I’m Going Up The Dog
The pubs are open in Old London Town for the moment, and they’re very quiet – a joy for the drinker, a nightmare for the publican. Workers simply aren’t returning to their offices, and that means the central London mental health support services, of which pubs must be the biggest, don’t have their custom.
Yet it’s summer and outside drinking is the norm, so there are plenty of safe spaces to enjoy a pint. I’ve missed them all; 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 beer at alehouses. Coroners and judges worked out of pubs. We meet our future partners in pubs and even find our way around by their location.
Pub names provide markers for all the historical events of England. Red Lion, White Hart, Crown & Anchor, Royal Oak, Coach & Horses, the Camel & Artichoke, The Dog, each has its own hidden meaning.
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.
Pubs are where much of England’s traditional cookery survives. Not the fish and chips sold to tourists, but pubs like The Crown in North London that sells potted pork, oysters and a dozen types of cheese. English food gained a bad reputation after the war because there were few 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.
After writing ‘The Victoria Vanishes’ I watched in dismay as the pubs mentioned in the book started themselves to vanish. That fine ‘Eagle’ illustrator Peter Jackson (1922-2003) drew and painted many pubs that succumbed to the property developer’s wrecking ball, but most were turned into flats.
Whether the remaining ones will once more be heaving with the beery swell of bantering blusterers is moot. It’ll take a vaccine to fully effect a return to norm – and it won’t be the norm as companies offer their employees the alternative of working at home. My publishers are only returning for a 2/3 day week, and many friends aren’t going back at all.