My article in The Sunday Times.
There must be something to it surely: in the week when I had my essay on the inspirational, non-clubbable writer and broadcaster published in The Irish Times, I had a peruse of a second-hand bookshop only to find, side by side, original copies of Nairn’s London and Nairn’s Paris.
For the princely sum of £4 (in the inside cover of Paris is another marking for 20p).
I’ve added pictures below, comparing them with my facsimile of London, well thumbed as you can see and with some ale markings, and the new edition of Paris, published with typical elan by Notting Hill Editions. Just look at Nairn’s face on those covers – the child-like, goofy grin is nothing but endearing; he’s like a portly John Turturro.
I shall run Nairn’s BBC travelogues again this weekend (with some Guinness West Indies Porter, which I’m sure he would slap his lips in satisfaction with) as a small gesture to his ghost, if indeed he was tapping my shoulder to go into that bookshop. ‘Look here mate…’, I hear him saying.
The Nairn films are infinitely watchable in spite of their low-budget, dated (happily, in this instance), and cobbled together feel. He has a strange, melancholic relationship with the camera; I find him as compelling to watch on screen as, say, Richard Burton or Marlon Brando. At times I imagine he might start riffing towards a Shakespearean soliloquy as he shuffles around Halifax.
Anyway, I shall finish with this, because I have just uncapped another porter: despite his documented drift into darkness in his personal life and an unhealthy relationship with the booze, Nairn makes me laugh hard, and often, in his writing. (Whatever people think about him looking through a glass darkly, my instinct is that he lived his life the way he wanted to, and if that meant living until 53 or 83 years of age, I imagine Nairn would have thought, ‘well, so bloody what’.)
Here he is describing a pub, one of his true passions, The King’s Arms on the Fulham Road:
…once again I hear his ghost: ‘And nooooowwww look at it! It makes me burn!’
Fads will come and go.
Ian Nairn will remain. Raise a glass, chin chin.
An impressive lady, the Princess Louise. She discretely catches your eye as you pass on a relatively drab stretch of High Holborn, where you will find that her beauty lies within, rather than without.
The exterior is a paint-by-numbers pub, but inside is where all the magic and charm happens. Here we have the remnants of Victorian craftsmanship at its finest: beautifully cut and gilded mirrors (Richard Morris of Kennington); default atmosphere, whatever the time of day, from the gentle gloaming of tulip and snowdrop-shaped lights. Add in some tasteful abstract tile work, detailed and decorated borders, and the Princess Louise may as well whisper in your ear to stop a while.
The elongated, circular dark-oak bar cleverly runs the punters’ energy around both sides of the house, creating a smart circuit of comfort. As a result, the staff are like buses when you are looking for a refill – you always knows one should be along shortly.
The Princess Louise does another smart thing: it divides and conquers. The front and back of the pub are opened up, allowing for larger groups to gather and sup, while a series of snugs feature on both sides of the bar. One always feels connected to the place, wherever you may be sitting, yet the snugs allow enough detachment so that you will never blow a fuse when it gets very busy (which can always be the case at knocking-off time for nearby workers).
The great writer (and legendary imbiber) Ian Nairn said that any long bar implies serious drinking and the Princess Louise has lots of leg. But this is a sturdy, meaty leg, not some dainty Victorian ‘church-bell’ flashing glimpses of garter. This is a pub that pumps its legs all day, every day, and is always sensitive and alive to performance, which makes it most pleasing on the eye. My favourite feature is the tall clock-tower in the middle of the bar, where time literally stands still. Here, it is always noon. High noon in High Holborn, with high praise attached.
The Royal Oak, 44 Tabard Street, Borough, London SE1 4JU
Everything about the Royal Oak pub in Borough has a hand-covered-cough quality to it – from the moment you step in through its doors, you are aware of being in the presence of quiet greatness; it’s up to you if you wish to acknowledge it or not.
Understated beauty runs throughout the bar, from its dark oak to the chandeliers; there is evident pride in all its tradition, but not to the point of stuffiness. Spending a few hours here feels like getting reacquainted with an old friend: one feels at ease right away thanks to Paul and the well-trained staff (finding a London pub with staff that prides itself in their trade is as refreshing as a cool draught of lager on a balmy August afternoon). There are comfortable seats by large windows, while there is ample room to lean at the bar too. The bar is split between two rooms, which gives the Royal Oak one of its most charming features: a kind of cubbyhole, with a latch that allows a third bar. Punters in for a swift one can order and sup standing here, with the option of perusing the second-hand books for sale stacked by the walls (I picked up a Saul Bellow novel for £1.50).
The Royal Oak is owned by Harveys, so the ale (Pale, Mild, Best) is excellent and a great price for London. The food menu is impressive too – it would be hard to better the Sunday roast – and there is a discerning wine list as well. The absence of any music, TV, or cursed fruit machines is welcome and puts conversation front and centre stage in the style of many of the great Irish pubs. This place is an ideal spot for the elbow-touching chats converged over a few jars, or if you are a solo traveller, it is a happy setting to while away the day with a newspaper or book. The rocking chair set in the corner is a fitting symbol of the pub: its metronomic motion is a happy measure of time well spent; your troubles or strife will soon be set back on its heels after an hour or two here.
In the Royal Oak, you are more than happy to abandon the day to the notion.
From its modest exterior, the Royal Oak could appear to have little going for it to the unknowing eye. But step across its threshold and you will discover a depth and delight that will have you dragging friends here time and time again.
The Royal Oak sits in the vast shadow of St George the Martyr church, and although it may bow its head in deference to its much grander neighbours, it need not have any feelings of inferiority. The pub’s well-preserved heritage and, for want of a better word, sober charm will find plenty of converts for years to come. Here is a pub to salve any soul that passes through its doors for a sup and a seat.
We Irish take great pride in our idea of what makes a good boozer and how we can spot a shabby one at a hundred paces, so that we never need darken its door. Our pub culture is the best in the world, without parallel for its warmth and conviviality, and draws on long tradition.
A fine hostelry is as close as one will come to glimpsing into the very soul of an Irish person.
But now, just like in the UK, pubs are closing their doors – at a rate of one every two days, more than 1,100 since 2005 – and the debate surrounding the malaise is on what more they can do to survive. Yet I’m inclined to put it another way – pubs, both in Ireland and the UK, must strip back to get punters in through the doors again. The main problem, as I see it, is that traditional pubs are now trying to be all things to all people. However, publicans should focus on what made them popular in the first place: traditional values and the offer of sanctuary; we need to rediscover the spirit that makes a night’s supping so enchanting.
(It should be said that these suggestions would not apply to many of the ‘entertainment jukebox’ hostelries that can be found around Ireland nowadays.)
So, remove the modern emphasis on all the things that one can get at home – and at a third of the price – and revert to traditional ideas that make drinkers want to leave the comfort of their sofa for the pub.
Abide by these principles: No music. I wish to hear the rolling wave of chatter and discourse around me while having a drink. It provides a reassuring tide of emotion that we can all be swept up in, pouring out our hearts and minds to one another, so that when we are washed back on to reality’s frothy shore at closing time, we feel refreshed and reinvigorated. So don’t drown this out with middle of the road music, or the inane chattering of some DJ. And if the pub is quiet, so be it. Leave the soft air in peace; let it hang over us “like the rainbow’s lovely form” and allow it to colour our thoughts and imagination.
Quietude is at a premium in the modern world. A pub should always have space for the sounds of a newspaper rustling; wood creaking; a soft cough in the corner; sheets of rain slapping at the window; ideally a fire crackling; the discreet, almost whispered conversation between two drinkers, as though they were stood at the back of Mass. Kingsley Amis put it succinctly: “we pay the piper, so we ought to be able to call the absence of tunes”.
Another suggestion would be to get rid of the ubiquitous sports or celebrity programmes on TV. The past decade has seen every pub rushing to offer wall-to-wall sports (establishments that don’t do this now probably make up one per cent), but go the other way to stand out from the crowd – turn the telly off. There will be the odd exception to this rule naturally (All-Ireland finals, big Rugby matches etc), but publicans should no longer allow the room to be controlled by the large, flashing eye in the corner: as Jack London once wrote, we drink “for the brain effect”; so leave us to our own devices.
Recently, I went for a quiet pint and to read the newspaper one afternoon in one of Ireland’s ‘literary pubs’. To my disillusionment, incomprehension, and no little despair – as I had already ordered – I found the television showing an Andy Murray tennis match, on mute, taking place in some far off corner of the globe, while the barman then turned on the insipid droning of The Red Hot Chili Peppers on the stereo. I wondered whose benefit all this was for, as the scattering of punters paid no heed to either, such was their remarkable restraint. However the music and glare of the TV screen registered just enough on the senses to be a distraction, and ultimately became a nuisance. I drank my pint swiftly and hastened to another premises guaranteed to be peaceful: sometimes “there is society where none intrudes”.
Upon leaving, I felt a sympathetic understanding that this ‘entertainment’ may have been for the benefit of the staff, who perhaps were bored with slow trade, but that still doesn’t make it right.
A few other points: one, draught stout is much too cold nowadays – perhaps as a soft soap to lager drinkers to switch from beer – and consequently it has lost its complex thickness. Storing stout in the cold cellar along with lager simply does not work.
Secondly, many pubs are too brightly lit – can we have soft lighting please (with the exception of reading spots) so the drinker can see that long hour before dusk, when the light decomposes, and the anger goes out of the day.
And finally, can there be anything worse than to be sat at the bar and to smell a cooked dinner? If we are to have some form of soakage, let it be nothing more complex than a toasted sandwich.
We all have our own ideas as to what makes a great pub. If England is still a nation of shopkeepers, Ireland must be a nation of publicans. And if they are to serve the nation, then publicans should find out what their punters want, and more importantly, don’t. Something as simple as a suggestion box at the bar might work. We could write our ideas on the back of our receipts. The more receipts you have, the more you care about the place, naturally.
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