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)