London pubs from a woman’s perspective, 1964

A drawing of a pub.
The Kings Head and Eight Bells by John Coop­er.

In 1964 Batsford published a guide to London with a twist: it was about where to go and what to do on sleepy Sundays. Such as, for example… visit the pub.

We picked up our copy of Lon­don on Sun­day at Oxfam in Cotham for £3.99. It’s not a book we’ve ever encoun­tered before, or even heard of.

We haven’t man­aged to find out much about the author, Bet­ty James, either, except that she wrote a few oth­er books, includ­ing Lon­don and the Sin­gle Girl, pub­lished in 1967, and Lon­don for Lovers, 1968. She was old­er than the girl­ish tone of the book might sug­gest – in her late for­ties, we gath­er – and twice divorced by the time she was pro­filed in the New­cas­tle Jour­nal in 1969.

Before the main event, indi­vid­ual pubs crop up here and there – the Grapes in Wap­ping is accu­rate­ly described as ‘an old saw­dusty riv­er pub’ where the staff give direc­tions to a par­tic­u­lar­ly good but hard-to-find Chi­nese restau­rant.

One of the best lines in the book, thrown away in an itin­er­ary for a walk, is, we’re cer­tain, a dig at male guide­book writ­ers of the peri­od who couldn’t resist rat­ing bar­maids:

The Colville Tav­ern at 72 Kings Road… [has] the best-look­ing bar­man in Lon­don. Ask for Charles.

Pubs are giv­en real, focused treat­ment in the dying pages of the book, which is a state­ment in its own right.

From Mon­day until Sat­ur­day this Sun­day is the Local Pub­lic House of some­body else in whom once has no inter­est what­so­ev­er. How­ev­er… on Sun­day at the hour of noon it is entered imme­di­ate­ly by the knowl­edge­able tosspot in order that he may refresh him­self in con­vivial com­pa­ny, while his wife cooks the joint to which he even­tu­al­ly return too late to avoid unpleas­ant­ness… Mean­while, the reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to this Sun­day Pub (whose Local Pub­lic House it is from Mon­day until Sat­ur­day) will repair to anoth­er Sun­day Pub because it is con­sid­ered not schmaltzy to take drink in one’s own Local Pub­lic House upon a Sun­day.

Inevitably, the first pub to get a write-up is the Grenadier, which we vis­it­ed ear­li­er this year:

This very old pub is impos­si­ble to find. You can wan­der around the chi-chi lit­tle mews sur­round­ing it, absorb­ing the untrace­able ema­na­tions of Guards sub­al­terns and debu­tantes with­out actu­al­ly ever see­ing any­thing but a chi-chi lit­tle mews… A dread silence occa­sion­al­ly falls upon the place… [because] some­body has mis­laid a debu­tante.

The Kings Head and Eight Bells in Chelsea sounds like fun, with peo­ple drink­ing out­side in the embank­ment gar­dens on Sun­day morn­ing, or block­ing the road ‘where they risk being knocked drin­k­less by oth­er cognoscen­ti in fast sports job’. It is, Ms. James says, ‘exclu­sive­ly patro­n­ised by absolute­ly every­body who isn’t any­body’. Sad­ly, this one seems to be a goner.

A drawing of a pub interior.
The inte­ri­or of the Square Rig­ger by John Coop­er.

Of course we got real­ly excit­ed at the descrip­tion of a theme pub, the Square Rig­ger in the City, near Mon­u­ment Sta­tion:

Ful­ly rigged with seag­ull cries and the sound of break­ing surf there is also an enor­mous social schism between the Captain’s Cab­in and the Mess Decks both 1 and 2… ‘Tween decks there are rope lad­ders, sails, and yard-arms and that. Togeth­er with a lot of beau­ti­ful­ly pol­ished brass bar-top.

We see from whatpub.com that it was a notable booze bunker, before its demo­li­tion in the 1980s.

Back to those clas­sic mews pubs of west Lon­don, the Star in Bel­gravia, of course, gets a men­tion, and rather a cheeky one: ‘Well now… The best thing we can say about this pub is that all the afore­men­tioned miss­ing debu­tantes may be dis­cov­ered here… recov­er­ing… And some of them sim­ply aching for the utter, utter blis­sikins of get­ting mis­laid again as soon as pos­si­ble’.

The Wind­sor Cas­tle in Kens­ing­ton appar­ent­ly had ‘Lus­cious sand­wich­es’ and quite the scene going on, with actors in the bar and ‘a pig ogling a cow in the pleas­ant walled gar­den’.

The last pub tip is giv­en reluc­tant­ly:

There is of course one Sun­day Pub to which affi­ciona­dos resort of a Sun­day evening. How­ev­er, it could so eas­i­ly be com­plete­ly ruined by hyper­me­trop­ic inva­sion that I hard­ly like to men­tion it. This is the Lil­liput Hall, a Courage’s house at 9 Jamaica Road SE1, where, at around 9 pm, com­mences the best not-too-far-out jazz this side of par­adise. The hun­dred per cent pro­fes­sion­al group ren­der­ings are led by the guv’nor, Bert Annable, a name to be con­jured with in the busi­ness, since he’s worked with Cyril Sta­ple­ton and Paul Fenoul­het, among oth­ers.

Sound like a laugh. Now, it goes with­out say­ing, flats, but the closedpubs.co.uk records some nice first­hand mem­o­ries.

We reck­on it’d have been quite nice to read an entire book about pubs by Bet­ty James. She seems to have a feel for them, and her arch­ness is amus­ing.

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