I admit that I’m over-cautious when it comes to guessing whether a pub is rough, but that hasn’t come out of nowhere.
For a start, there’s my family. My Dad – and I hope he won’t mind me saying this – was himself a major cause of roughness in pubs when he was a young man. My parents met in a pub in Bridgwater as youngsters but Mum had heard of Dad and his brothers long before that:
Your Uncle Ernie especially had a reputation as a real hard man. Your dad never started anything. They’d look at him and because he had red hair they’d see how far they could push him. And you could push him quite a long way but then.… He’d just snap. He got banned from pubs for fighting.
Dad himself is a bit embarrassed by it all now but…
Basically, we went out to pubs for two reasons: either to score, or for a punch-up. Get a few bevvies, have a punch up. That was part of the evening, part of the entertainment. Young men strut about, I’m the bees knees, don’t mess with me – they have a hard man attitude. Back then, the boys from North Petherton, boys from Woolavington, the Bridgwater boys… They were hard boys. And you didn’t mix until you got the bus into town and saw each other in the pubs, so there were tensions. Fights started either because people got pissed and rowdy, or because there was a feud – long-running feuds, sometimes – and it would just spark. You didn’t go looking for it, exactly, but you didn’t back away, and you were always ready. The landlords usually dealt with it themselves: they’d come out from behind the bar with a mallet, a bat, a stick, or a bloody big Alsatian. Swinging their sticks, get ’em out quick, into the street. Some of them used to employ local hard men as their bouncers, like the Starkey brothers on the door at The Newmarket.
I grew up with stories likes this, and similar tales from my late and much-missed Uncle Norman, Mum’s brother, who was in the Army for years. And my Mum could look after herself, too, come to that.
My parents, being experienced pub-goers and briefly publicans themselves, at a pub that wasn’t rough but wasn’t genteel either, were adept at reading them. And in Bridgwater they knew which ones were no-go at any given time and always made sure I knew, too. The pubs on the estate where I grew up were non-starters as far as they were concerned – too dodgy altogether, much better to walk a bit into town.
Living in New Cross in London in my early twenties I tested the boundaries and worked out that I could have a good time in almost any pub. On balance, though, I rather preferred the ones where I didn’t have to watch what I said, or where I sat, and where I wasn’t being stared at. (And that goes for posh pubs, too, actually – it’s a general rule.)
A friend of mine once said that there are two types of people in life: those after a roller-coaster ride, and those who want peace and quiet. I’m very much the latter and so I’ve simply never shared the glee that some seem to find in ambient aggro.
That does mean, however, that I – and therefore we – have missed out on some decent pubs because, at first pass, my spidey sense registered a false positive for roughness. There’s a fine line between rough and characterful and perhaps I need to re-calibrate my instruments, just a little.