El Dorado

The Meyrick Arms. The Meyrick. Pronounced Merrick, as in John or Joseph. To suggest otherwise – a posited May Rick, perhaps – reveals a south London tyro, a Battersea pub neophyte unaware that outside of one’s solipsism a whole universe ages happily. It stands oddly alone on the Falcon Road, a survivor from the Blitz razed streets around Clapham Junction, a Hi-Brazil found amongst the seas of post-war town planning. It is what was once typical about pubs in London. Not quite a gin palace. Built slightly later than that particular craze, its proportions are less grand – though still in the classical style. The Victorian patrician perhaps felt this achitecture was uplifting, allowing the working man to see beyond gin, beer and casual violence. It didn’t work, of course, but it is a noble, flawed ideal. It is telling us that man isn’t base and grass eating, that he has a mysterious and complicated spiritual aspect that might need attention.

I haven’t been there for nearly thirty years. As indicated previously, I once had a claim here. I lived above the motor-bike shop opposite, in two rooms with a view of the station. I had great friends. We were a gang of amateur actors, playing in church halls around and about. We were the named Goldsmith’s Players. Nothing fancy, all Rattigan and drawing rooms. We liked it, though the meagre audiences were too polite to say honestly what it was they thought. Though paying customers, they were usually cajoled friends and family. It hardly mattered, really. We were having fun and considerations like quality barely were thought about.

After rehearsals, we would tumble into the Meyrick, mixing with the factory workers, the Irish, the West Indians, the war veterans, railway employees. All those. It was a lively place. It was rough, working class and uncompromising. But it was friendly and we were part of the scene. Though too late in time for the fabled ‘sing-song’, the juke box was lively enough. Queen were big, you probably forget quite how big. But they were always on. We loved it. We drunkenly sang along, though I blush to reveal it now.

Goldsmith’s Players sadly broke up in early Nineteen Eighty-One. There was a schism. A new, younger crowd had infiltrated the group and wanted to do agit-prop. They desired to topple the nascent Thatcher government. They saw Goldsmith’s as important because we were in a rough part of London and these passionate believers were convinced that the best way to spread the hard-left message to the masses was through theatre. The old crowd was purged. We were reactionaries, apparently. We were propping up the Conservative establishment with our vignettes of middle class parlours and hand wringing young ladies from Tring. The group’s name was changed to The Shapurji Saklatvala Red Theatre Movement. As I understand it, a splinter group was formed called the Charlotte Despard Message Regiment or something. But both faded away. People didn’t want revolution. And they certainly didn’t want to watch Tariq Ali Manques doing things with Brecht.

I was offered a job in Islington and I took it. The old crowd drifted into other things, in pairs, mainly with children and jobs and we all lost sight of one another. The Meyrick carried on without us. Thinking about it, we were interlopers there. We were tolerated freaks and our absence was noted mainly in the takings. But if I hear Edison Lighthouse or Love Affair, I’m carried back to Battersea, with her Maureens and Cathys, and those long endless summers, Carlton Long Size and Westons Cider, Number 6 and sheepskins. Black and white had yieled to heavy colour, drugs for booze and fags, hair and sideburns grew, bottle perms were no longer a sick deviation. I’ll tell you, the sun never set on Battersea. It never did.

So naturally, I’ve been keen to review my inamorata again. I realise that I have perhaps sentimentalised the pub but I should have known that as the cliche states, you can never go home. The Meyrick is still there. From the outside it looks remarkably as I have recalled. But time hasn’t been kind. Nothing has been kind. Demographics hasn’t been kind. Battersea has grown fat and rich but there is still what these days we call an underclass. And they think the Meyrick is pretty much the place to be. And on going in, one’s eyes need to adjust to the gloom before viwing the tired and dispossessed leaning at the bar, clutching their pints and fags, clutching eachother’s faces, clutching at straws. Oddly, there are a couple of leather sofas here but the skin has split on them, tongues of foam loll out, hang there ignored. The bar stools look like deflated souffles, the barmaid merely deflated. As you approach the bar – and this is true – there is a sign which says ‘Piss off!’. I ordered a Guinness. I have to say it was poured if not brilliantly then competently. But there are no please or thank yous. A lot of stares, however, of the ‘Do I know that geezer’ style. No sound neither. Nobody seemed to be speaking. There was no music, no Queen or Love Affair here anymore, no vibrancy, just a vaque smell of urine and Dettol, of fags and halitosis. I drank up and as I left after that first pint, rivulets of hot salty tears making their way down each side of my nose, I felt perhaps I had learned a lesson. Though what that is, I don’t know. What about a cocktail lounge next? What about CLASS! What about going forward?

The Wardrobe of Proteus, EC1

This blog hasn’t been easy. In anticipation, a month or two back, I decided I’d drink in pubs I wouldn’t usually. But you can’t just do that. Not here. See, my face was pretty badly rearranged, like a Picasso. From his – let’s call it – disappointing period, the post-war southern France laziness, all vivid colours and no substance. And that was my face. All vivid colours and no substance. Still, if any of you are wondering, I’m looking pretty much like my picture again. I can get into my white jacket again without screaming from shooting pains. I can fit my dicky-bow without tasting blood.

I remember, I didn’t want a drink but I felt a duty beyond my own superficial desires. My apparent need for an early night, a warm drink and ‘A Book at Bedtime’ was put aside for the greater good, for truth. For the ‘blog’. A little place near me had and has what might be called a reputation. It changes its name on a twice yearly basis which hardly anchors it in stability. I first remember it as ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, a good old pub, piano in the corner, a dog, all that. This pub served drinks in a thick glass, The landlord was an ex-footballer. Charlton Athletic, by all accounts. And there was a saloon bar which acted as a saloon bar. A few bob extra. Nicer service. At some point in the early nineties, however, the brewery sold out to a rapacious American concern. They wanted more bang for their bucks and renamed it ‘Tridents!’ It has gone through many changes since, including the horrendous ‘Mermaid’s Purse’. A Hadean pit of chlamydia and broken teeth. And it was, when I frequented ‘The Wardrobe of Proteus’, aiming itself at a hip, moneyed, Hoxton crowd. I feel it is right to chase both money and good manners. Maybe the Americans saw more of a future in overpriced cocktails than in strangely coloured alcopops. The unfortunate location however brought in a melee of office workers, council girls and the sniffing boys that follow them, ex and future prisoners, sixty a day merchants. So the social mix is an awkward one. Very Islington these days though.

I had gin – of course! – and was left alone for most of the night. I was finishing the dregs of my seventh, however, when a tall red-headed man sat beside me. He considered my white jacket and declared, in a low London accent ‘D’you know what? I want you to buy me a drink.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I see. Well of course. What would you like?’

The barman came over. Red said ‘I want a long island iced tea.’ He was served this and I was charged seven pounds. As I went to get up, Red pulled me back down onto my stool. ‘Wait! Wait. What are you doing? Stick around Grandad. You from round here?’

I didn’t like to say I lived a few streets away. ‘Devon. I’m up from Devon.’

‘Devon, eh? Where’s that, France? You French?’

‘Actually, it’s the west country.’

‘Oh good. I love the Irish. My Mum’s from Sligo. You might know her. Her name’s Mary.’ He took a deep drink. ‘I Hate the French. So why you here? Business? You a business man?’

‘Yes, I deal in car parts.’

‘Money in that? You got any money? I tell you something. Tonight, White, my Irish friend, is your lucky night. I know this city and I’m going to show you its seedier side. It ain’t all bowler hats, you know.’

‘Thanks, Red, but I need my beauty sleep. There’s a car part symposium in Olympia first thing. I have to be there. I’m the key note speaker.’

‘You’ll be speaking out of the side of your fucking head if you carry on. Key note? Do I look like an idiot? I’ll give you a key note you bald bastard, right on your nogging.’

As I tried to run I felt a bass thump between my shoulders. Breath sighed out from me as I fell to the floor. I heard punters laughing as Red proceeded to do work me over, leaving no stone unturned, giving it his all, his best shot. This yahoo took my face and kept butting it, exhausting himself, harming himself.

Naturally, he only wanted my money and after crumbling my fingers in his palms he took out my wallet and was surprised I had no Irish ‘punts’. I slipped away and awoke in the Royal Free Hospital. The police said there was no chance of catching Red. The pub has changed its name again. This time to ‘The Sea, The Sea’. Who it is aimed at, I’m not sure. Not me, I know that much.

VIN! and the Campden Head

An old(ish) friend posted me a letter with a ticket for something called VIN!. A convenient and ‘witty’ acronym, I presume but I didn’t deign to read the small print. It was an invitation to a wine tasting exhibition in Finsbury’s Great Hall. This didn’t seem so nice an invitation to me. An old agricultural hall full of rickety stands of wine reps pressing their wretched wares upon my increasingly frail body seemed dull at best, dangerous at worst. But I went along. My friend owed me money (who doesn’t owe me money?) And he still does, I didn’t see any money at all. But the ticket cost £20.00, something that slightly impressed me until I saw he’d filled in a two for one offer from the free paper ‘The Metro’.

As we went into the main hall, there was a sign which said ‘Any person deemed to be over-intoxicated will be asked to leave without refund.’ ‘Well! The sauce!’ my friend declared. We’ll call him Derwyn. Actually no, let’s call him Lenny Dobkin. Let’s ‘out’ the fucker. He asks me not to name him and Derwyn was his nom de plume during a brief mobster period but I shall risk his ire. Lenny likes to feel that the world has little to do but thwart him.

I tried to put his mind at ease and pointed to the sign. ‘Interesting use of the amplifier ‘over’ though. It sort of says that intoxication is fine. Just be sensible. Have a few drinks, enjoy yourself. Don’t go too far. That’s all.’ ‘No,’ Lenny shook his head sadly. ‘They’re saying don’t start wrecking the joint or you’re out. What in hell do they think I paid for? And ‘over’ isn’t an amplifier. You’re wrong there Charles.’ ‘What is it then?’ ‘I don’t know. Who do you think I am, that old fraud Fowler? Let’s get a drink.’

The hall was as I imagined. A vast space full of the usual suspects. Threshers, Majestic, all that. We picked up our glass and hit the first stall. ‘A glass of the red!’ shouted Lenny, turning camper by the month I noted. These reps don’t do by the glass however. They wouldn’t give a glass. They gave a taste. a damp-patch of wine. The first we tried was what we agreed was South African faeces. Lenny, in an attempt to show he was a man of discernment, refused to drink it and tipped it into the spittoon device by his side. Another! he cried. They gave him something else which he pretended to like a little better.

And so we went, working around the stalls. Jacob’s Creek, a particular favourite because they gave us deep-fried prawn to try with their Riesling. Oh yes, they think they’re being pretty adventurous with this but Lenny said he was Jewish and found the enterprise slightly vulgar, if not offensive. Lenny is Jewish, of course, but is only Kosher when feeling belligerent. The young man began lecturing me on the virtues of the Riesling grape. ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ He said. ‘You’re thinking Liebfraumilch. You’re thinking the seventies and eighties. Well…’ ‘I’m thinking no such thing,’ I had had a couple. ‘How dare you? I’m thinking, sir, of Alsace and beautiful Franco-Germans. You may think of ante-natel dinner parties all you wish. I am leaving this stall! And in any case, I happen to have fond memories of the seventies. I was fucking alive then. And had hair.’ Lenny crammed in several prawns into his mouth, stuck up two fingers and on we went.

After a couple of hours of this sort of thing we went to a stall which had some seats. A black woman, who didn’t look fifty-two was screaming at one of the holders. ‘I’m fifty-fucking-two!’ Lenny seemed happy with this. ‘You go girl!’ ‘Fifty-two. My parents came over here, no-one gave them nothing. Nothing. Not an Anadin or a Lemsip, you get me? It’s not like that now’. ‘No it isn’t.’ Nodded Lenny. ‘They come here , with veils and all that, they get a council home, cars, the lot.’ This is the world in which we live, I thought. The world of divide and rule. And drink, stupefying all including the best.

We drank until the end. And we weren’t thrown out. We afterwards went to the Campden Head for a quick one or two, a functional faux Victorian affair with the usual horror of fizzy lager, dry roasted nuts and ‘Sky’ Adverts. But I left alone.

Lenny spent an awfully long time on one of his many lavatorial visits and when I went to investigate, he was unconscious in the corner by a urinal. He had been sick and of course, had wet himself. I took a walk home. Is it ever to going to get cold?

Old Street, Not Battersea, Not The Meyrick Arms

I lied in the last post. I think. No, not even that. But I failed to reveal a slight thing. I failed to reveal something about the conversation between the two perilous workmen. See, I was aware of the pub they mentioned. Or did I say I knew the pub? I don’t remember. I once knew Battersea quite well, in fact. I haven’t been down that way for some years but (and I sigh as I use so jejune a term) I lived around Battersea during my ‘heyday’.

Ah, the hot and endless summers in the nineteen-seventies and the old Battersea crowd. It’s all vanished into air. Nothing of that town is left. The town I knew, anyway. Where has the noise of the Thames gone, those barges, honking and chugging? And the smell of the riverside factories, the sight of smoke billowing from chimneys? I was a youngish man stealing up from the West Country. I had digs near the Falcon Road. And those south London days were some of the finest I have had.

I live now in a grubby room by Old Street. For those of you who don’t know, this is north of the river, some four or five miles away from Battersea up in Islington. I have a landlady who lives downstairs and a fellow lodger upstairs. He maintains he’s an Iraqi Kurd but who can tell? He says all sorts. And what he does up there is anyone’s guess. I think he has a machine. It bashes and hisses in the night. One hears him urging it on, cajoling and pleading in the early hours, crying and ranting on a mobile phone. I lay there staring, unable to sleep, thinking of the old days. The days when it wasn’t raining so hard as it has been in London in the past week or so. The days when the sun shone and the loose perms of the bottle blonde women urged a man on. Heavy make-up urged us all on. What could we do? It was hot and the world was younger.

I remember the skirts, the thick brown and orange stripes on white. Lovely patterns. Nylon jackets. Sounds awful now but at the time so seductive. I had hair then and plenty of it. Sideburns and an unshaved chin. All us men, we thought we were Barry Sheen, walking about with chequered flared slacks. Tight polonecks and broad grins. The old mob, nipping down to Wimbledon for the stock cars, for the dogs.

I realise I’m not myself tonight. I wanted to get to Battersea this evening and to drink in the Meyrick arms but I never made it. I sit here with a 2003 Saint Amour. Ah, it’s all right but give me beer in the Battersea seventies. Give me that. I’ll go tomorrow or Friday. I’ll go back to those days. They may have a Karaoke. Sweets for my sweet, sugar for my honey.

The Mash Tun, Victoria Station

As a young man prepares to travel to continental Europe, he recalls the delights of the grand tour. He may read, also, of the stunning station bars and can barely await the roseate pleasuredomes with their frocked waiters, their white linen, the fountains of sweet wines and the many Maenads. Maybe one is the annexe to the station hotel, soft lighting and feminine whispers, the other a relic of the belle-epoque, eternized by a left bank writer, holding raucous court, sinking into his absinthe folie.

Now, I remain unconvinced by the rectitude of such accounts. Any reader of this who has sought drinks in the bar at the Gare de Lyon will doubt the reports also, I’m sure. But it will said, I think, that Europe does have something on us when it comes to bars at stations. They care more, perhaps, for aesthetic.

For this blog, I wanted to begin somewhere quite wonderful but I had business in south London and managed a quick couple of gins and tonic at the station bar in Victoria Station. Well, I call it the station bar and am convinced that was once its name. Before Major and his dreams of the age of steam in private hands. I remember the interior being starker also, brighter. Like a laboratory. We customers, hunkered at the bar under unflattering artificial light, casting no shadows.
But it is all change for the station bar. It is now The Mash Tun – Is it me, or am I right in saying that it is a la rage to name the most un-pub like places after the brewing process? As if in compensation? As if in apology.

The lighting is softer now. A barrel table has been added by the door and fake wood panelling gives a balmier feel. A nod perhaps to Diogenes house, hopefully a nod to nothing more about him though. Nothing, however, can create an impression of space. For The Mash Tun isn’t a pub at all. It isn’t even a bar. It’s a kiosk, an alcove, an impression on the wall of the Victoria concourse. The inevitably eastern-European bar staff share the same space as the drinker. We fight for territory. We’re World War Two in there. We carve out our own post-conflict borders. Mind you, there’s always room for money, for two fruit machines, their coruscating seductions incongruous to the slovenly attempt at traditionalism. No matter, form will follow money in the new world of pub-chains. Maybe it was ever so, maybe I once was ignorant. Or more drunk, probably.

As for the drinks, there is little to be said. Fizzy lager, fizzy bitter. Tonic water from a gun, ungiving optics, computerised tills which log all staff movement, cctv, logging the rest of us. And receipts too. Go for a drink and get a receipt. That’s the world of Victoria.

The drinkers themselves are typical of station bars all over the country. They include the lonely who want to get home and the lonely who are putting that off. You know the sort, business men with nascent drink problems, overweight, balding, staring into nothingness as they drink, the glassy eye fixed upon a promotional poster with their promises of two for one and happy hours, the pretty girl urging overpriced crisps while you drink.

Rubbing along with those sorts are the drug addicted chancers, the transients. They aren’t here for the booze, preferring their own Spar bought ‘White Lightning’. However, they constantly try the toilet door, though they know it is locked to them, they know that even that costs money round here. They congregate at the entrance, showing each other home-made tattoos and dressed in their urine smeared jeans.

There is a third sort. Builders after their shift. How these men get the few stools that exist in the pub is unknown to me, but they do, don’t they? There they are, spirit level proud of the paint spattered bag, drinking freely and without shame. These are difficult people, angry people. Nobody can do right. Nobody has ever done right. They are forever seeking the snub, they’re aching for bad service or eye contact. They need it. They have a thirst to respond which is never slaked.
Last night I ordered a gin and two of them sat, having just one more before catching the train to Clapham Junction.
‘See that Clive?’ Asked one. ‘If I clock him in The Meyrick tonight, I’m gonna knock every one of his teeth out.’

‘Clive’s all right.’ Objected the other. ‘He’s sound.’

‘About sound mate. Once I get hold of him, he’ll be deaf. About Sound.’

‘You’ll make him deaf by knocking his teeth out?’

‘I’ll punch him so fucking hard he’ll wish he was deaf.’

The man’s logic wouldn’t hold up to any close examination. But I remember Battersea. I used to kick about the Battersea mob. Way back. In the Meyrick. We all went there. Drinking with the Junction workers, the West Indians and the Irish. it was hot, always hot in the summers before Thatcher. Before the cold 80’s. I shall get there and review that pub. I hope it’s the same old place.