Beatles biographer Hunter Davies’ New London Spy was published in 1966. It’s a travel guide aimed at cool people, and an excellent window onto the city at the height of its hipness.
In his lengthy section on pubs, Davies makes some interesting observations:
Pubs are what other countries don’t have. In England, country pubs are perhaps nicest of all. After that come the London ones.
Pubs change character as you tipple down from the top of Britain. In the dry areas of Skye you have none at all. In Glasgow they are just drinking shops. In Carlisle they are cheerless and state controlled.
But in London, there are pubs for all men and for all seasons.
He then goes on to classify London’s pubs into six categories:
- rough pubs
- posh pubs
- arty pubs
- pubs for unaccompanied men (“not queers”)
- pubs for unaccompanied women
- pubs associated with crime.
His descriptions of various posh pubs and of some of the pubs he recommends for women suggest that gastro-pubs had their genesis in this era – “serves very decent food, far better than the average pub meal (though naturally priced accordingly)”; “both setting and clientele are almost exaggeratedly decorous”.
It is the so-called rough pubs that sound most intriguing, though. Dirty Dicks opposite Liverpool Street had dead cats, cobwebs and sawdust for decor. Charlie Brown’s (the Railway Tavern) on West India Dock Road housed a “collection of Curiosa” from all around the world (sadly sold off in the late 60s). And of the Steps (the Custom House Hotel) on Victoria Dock Road, Davies says: “It is not unusual to see somebody almost kicked to death outside.”
The illustrations in the book are by world-famous knitting pattern designer Kaffe Fassett. You can pick up a copy of the New London Spy for next to nothing at abebooks.co.uk if you want to read more.