The Victorias Are Vanishing
In the Ealing comedy ‘Passport To Pimlico’ a treasure chest is uncovered and finances a London borough as it enters its own Brexit negotiations with the capital. The treasurers meet in their local pub to examine their dug-up wealth. One points out that they now have ducats and ewers, sparking this exchange.
‘Mine’s a pint!’ (General laughter)
The pub in the photo is just off Oxford Street, and is probably only notable because it still exists. In the Bryant & May mystery ‘The Victoria Vanishes’, I investigated the murky world of London pubs because they’re an essential part of London. They’re also being killed off. Each year sees the closure of around 1,400 traditional English pubs, and the closures are now accelerating because of rising prices, competition from bars and home drinking. There has lately been a new wrinkle in the story; if a pub can be proven to be essential to the community, it may be able to save off the demolition team.
Sadly, this hasn’t helped the Newman Arms in Fitzrovia, which I passed yesterday to find boarded up. The film is famously preserved in Michael Powell’s film ‘Peeping Tom’, and occupied one of the few surviving untouched corners of the capital, in a street once known for its photo libraries and ‘upstairs ladies’.
I wanted to preserve some of the quirkiest pubs in a novel; after all, at the time of writing there was still one with a tree growing through its bar, one split in two halves, one filled with Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, one that was counted as being in Cambridge even though it’s in the centre of London. Each housed a story. London pubs act as places where opposites can meet and confront each other without prejudice, on neutral territory. It’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 still 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 meeting rooms for societies.
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 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, Victory, Royal Oak, Coach & Horses, each has its own meaning, often quite convoluted. We met our future partners in pubs and still find our way around by their location.
In the late Victorian era there was a pub for every 100 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 sites, often offering five corner floors – perfect to turn into flats. Much of England’s traditional cookery survives in pubs, not the fish and chips sold to tourists, but places like The Crown in North London which sells potted pork, oysters and a dozen types of homemade cheese. English food gained a bad reputation after the war because there were few restaurants left, but many failing pubs have reinvented themselves as centres of gastronomy, and have long waiting lists for tables.
I took a journalist 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. In the back of ‘The Victoria Vanishes’ there’s a list of all the pubs featured, each of which I visited. Sadly, since writing the book quite a few of these have themselves 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.