Dreadful welcome: pubs on film

Old Hollywood was a town overrun with homesick British expats, making films that reflected a particular vision of the old country – nostalgic, parodic and often with a Gothic tint. That was reflected in its portrayal of pubs, too, skewing their image for decades to come.

Consider 1943’s Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, one of the better entries in the run of Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, which gives us The Rat & Raven.

The film is set in Northumbria, not that you’d know that from the cast of assorted Brits, Antipodeans, Irishmen and Americans, all speaking stage cockney or Transatlantic English.

The pub, which appears 35 minutes in, is located in the country town of Hurlstone – instantly recognisable to students of horror film as the standing ‘European village’ set at Universal Studios, built c.1920 and reused endlessly to stand in for everywhere from the Western Front to Wales to the fictional ‘Visaria’ where Frankenstein’s monster rampaged in his later post-Karloff career.

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Snapshot: Guinness in Nigeria

In 1962, Guinness opened a brewery at Ikeja in Nigeria. The management was made up largely of British and Irish migrants, such as Alan Coxon, who went to Nigeria in 1966 to work as plant technical director.

We know this because his daughter, Fiona Gudge, is the owner of the large collection of Guinness papers we’ve sorting through and cataloguing for the past six months.

What follows, with Fiona’s input, is a brief snapshot of the emergence of a new kind of colonialism that emerged in the wake of Nigeria’s independence in 1960, and the strange dominance of Irish stout in West Africa.

Timeline

1958 | Britain agrees to grant Nigeria independence
1959 | Guinness Nigeria founded
1960 | Nigerian independence
1962 | Guinness opens brewery in Nigeria
1963 | Federal Republic of Nigeria declared
1965 | Guinness Nigeria listed on Nigerian stock exchange
1966 | Two military coups
1966 | Alan Coxon begins working at Ikeja
1967 | Beginning of the Nigerian Civil War (Biafran War)
1970 | End of Nigerian Civil War
1970 | Second National Development Plan, 1970-74
1971 | Coxon family leaves Nigeria
1972 | Nigerian Enterprises Promotion Decree (Indigenisation Decree)
1974 | NEPD into effect
1984 | Notice given of ban on import into Nigeria of barley
1998 | Stout production ceases at Ikeja

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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.

Australian drinking culture in London, 1966-1970

One of the perks of having been blogging for as long as we have is that people find us via Google and send us interesting things without us having to make the slightest effort.

At the beginning of February, Sally Mays emailed us asking for help tracking down information about a pub she remembered visiting years ago, the Surrey, just of the Strand in London:

I went there a number of times with my boyfriend when I was a very young woman, around 1970. We were planning to travel to Australia as Ten Pound Poms and Australia House (where we were interviewed) was just around the corner from the Surrey – well, actually on the other side of the Strand, on a corner opposite Surrey Street.

I’m not sure quite how we became aware of the pub but it was mainly frequented by Aussies and New Zealanders and served mostly (perhaps only) Foster’s beer (or lager, I should say). I think it was the only period of my life where I imbibed the amber nectar.

It didn’t look much like a pub – it was housed in one of the buildings on the right hand side of Surrey Street, as you walk down it towards the Embankment. Its décor was very basic – plain, I seem to remember, with lots of beer spilled onto the floor, and a raucous ambience.

Those were days when it was still possible for [incoming] travellers to park their Combi vans down by the Thames for the purposes of selling [them on to outgoers].

[The pub] was a very male-dominated place – the sort that wore shorts and flip flops no matter what the weather!

Sally also pointed us to one of the few sources she’d been able to find – a 1966 diary by a young Australian traveller in London shared on a blog – but we think it’s now been hidden from public view.

The good news is that the first book we reached out for, Green and White’s 1968 Guide to London Pubs, had a detailed entry on the Surrey that confirmed Sally’s memories:

The Surrey, just off the Strand, is the first visiting-place of the newly arrived Australian; though they don’t actually serve schooners of beer, you can get two home-brewed varieties: Swan’s Lager on draught and Foster’s in the bottle. The present house dates back to the turn of the century and had, until a recent fire, a fine collection of Australiana; this was reduced to a couple of boomerangs and photographs of visiting cricketers. It is the sort of place in which the lone Pommie, towards closing time, feels rather uncomfortable; there is a lot of back-slapping and singing and rather too much noise. Otherwise, it is a perfectly normal pub, serving lunch and snacks all day. The upstairs bar is a trifle small, particularly when it gets crowded at lunch-time, but there is plenty of room downstairs, and even a dartboard. A visiting Canadian professor once refused to buy his publisher a box of matches here, but the staff obligingly accepted a 2d cheque, which must prove something. Being handy for Australia House, the prospective migrant, harried by bad weather, housing and taxes, might well take a drink in the Surrey to see how the natives disport themselves.

Since January, we’ve also managed to find our copy of The New London Spy, edited by Hunter Davies and published in 1966. Its section on ‘Australian London’ mentions the Surrey repeatedly as something of a centre of Australian life in London:

Here, on a Friday night, elbow to elbow, surrounded by boomerangs and familiar accents, London’s Australians sip their Fosters (Melbourne) and Swan (Perth)… and complain about jobs (‘lousy bloody seven quid a week’), food (‘I haven’t had a decent steak since I got here’ and the weather (‘How can you ever get a tan in this place?’).

The pace of drinking is, by British standards, express-like, but even so it is unlikely you will see that well-known Australian sight, rare in Britain, the-face-on-the-bar-room-floor. (You can, by the way, pick out the old Australian from the newly-arrived. The seasoned man drinks iced English beer instead of iced Australian.)

This book, though, also lists other notable Australian pubs: the Zambesi Club and the Ifield, both in Earls Court, then known as ‘Kangaroo Valley’ because of its supposed population of 50,000 rowdy Aussies.

An article by Rodney Burbeck in Tatler for 7 May 1966, available in full via to subscribers to the British Newspaper Archive, puts this influx down to the opening of the Overseas Visitors Centre (OVS) in Earls Court in 1955. It also has notes on the culture clash between British drinkers and Australians:

Bill Robertson, 28-year- old farmer, strolling along Earls Court Road on his second night in London [said] ‘We went to Wimbledon last night to see how the other half live. Walked into a pub and every head turned round. We were strangers, foreigners. And what’s more they didn’t drink as quickly as Australians.’ In Earls Court you can walk into a pub and be the only Englishman there. Colleague John McLeod, who writes the London Life drinks column, doesn’t like Australians in pubs. He thinks they are rowdy and boorish and drink too much. I have a friend who says you can always tell an Australian in a pub because when he has finished drinking he falls flat on his face… One girl living in Earls Court says ‘The only Australians I have met have only been interested in two things: rugger and beer.’

The 1972 film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie includes a scene set in an Australian pub in London, with Barry disgusted by English beer and demanding ‘a decent chilled Foster’s’. It might be satire but it probably captures to some degree how these pubs really felt. (For now, you can see it here, at 14:46.)

It feels as if there’s a lot more to be explored here. If you’re an Australian who lived in London in the 1960s-70s with memories of pubs and of hunting ‘iced beer’, do drop us a line.

Soon After Opening

Soon after opening I came down to the public bar in the plain old pub in the plain old part of Exeter that traffic flew through, dusting everything black and shaking crumbs from the cracks, following Mum for no special reason other than that following Mum was my default course, and knowing soon that I would be sent upstairs, away from the optics and the enticing piano, away from the plastic sign advertising hot pies and pasties, away from the plastic Babycham Bambis and unbelievably, unthievably massive porcelain ashtrays.

Soon after opening and the old sailor was in his usual seat with his quivering dog and a bulb of brandy glowing like a port-side harbour light on the table before him, in his grey Mackintosh black at the cuffs, in his knocked-back flat cap, in his steel-capped shoes that anchored him in place. I had a sketchbook to show him and folded it open so his quaking, tobacco-cured fingers could trace my pictures of bombers, tanks and submarines, but not battleships, thank goodness not battleships, like the one that burned and bubbled away into the Java Sea beneath him in 1942, taking half his mind with it.

Soon after opening and nicotine-tinted frosted glass softened the light, warmed it, and weakened it so that the far corners stayed black as bottled stout. Last night’s spills and cigarettes, twenty years of dust in the carpet, and the gush of pumps into buckets, trailed the next turn of the cycle – another round of hands in pockets and make it a double, why not, and dirty playing cards sliding through puddles, darts drum, drum, drumming into a board more hole than fibre.

Soon after opening the jukebox came on, and immediately we rocked down to Electric Avenue, we wouldn’t let the sun go down on us, the Eton Rifles, Eton Rifles, Eton Rifles, Agadoo doo doo – centre-less seven-inch records grabbed and flipped into place, clunk click every trip, as a silhouette in a shadow-black leather jacket loaded coins into the machine with one hand, greasily-fingered pint glass in the other, knee bent and foot tapping. The small sound made the room emptier, a form of wishful thinking.

Soon after opening and the stocktake concluded in the mushroomy undergut of the pub where the walls wept and Grandpa spat gold into his handkerchief. Scuffed plastic crates, pulled from pub to pub, brewery to dray, hurled and stacked and left to bleach like elephant bones in cracked-concrete, weed-riddled yards. A short pencil, the tip of the tongue, a tally kept on the curled page of an orange Silvine notepad from the newsagent by the Jewish cemetery – lemonade times two, cola times three, light ale, brown ale, tonic, American, pineapple, tomato, orange – the carillon chiming of scurf-necked nip bottles snatched and shaken, stacked and taken, arranged into towers and walls.

Soon after opening in the bar where my brother learned his first words which, yelled from a window at a passerby, were the shame of the family – pub words, not real world words, not words a grown man would say before his mother, let alone a fat-cheeked cherub in his terry-towelling nappy before the whole world – more men arrived, with skinny wrists and slip-on shoes, and took up post at sentry stations on benches and at the bend of the bar. Pound notes were snapped flat and primped and pinched between fingertips to be passed across – “Have one for yourself, love?”

Soon after opening the moment came for me to cross the the plum-coloured curlicues of the wall-to-wall, towards the door marked PRIVATE, towards the dark stairwell and the dusty steps with toenail thick white paint at either side and the centre stripe of bare board, up to the flat where 80 years ago commercial travellers dried their socks on the fireguard and eyed their sample cases with sorrow.

With apologies to Dylan Thomas.