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.

Dylan Thomas Depicts a Wintry Pub, 1947

The Welsh poet and essayist Dylan Thomas enjoyed beer rather too much and it’s no surprise that pubs often crop up in his writing, and that their atmospheres are so brilliantly evoked.

‘Return Journey’ was written for the BBC in 1947 and we came across it in Quite Early One Morning, a 1954 collection of Thomas’s radio scripts. You can find the full text today in various books in print today such as the Dylan Thomas Omnibus.

But, by way of a taster, here’s the passage in which Thomas describes visiting the Hotel (a pub) in a bleak post-Blitz Swansea in search of his younger self:

The bar was just opening, but already one customer puffed and shook at the counter with a full pint of half-frozen Tawe water in his wrapped-up hand. I said Good morning, and the barmaid, polishing the counter vigorously as thought it were a rare and valuable piece of Swansea china, said to her first customer:

BARMAID
Seen the film at the Elysium Mr Griffiths there’s snow isn’t it did you come up on your bicycle our pipes burst Monday…

NARRATOR
A pint of bitter, please.

BARMAID
Proper little lake in the kitchen got to wear your Wellingtons when you boil an egg one and four please…

CUSTOMER
The cold gets me just here…

BARMAID
…and eightpence change that’s your liver Mr Griffiths you been on the cocoa again…

After a passage in which Thomas describes his younger self (“blubber lips; snub nose; curly mousebrown hair”) there is a wonderful non sequitur from the barmaid…

I remember a man came here with a monkey. Called for ‘alf for himself and a pint for the monkey. And he wasn’t Italian at all. Spoke Welsh like a preacher.

…and some more customers arrive:

Snowy business bellies pressed their watch-chains against the counter; black business bowlers, damp and white now as Christmas pudding in their cloths, bobbed in front of the misty mirrors. The voice of commerce rang sternly through the lounge.

The final sad comment on pubs in this story reflects a common experience across Britain during the post-war period:

NARRATOR
What’s the Three Lamps like now?

CUSTOMER
It isn’t like anything. It isn’t there. It’s nothing mun. You remember Ben Evans’s stores? It’s right next door to that. Ben Evans isn’t there either…

(Fade)