t i m e , p l e a s e p u b s a r e n ’ t w h a t t h e y w e r e — t h a n k g o d t h e s p e c t a t o r T
J e r e m y C l a r k e and smirks. A callow youth indeed.
You still don’t know what you’ll have. With your elbows on the bar, you lean further forward and survey the bottled beer shelves. On the lowest shelf are serried ranks of those familiar coloured emblems on pint bottles of Mackeson stout, Mann’s brown ale, Bulmer’s cider. Mackeson! Mackeson! Makes you feel so good! Bulmer’s, the cider you remember!
imes might be bad, especially for pubgoers, but they could be a lot worse. Let’s pretend that it’s 1974, for example. A Sunday lunchtime. You’ve read the papers. (A leftist coup in Portugal. In Greece the generals have handed back power.) Now you are out for your constitutional and lunchtime pint.
is loud, prolonged and tightly controlled. ‘Christ!’ mutters someone. ‘Speak up, Brown, you’re through!’ says someone else. ‘Sorry about that,’ says the barman, with apparent sincerity, to you. ‘That was Ernie and about 20 pints of mild since Friday.’ From across the dog leg in the bar, Ernie, blinking back tears, raises a gnarled hand in acknowledgement and apology.
You live in a commuter village on the north shore of the Thames estuary, let’s say. After a lungful of salt air you usually aim for the Crooked Billet, a rare and blessed place where they still serve well-kept cask bitter. The more popular Smack Inn is on your route, but it’s a bloody Watney Mann pub, and a bit raffish with it. Usually you pass by without a second glance. But today, against your better judgment, you decide to try it.
he barman, a skinny, callow youth, doesn’t look 18, you think. (You are quite right. To make himself legally eligible for bar work, this barman — yes, that’s right, it’s me — has altered the date of birth on his National Insurance card by one year, clumsily, with a biro. He got away with it and now he thinks he’s arrived in British society.) Now he’s over by the jukebox,
pint of Mackeson might do the trick, but at 20 pence a go it’s a bit dear. You lift your eyes to the half-pint rows of Double Diamonds, Orangebooms and Worthington White Shields, the last a strong pale ale with the fine sediment requiring careful handling. Then you lift your eyes higher still to the potent little nip (third of a pint) bottles:
the Babychams, Stingos, Gold Labels, and Ponies. Gold Label — strong as a double Scotch, less than half the price! Pony — the little drink with the big kick!
To make himself eligible for bar work, this barman has altered his National Insurance card, clumsily, with a biro
You choose the public bar. Evenly spaced along the bar are the broad backs and thick necks of four drinkers. It isn’t clear whether these are solitary individuals or they are drinking in company. You step diffidently between the nearest two and survey the bar. You’ve worked up a thirst. But what do you fancy?
You should have known better. For this is Watney Mann hell where nothing has ever taken anyone’s fancy. On tap is Watney’s Red Barrel, a keg bitter popular with the young: pasteurised, gassed with carbon dioxide, marketed as being more classy than cask bitter. Watney’s Red? That’s the best thing you’ve said! You’d rather drink horse piss. Also on tap here are Watney’s Special, Watney’s Mild, and Worthington Trophy. Ditto those. Gas and coloured water, that’s all. There’s a lager on draught — Harp. Harp puts out the fire! But you are old school, believing lager to be a ladies’ drink, usually taken with a shot of lime.
omeone breaks wind. The emission choosing carefully. The plaintive, unmistakable first notes of ‘Samba Pa Ti’ by Santana strike up.
he vision of the drink you would be having now in the Billet, a foaming, nutty pint of Greene King’s Abbot Ale in a dimple glass, swims before you like a golden vision. You must have been mad to come in here.
ne of the men swings round on his stool. ‘Oi! Gorgeous!’ he says to the barman. ‘We’re all dying of thirst over here.’ The barman returns to action stations. The man points a sausage-like finger wordlessly at his glass, then swivels it like a miniature machine gun at the glasses of the others. Another round of the same. A pint of mild, a mild and bitter, two light and bitters. As the barman snaps the cap off the last bottle of light ale, he says to you, ‘Sorry to keep you waiting, sir,’
Now the man is quibbling over the half-pint measure of bitter the barman has given him for his light and bitter. He wants extra as tribute. He says, ‘You’ll be wearing this glass in a minute if you aren’t careful, young man.’
What a horrible pub! It’s worse than you imagined! Desperately you scrutinise the whisky brands. It’s a swift Scotch and away to the Billet for you.What a selection, though! Dewar’s — it never varies! Don’t be vague, ask for Haig! And for those who can afford it — Bell’s. When the barman finally comes, you plump for a Bell’s and water, crash it down in one, pay, and three longish strides get you to the door and then outside again.
Watney Mann, keg bitter, 1970s pub hell — remember it? No matter how bad things turn out in this current economic downturn, nothing could ever be as bad as that. Can it?