NOBLE ROT : THE BRITISH INTELLIGENCE DRINKS COLUMN
1st August, 2020
Returning to central London after four months in the suburbs I mused on the inevitability of change. As the train passed the former Battersea Power Station, now a rebuilt vulgarity for millionaire property speculators in the London money laundrette, I felt a sudden nostalgia for previous eras in my life. As I emerged from the station I reflected that those periods I was harking back to would most likely have been derided as absolute hell by those who had enjoyed previous epochs, and their fond regard for those times would be trashed in turn by older generations should they chance to still be around to do it.
I hopped on a 390 and composed a little verse:
Think twice before you yield to rage
For loss of epoch passed and furled
Remember that your golden age
Was someone else’s fallen world
A little way up past the Dorchester a tatty but brightly coloured domestic rug had been spread out on a patch of parched grass between the traffic lanes. Nearby a kind of bed had been improvised on a low wall by hands unseen. This desolate sketch of a home came to seem symbolic by day’s end.
Oxford Street was not quite deserted but human and car traffic was minimal. The bus got down to Tottenham Court Road in a matter of minutes, far quicker than a pre-pandemic ride could ever have been.
I got off at Warren Street and walked slowly down it in the sunshine. I had noted that the Northumberland Arms in Tottenham Court Road was boarded up. Is there anything more melancholy than a tavern with its windows hammered shut? Many shops were also closed.
In Fitzroy Square a bar called Simmons was also closed, its eyes, sorry, windows blocked with screwed down wood. It was once called The Prince Monolulu, after the famous black racing tipster, but was renamed in 2002. Unusually, I took some pleasure in the demise of Simmons: if I know nothing else I know that it is bad luck to change a pub’s name, especially one so wonderfully called Prince Monolulu.
Fitzrovia has been my preferred drinking area in London for donkey’s years: I switched my affections from Soho when it started to become overwhelmed by tourism and a new sort of idiot that I later discovered was called a ‘Millennial’. Normally Charlotte Street has a breezy, Beer St seemliness, a kind of calm village among the roiling West End. But today it was not so much calm as becalmed. Building work clanged, boomed and drilled occasionally in the warm day: without that it would have been eerie.
The Duke of York in Rathbone Street, a fond hideout, was closed. The Duke is one of those darkish, homely, carpeted pubs that somehow the brewery has not yet messed up. It is ideal for afternoon assignations when everyone else is at work. It has a bust of Beethoven above the bar: old Ludwig eyes you judgementally if you chance to look up – why I don’t know as he was extremely fond of wine himself. It was the pub that inspired A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess watched some junior villains smash it up during the Second World War, an incident that he used when creating Alex and his droogs.
White arrows had been stuck all along the pavements in Charlotte Street, pointing south on one side and north on the other. They reminded me of the arrows Francis Bacon used to put in his paintings occasionally. They also put me in mind of the urban markings used during the Second World War: white stripes on things to help in the blackout. Such sparse pedestrians as there were took no notice of the arrows.
The Fitzroy Tavern was also closed, as was the tiny and ancient Newman Arms, in recent years ruined internally to make it look like a wankers’ pub. The Marquis of Granby was also locked tight. I’ve never liked the Granby, it is uncomfortable, noisy and usually packed to the gills with the IT crowd. Today it was as silent as the grave. Across the way, the Wheatsheaf, once the watering hole of Julian Maclaren-Ross, the great post-war Fitzrovian flâneur and writer, not to mention George Orwell (‘he’d come in to down a silent half’, wrote Burgess in his memoirs), Dylan Thomas, and Patrick Hamilton, the pub novelist to end them all, was open. I did not go in. I was making for the Burglars Rest round the corner in Gresse Street, another favourite of mine. Its front bar is one of best little pub interiors you will find in the West End: simple, wood-lined and comfortable – if you can beat the crowd and get a seat. It is not really called the Burglars Rest, it got that nickname when criminals decided to have a piss-up after breaking in. According to Mclaren-Ross’s Memoirs of the Fortiesthey were never caught.
The pub was open. The front bar contained the landlord, a crew-cut Australian in middle age, one customer and the landlord’s aged black cocker spaniel dozing in a corner.
The pub had reopened three days earlier. I asked him if many had customers had been in.
‘Nah!’ he said sardonically. ‘I can only have nine in this bar anyway.’
‘How will that work when it gets busy?’
‘It won’t work, but it won’t get busy. Our trade comes from the IT offices round here: they ain’t back working on-site till new year, if at all.’
He came and stood in the middle of the bar and spoke rhetorically to the room in general, looking at some point beyond the front doors. ‘This is how it starts, you see,’ he said. A dusty shaft of sunlight beamed through the doorway, a sort of travesty of divine inspiration falling on him. ‘The Great Depression is coming,’ he said, his voice filling with certainty. ‘It’ll be property next: all those people who have invested heavily in property portfolios, and now the market’s going to nosedive.’ He followed this with some animadversions about President Trump and Boris Johnson. Curiously, China did not merit a mention. The dog looked over at me with an expression that seemed to say, ‘I’ve heard this before.’
The Bricklayers Arms (the real name of the Burglars Rest) is a Samuel Smith pub. Its strong lager is called Pure-Brewed Organic, and is very nice: cold, fizzy, crisp and slightly floral, just like the great Munich beers it is evidently based on. I could have stayed for another but decided to press on.
I passed the long-dead Black Horse at the bottom of Rathbone Place and turned back down a near-deserted Oxford Street. A slightly scandalous thought was forming in my mind.
I glanced up Hanway Street at Bradley’s Spanish Bar (or the Bar Formerly Known as Bradley’s as its Facebook page worryingly now refers to it), another of my haunts down the years. It was closed but apparently would be opening at 3pm. I’m glad it has survived – at one point mid-lockdown it seemed as if it wouldn’t, and its owners had to crowdfund the rent.
I decided to walk round the back of Centre Point to the Angel, at the bottom of Denmark Street, another favourite pub of mine. As you can see from the picture at the top of this piece, the Angel has a splendid old fashioned interior with three divided bars, two lounges upstairs, proper fireplaces, Victorian-style swag curtains and a gorgeous ceiling. You will occasionally find me sitting at the bar in there eyeing through the window the grotesque bright orange, red and green of the Google building across the way, a contrast that perfectly illustrates the abomination of postmodernism. The Angel is not a summer pub but one built for those many inclement months in the English calendar. Years ago when I lived a shortish Tube journey away I used the pub far more regularly than I do now. I found it a perfect spot for studying racing form on winter lunchtimes before meeting friends for what we dubbed ‘select port-wine committee’ in Bradley’s up the road.
All that seemed several lifetimes ago when I walked into the empty pub. I was the only customer. A Spanish barman mournfully told me the same story that the guvnor of the Burglars had: office workers from over the street who usually packed the pub lunchtime and evening would not be back until the New Year. I drank a slow Pure-Brewed. An old Italian man, evidently from a nearby café, came in and started to commiserate with the barman. ‘Is no people, is no people,’ he said, his voice beginning to rise with desperation. ‘Is no people! I don’t take £200 all day; before I was taking £800, £900. Is no people!’
This was true. I left and walked up Denmark Street, in which virtually all of the shops on the north side were boarded up, no doubt awaiting demolition or ‘redevelopment’ as we call it in Britain.
A trickle of traffic crossed Cambridge Circus and you could get over Charing Cross Road without really having to look out. The bijou French wine bar Le Beaujolais at the top of Litchfield Street was open. I was tempted but thought it far too early for vino.
In Old Compton Street I had a fleeting feeling that was simultaneously analogous to both post-war and pre-war: something bad had happened; something perhaps worse was to come. I passed the open doorway of a closed café bar. It was blocked by tables and chairs. Inside I glimpsed a chaotic interior and heard voices arguing.
There were a few people about and some shops and bars open, but it was all extraordinarily quiet and the scandalous thought stirred again and this time formed: having so much elbow room was luxurious! London has been hellishly overcrowded for years. This new deserted West End was in fact bloody marvellous. As long as there were pubs to go to – aye, there’s the rub – it would be quite refreshing. I started to think I’d go out in central London on Friday nights once more, a habit I gave up years ago as an intolerable ball-ache. Come autumn, I said to myself, I’d start going to Le Beaujolais again after years – and getting a seat; tables would be suddenly easy to get at the Cork and Bottle in Cranbourne Street: if, of course, they survived the rumoured financial Armageddon to come.
In Piccadilly Circus you could count the people easily. Piccadilly Circus! In July!
I bought a bottle of San Miguel in the Haymarket Tesco and headed for St James’ Park. I’ve always been a park addict and they’ve become essential during the lockdown.
Visitors to the park were refreshingly sparse. I stopped in front of a favourite bed containing a tropical planting scheme, including splendid banana trees. London was eerily empty, its commercial life now having the same precarious look as the bed and rug I’d seen near Marble Arch earlier. And yet … here I was falling back in love with the place after significant estrangement. I raised my bottle of beer and said something that I never thought I would say: ‘Cheers, lockdown!’