hence the Masonic connections of certain pubs, and the Knights Templar had their own inns. Back when the water of London was polluted, everyone drank at alehouses. Pub names provide markers for all the historical events of England. Red Lion, White Hart, Crown & Anchor, Royal Oak, Coach & Horses, each has its own convoluted meaning. We meet our future partners in pubs and even find our way around by their location.
In the late Victorian era there was a pub for every hundred people in the country. We talk about inner city schools where pupils speak dozens of languages, but the greatest melting pots for all races and classes exist on almost every street corner – or at least, they did. Property is paramount in London, and pubs take up a huge area, so they’re being sold off. To find the real London, go into the backstreets and find a corner pub. Here you’ll find that much of England’s traditional cookery survives. Not the fish and chips sold to tourists, but pubs that sell potted pork, oysters and a dozen types of cheese. English food gained a bad reputation after the war because there were few good restaurants left. But now that London has become one of the most expensive cities in the world, its classic cookery has gone to the ‘gastropubs’, many of which have long waiting lists for tables.
I took a friend from New York on a traditional pub crawl across London, starting in a lawyers’ pub and ending in a doctors’ pub. They are convivial, boisterous places where families often drink together, because they’re less about the consumption of alcohol than the enjoyment of good company.Recently I went down into the cells of Newgate Gaol with my friend Suzi, through London’s Viaduct Tavern…
We found another pub where The Heart Of London, an ancient stone marking the dead centre of the city, is kept. In the back of the book there’s a list of all the pubs featured, each of which I visited – but sadly, since writing the book several of these have already vanished. Some were hundreds of years old. Use them and you experience part of the nation’s history. You can visit www.fancyapint.com or www.pubs.com for more information.