Isolation Tales 7: ‘At Home In The Pubs Of Old London’
This story came at a time when I was starting to experiment with form. Looking at it now, it’s clearly a guide to where we all used to drink in London. My business partner co-owned the Pineapple pub – the photo I took of the exterior (above) looks like a movie set – and was filled with celebrities, back when they used to hang out in pubs and didn’t have hulking Hollywood minders around them. I still meet fellow writers Paul McCauley and Kim Newman at the King’s Head, I’ve had book launches at the Lamb & Flag, I used to drink in the Trafalgar and The Ship with my father, and we nearly lost half our staff when the Admiral Duncan blew up, so this tale felt like a tour of duty. The Load of Hay has gone upmarket and changed its name – the other pubs are pretty much all the same as they were.
THE MUSEUM TAVERN, MUSEUM STREET, BLOOMSBURY
Despite its location diagonally opposite the British Museum, its steady turnover of listless Australian barstaff and its passing appraisal by tourists on quests for the British pub experience (comprising two sips from half a pint of bitter and one salt and vinegar flavoured crisp, nibbled and returned to its packet in horror), this drinking establishment retains the authentically seedy bookishness of Bloomsbury because its corners are usually occupied by half-cut proofreaders from nearby publishing houses. I love pubs like this one because so much about them remains constant in a sliding world; the smell of hops, the ebb of background conversation, muted light through coloured glass, china tap handles, mirrored walls, bars of oak and brass. Even the pieces of fake Victoriana, modelled on increasingly obsolete pub ornaments, become objects of curiosity in themselves.
At this time I was working in a comic shop, vending tales of fantastic kingdoms to whey-faced netheads who were incapable of saving a sandwich in a serviette, let alone an alien planet, and it was in this pub that I met Leslie. She was sitting with a group of glum-looking gothic Gormenghast offcuts who were on their way to a book launch at the new age smells-and-bells shop around the corner, and she was clearly unenchanted with the idea of joining them for a session of warm Liebfraumilch and crystal-gazing, because as each member of the group drifted off she found an excuse to stay on, and we ended up sitting together by ourselves. As she refolded her jacket a rhinestone pin dropped from the lapel, and I picked it up for her. The badge formed her initials – L L – which made me think of Superman, because he had a history of falling for women with those initials, but I reminded myself that I was no superman, just a man who liked making friends in pubs. I asked her if she’d had a good Christmas, she said no, I said I hadn’t either and we just chatted from there. I told Leslie that I was something of an artist and would love to sketch her, and she tentatively agreed to sit for me at some point in the future.
THE WORLD’S END, HIGH STREET, CAMDEN TOWN
It’s a funny pub, this one, because the interior brickwork makes it look sort of inside out, and there’s a steady through-traffic of punters wherever you stand, so you’re always in the way. It’s not my kind of place, more a network of bars and clubs than a proper boozer. It used to be called the Mother Red Cap, after a witch who lived in Camden. There are still a few of her pals inhabiting the place if black eyeliner, purple lipstick and pointed boots make you a likely candidate for cauldron-stirring. A white stone statue of Britannia protrudes from the first floor of the building opposite, above a shoe shop, but I don’t think anyone notices it, just as they don’t know about the witch. Yet if you step inside the foyer of the Black Cap, a few doors further down, you can see the witch herself, painted on a tiled wall. It’s funny how people miss so much of what’s going on around them. I was beginning to think Sophie wouldn’t show up, then I became convinced she had, and I had missed her.
Anyway, she finally appeared and we hit it off beautifully. She had tied back her long auburn hair so that it was out of her eyes, and I couldn’t stop looking at her. It’s never difficult to find new models; women are flattered by the thought of someone admiring their features. She half-smiled all the time, which was disconcerting at first, but after a while I enjoyed it because she looked like she was in on a secret that no-one else shared. I had met her two days earlier in the coffee shop in Bermondsey where she was working, and she had suggested going for a drink, describing our meeting place to me as ‘that pub in Camden near the shoe shop’. The one thing Camden has, more than any other place in London, is shoe shops, hundreds of the bastards, so you can understand why I was worried. It was quite crowded and we had to stand, but after a while Sophie felt tired and wanted to sit down, so we found a corner and wedged ourselves in behind a pile of coats. The relentless music was giving me a headache, so I was eventually forced to take my leave.
THE KING’S HEAD, UPPER STREET, ISLINGTON
The back of this pub operates a tiny theatre, so the bar suddenly fills up with the gin-and-tonic brigade at seven each evening, but the front room is very nice in a battered, nicotine-scoured way. It continued to operate on the old monetary system of pounds, shillings and pence for years, long after they brought in decimal currency. I’m sure the management just did it to confuse non-regulars who weren’t in the habit of being asked to stump up nineteen and elevenpence halfpenny for a libation. Emma was late, having been forced to stay behind at her office, a property company in Essex Road. The choice of territory was mine. Although it was within walking distance of her office she hadn’t been here before, and loved hearing this mad trilling coming from a door at the back of the pub. I’d forgotten to explain about the theatre. They were staging a revival of a twenties musical, and there were a lot of songs about croquet and how ghastly foreigners were. I remember Emma as being very pale and thin, with cropped blonde hair; she could easily have passed for a jazz-age flapper. I told her she should have auditioned for the show, but she explained that she was far too fond of a drink to ever remember anything as complicated as a dance step. At the intermission, a girl dressed as a giant sequinned jellyfish popped out to order a gin and French; apparently she had a big number in the second act. We taxed the barman’s patience by getting him to make up strange cocktails, and spent most of the evening laughing so loudly they probably heard us on stage. Emma agreed to sit for me at some point in the future, and although there was never a suggestion that our session would develop into anything more, I could tell that it probably would. I was about to kiss her when she suddenly thought something had bitten her, and I was forced to explain that my coat had picked up several fleas from my cat. She went off me after this, and grew silent, so I left.
THE PINEAPPLE, LEVERTON STREET, KENTISH TOWN
This tucked-away pub can’t have changed much in a hundred years, apart from the removal of the wooden partitions that separated the snug from the saloon. A mild spring morning, the Sunday papers spread out before us, an ancient smelly labrador flatulating in front of the fire, a couple of pints of decent bitter and two packets of pork scratchings. Sarah kept reading out snippets from the News Of The World, and I did the same with the Observer, but mine were more worthy than hers, and therefore not as funny. There was a strange man with an enormous nose sitting near the gents’ toilet who kept telling people that they looked Russian. Perhaps he was, too, and needed to find someone from his own country. It’s that kind of pub; it makes you think of home.
I noticed that one of Sarah’s little habits was rubbing her wrists together when she was thinking. Every woman has some kind of private signature like this. Such a gesture marks her out to a lover, or an old friend. I watched her closely scanning the pages – she had forgotten her glasses – and felt a great inner calm. Only once did she disturb the peace between us by asking if I had been out with many women. I lied, of course, as you do, but the question remained in the back of my head, picking and scratching at my brain, right up until I said goodbye to her. It was warm in the pub and she had grown sleepy; she actually fell asleep at one point, so I decided to quietly leave.
THE ANCHOR, PARK STREET, SOUTHWARK
It’s pleasant here on rainy days. In the summer, tourists visiting the nearby Globe fill up the bars and pack the riverside tables. Did you know that pub signs were originally provided so that the illiterate could locate them? The Anchor was built after the Southwark fire, which in 1676 razed the South Bank just as the Great Fire had attacked the North side ten years earlier. As I entered the pub, I noticed that the tide was unusually high, and the Thames was so dense and pinguid that it looked like a setting jelly. It wasn’t a good start to the evening.
I had several pints of strong bitter and grew more talkative as our session progressed. We ate Toad-In-The-Hole, smothered in elastic gravy. I was excited about the idea of Carol and I going out together. I think she was, too, although she warned me that she had some loose ends to tie up, a former boyfriend to get out of her system, and suggested that perhaps we shouldn’t rush at things. Out of the blue, she told me to stop watching her so much, as if she was frightened that she couldn’t take the scrutiny. But she can. I love seeing the familiar gestures of women, the half-smiles, the rubbing together of their hands, the sudden light in their eyes when they remember something they have to tell you. I can’t remember what they say, only how they look. I would never take pictures of them, like some men I’ve read about. I never look back, you understand. It’s too upsetting. Far more important to concentrate on who you’re with, and making them happy. I’d like to think I made Carol feel special. She told me she’d never had much luck with men, and I believe it’s true that some women just attract the wrong sort. We sat side by side watching the rain on the water, and I felt her head lower gently onto my shoulder, where it remained until I moved – a special moment, and one that I shall always remember.
THE LAMB & FLAG, ROSE STREET, COVENT GARDEN
You could tell summer was coming because people were drinking on the street, searching for spaces on the windowsills of the pub to balance their beer glasses. This building looks like an old coaching inn, and stands beside an arch over an alleyway, like the Pillars Of Hercules in Greek Street. It’s very old, with lots of knotted wood, and I don’t suppose there’s a straight angle in the place. The smoky bar is awkward to negotiate when you’re carrying a drink in either hand – as I so often am!
This evening Kathy asked why I had not invited her to meet any of my friends. I could tell by the look on her face that she was wondering if I thought she wasn’t good enough, and so I was forced to admit that I didn’t really have any friends to whom I could introduce her. She was more reticent than most of the girls I had met until then, more private. She acted as though there was something on her mind that she didn’t want to share with me. When I asked her to specify the problem, she either wouldn’t or couldn’t. To be honest, I think the problem was me, and that was why it didn’t work out between us. Something about my behaviour made her uneasy, right from the start. There was no trust between us, which in itself was unusual, because most women are quick to confide in me. They sense my innate decency, my underlying respect for them. I look at the other drinkers standing around me, and witness the contempt they hold for women. My god, a blind man could feel their disdain. That’s probably why I have no mates – I don’t like my own sex. I’m ashamed of the whole alpha male syndrome. It only leads to trouble.
I made the effort of asking Kathy if she would sit for me, but knew in advance what the answer would be. She said she would prefer it if we didn’t meet again, and yelped in alarm when I brushed against her hip, so I had to beat a hasty retreat.
THE KING WILLIAM IV, HIGH STREET, HAMPSTEAD
Paula chose this rather paradoxical pub. It’s in the middle of Hampstead, therefore traditional and oaky, with a beer garden that was packed on a hot summer night, yet the place caters to a raucous gay clientele. Apparently, Paula’s sister brought her here once before, an attractive girl judging from the photograph Paula showed me and such a waste, I feel, when she could be making a man happy. I wondered if, after finishing with Paula, I should give her sister a call, but decided that it would be playing a little too close to home.
We sat in the garden on plastic chairs, beside sickly flowerbeds of nursery-forced plants, but it was pleasant, and the pub had given me an idea. I resolved to try someone of the same gender next time, just to see what a difference it made. I picked up one of the gay newspapers lying in stacks at the back of the pub, and made a note of other venues in central London. I explained my interest in the newspaper by saying that I wanted to learn more about the lifestyles of others. Paula squeezed my hand and said how much she enjoyed being with someone who had a liberal outlook. I told her that my policy was live and let live, which is a laugh for a start. I am often shocked by the wide-eyed belief I inspire in women, and wonder what they see in me that makes them so trusting. When I pressed myself close against her she didn’t flinch once under my gaze, and remained staring into my eyes while I drained my beer glass. A special girl, a special evening, for both of us.
THE ADMIRAL DUNCAN, OLD COMPTON STREET, SOHO
Formerly decorated as a cabin aboard an old naval vessel, with lead-light bay windows and a curved wood ceiling, this venue was revamped to suit the street’s new status as a home to the city’s homosexuals, and painted a garish purple. It was restored again following the nail-bomb blast that killed and maimed so many of its customers. Owing to the tunnel-like shape of the bar, the explosive force had nowhere to escape but through the glass front, and caused horrific injuries. A monument to the tragedy is inset in the ceiling of the pub, but no atmosphere of tragedy lingers, for the patrons, it seems, have bravely moved on in their lives. In here I met Graham, a small-boned young man with a gentle West Country burr that seemed at odds with his spiky haircut. We became instant drinking pals, buying each other rounds in order to escape the evening heat of the mobbed street beyond. After what had occurred in the pub I found it astonishing that someone could be so incautious as to befriend a total stranger such as myself, but that is the beauty of the English boozer; once you cross the threshold, barriers of race, class and gender can be dropped. Oh, it doesn’t happen everywhere, I know, but you’re more likely to make a friend in this city than in most others. That’s why I find it so useful in fulfilling my needs. However, the experiment with Graham was not a success. Boys don’t work for me, no matter how youthful or attractive they appear to be. We were standing in a corner, raising our voices over the incessant thump of the jukebox, when I realised it wasn’t working. Graham had drunk so much that he was starting to slide down the wall, but there were several others in the vicinity who were one step away from being paralytic, so he didn’t stick out, and I could leave unnoticed.
THE BLACK FRIAR, QUEEN VICTORIA STREET, BLACKFRIARS
This strange little pub, stranded alone by the roundabout on the North side of the river at Blackfriars, has an Arts and Crafts style interior, complete with friezes, bas-reliefs and mottos running over its arches. Polished black monks traipse about the room, punctuating the place with moral messages. It stands as a memorial to a vanished London, a world of brown trilbys and woollen overcoats, of rooms suffused with pipe smoke and the tang of brilliantine. In the snug bar at the rear I met Danielle, a solidly-built Belgian au pair who looked so lonely, lumpen and forlorn that I could not help but offer her a drink, and she was soon pouring out her troubles in broken English. Her employers wanted her to leave because she was pregnant, and she couldn’t afford to go back to Antwerp.
To be honest I wasn’t listening to everything she was saying, because someone else had caught my eye. Seated a few stools away was a ginger-haired man who appeared to be following our conversation intently. He was uncomfortably overweight, and undergoing some kind of perspiration crisis. The pub was virtually deserted, most of the customers drinking outside on the pavement, and Danielle was talking loudly, so it was possible that she might have been overheard. I began to wonder if she was lying to me about her problems; if perhaps they were more serious than she made them sound, serious enough for someone to be following her. I know it was selfish, but I didn’t want to spend any more time with a girl who was in that kind of trouble, so I told her I needed to use the toilet, then slipped out across the back of the bar.
THE ANGEL, ROTHERHITHE
Another old riverside inn – I seem to be drawn to them, anxious to trace the city’s sluggish artery site by site, as though marking a pathway to the heart. The interesting thing about places like The Angel is how little they change across the decades, because they retain the same bleary swell of customers through all economic climates. Workmen and stockbrokers, estate agents, secretaries, van-drivers and tarts, they just rub along together with flirtatious smiles, laughs, belches and the odd sour word. The best feature of this pub is reached by the side entrance, an old wooden balcony built out over the shoreline, where mudlarks once rooted in the filth for treasure trove, and where you can sit and watch the sun settling between the pillars of Tower Bridge.
As the light faded we become aware of the sky brushing the water, making chilly ripples. Further along the terrace I thought I saw the red-haired man watching, but when I looked again, he had gone. Growing cold, we pulled our coats tighter, then moved inside. Stella was Greek, delicate and attractive, rather too young for me, but I found her so easy to be with that we remained together for the whole evening. Shortly before closing time she told me she should be going home soon because her brother was expecting her. I was just massaging some warmth back into her arms – we were seated by an open window and it had suddenly turned nippy – when she said she felt sick, and went off to the Ladies. After she failed to reappear I went to check on her, just to make sure she was all right. I found her in one of the cubicles, passed out.
THE SHIP, GREENWICH
The dingy interior of this pub is unremarkable, with bare-board floors and tables cut from blackened barrels, but the exterior is another matter entirely. I can imagine the building, or one very like it, existing on the same site for centuries, at a reach of the river where it is possible to see for miles in either direction. I am moving out toward the mouth of the Thames, being taken by the tide to ever-widening spaces in my search for absolution. There was something grotesquely Victorian about the weeds thrusting out of ancient brickwork, the tumbledown fences and the stink of the mud. It was unusually mild for the time of year, and we sat on the wall with our legs dangling over the water, beers propped at our crotches.
Melanie was loud and common, coarse-featured and thick-legged. She took up room in the world, and didn’t mind who knew it. She wore a lot of makeup, and had frothed her hair into a mad dry nest, but I was intrigued by the shape of her mouth, the crimson wetness of her lips, her cynical laugh, her seen-it-all-before eyes. She touched me as though expecting me to walk out on her at any moment, digging nails on my arm, nudging an elbow in my ribs, running fingers up my thigh. Still, I wondered if she would present a challenge, because I felt sure that my offer to sketch her would be rebuffed. She clearly had no interest in art, so I appealed to her earthier side and suggested something of a less salubrious nature.
To my surprise she quoted me a price list, which ruined everything. I swore at her, and pushed her away, disgusted. She, in turn, began calling me every filthy name under the sun, which attracted unwanted attention to both of us. It was then that I saw the ginger-headed man again, standing to the left of me, speaking into his chubby fist.
THE TRAFALGAR TAVERN, GREENWICH
I ran. Tore myself free of her and ran off along the towpath, through the corrugated iron alley beside the scrap-yard and past the defunct factory smoke-stacks, keeping the river to my right. On past The Yacht, too low-ceilinged and cosy to lose myself inside, to the doors of The Trafalgar, a huge gloomy building of polished brown interiors, as depressing as a church. Inside, the windows of the connecting rooms were dominated by the gleaming grey waters beyond. Nobody moved. Even the bar staff were still. It felt like a funeral parlour. I pushed between elderly drinkers whose movements were as slow as the shifting of tectonic plates, and slipped behind a table where I could turn my seat to face the river. I thought that if I didn’t move, I could remain unnoticed. In the left pocket of my jacket I still had my sketchbook. I knew it would be best to get rid of it, but didn’t have the heart to throw it away, not after all the work I had done.
When I heard the muttered command behind me, I knew that my sanctuary had been invaded and that it was the beginning of the end. I sat very still as I watched the red-headed man approaching from the corner of my eye, and caught the crackle of radio headsets echoing each other around the room. I slowly raised my head, and for the first time saw how different it all was now. A bare saloon bar filled with tourists, no warmth, no familiarity, no comfort.
When I was young I sat on the step – every pub seemed to have a step – with a bag of crisps and a lemonade, and sometimes I was allowed to sit inside with my Dad, sipping his bitter and listening to his beery laughter, the demands for fresh drinks, the dirty jokes, the outraged giggles of the girls at his table. They would tousle my hair, pinch my skinny arms and tell me that I was adorable. Different pubs, different women, night after night, that was my real home, the home I remember. Different pubs but always the same warmth, the same smells, the same songs, the same women. Everything about them was filled with smoky mysteries and hidden pleasures, even their names, The World Turned Upside Down, The Queen’s Head And Artichoke, The Rose And Crown, The Greyhound, The White Hart, all of them had secret meanings.
People go to clubs for a night out now, chrome and steel, neon lights, bottled beers, drum and bass, bouncers with headsets. The bars sport names like The Lounge and The Living Room, hoping to evoke a sense of belonging, but they cater to an alienated world, squandering noise and light on people so blinded by work that their leisure-time must be spent in aggression, screaming at each other, shovelling drugs, pushing for fights. As the red-haired man moved closer, I told myself that all I wanted to do was make people feel at home. Is that so very wrong? My real home was nothing, the memory of a damp council flat with a stinking disconnected fridge and dogshit on the floor. It’s the old pubs of London that hold my childhood; the smells, the sounds, the company. There is a moment before the last bell is called when it seems it could all go on forever. It is that moment I try to capture and hold in my palm. I suppose you could call it the land before Time.
THE LOAD OF HAY, HAVERSTOCK HILL, BELSIZE PARK
The red-haired officer wiped at his pink brow with a Kleenex until the tissue started to come apart. Another winter was approaching, and the night air was bitter. His wife used to make him wear a scarf when he was working late, and it always started him sweating. She had eventually divorced him. He dressed alone now and ate takeaway food in a tiny flat. But he wore the scarf out of habit. He looked in through the window of the pub at the laughing drinkers at the bar, and the girl sitting alone beside the slot-machine. Several of his men were in there celebrating a colleague’s birthday, but he didn’t feel like facing them tonight.
How the hell had they let him get away? He had drifted from them like bonfire smoke in changing wind. The Trafalgar had too many places where you could hide, he saw that now. His men had been overconfident and undertrained. They hadn’t been taught how to handle anyone so devious, or if they had, they had forgotten what they had learned.
He kept one of the clear plastic ampoules in his pocket, just to remind himself of what he had faced that night. New technology had created new hospital injection techniques. You could scratch yourself with the micro-needle and barely feel a thing, if the person wielding it knew how to avoid any major nerve-endings. Then it was simply a matter of squeezing the little bulb, and any liquid contained in the ampoule was delivered through a coat, a dress, a shirt, into the flesh. Most of his victims were drunk at the time, so he had been able to connect into their bloodstreams without them noticing more than a pinprick. A deadly mixture of RoHypnol, Zimovane and some kind of coca-derivative. It numbed and relaxed them, then sent them to sleep. But the sleep deepened and stilled their hearts, as a dreamless caul slipped over their brains, shutting the senses one by one until there was nothing left alive inside.
No motives, no links, just dead strangers in the most public places in the city, watched by roving cameras, filled with witnesses. That was the trouble; you expected to see people getting legless in pubs.
His attention was drawn back to the girl sitting alone. What was she doing there? Didn’t she realise the danger? No-one heeded the warnings they issued. There were too many other things to worry about.
He had been on the loose for a year now, and had probably moved on to another city, where he could continue his work without harassment. He would stop as suddenly as he had begun. He’d dropped a sketchbook, but it was filled with hazy pencil drawings of pub interiors, all exactly the same, and told them nothing. The only people who would ever really know him were the victims – and perhaps even they couldn’t see behind their killer’s eyes. As the urban landscape grew crazier, people’s motives were harder to discern. An uprooted population, on the make and on the move. Fast, faster, fastest.
And for the briefest of moments he held the answer in his hand. He saw a glimmer of the truth – a constancy shining like a shaft through all the change, the woman alone in the smoky saloon, smiling and interested, her attention caught by just one man, this intimacy unfolding against a background warmth, the pulling of pints, the blanket of conversation, the huddle of friendship – but then it was gone, all gone, and the terrible sense of unbelonging filled his heart once more.