Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Roughing it!

I had a strange dream the other night concerning a pub. Actually it was more of a nightmare than a dream, but as in most such night-time occurrences it was confused and rather muddled.

In the dream I had to get somewhere. I had driven a considerable distance and now had to meet two people in a pub. The two people were a couple and they were friends of mine; even though they were not at all familiar. I can’t remember anything about the man, but I do recall the woman was not particularly attractive. Before I arrived at this pub I had to drive through a rather grotty looking industrial area, before parking the car and walking to the pub. It had started to rain, so I had to quicken my pace. Some idiot drove past in a silver car with a spoiler at the back. He had his windows down and was blasting out “gangsta rap” or some other discordant rubbish at a high decibel level. I mention this as it sort of sets the scene.

I can’t recall from the dream whether I met these two “friends” inside or outside the pub, but I suspect it was the former. Again I can’t remember much about the pub’s exterior, but it was a large, between the wars estate-type pub, and was in a pretty sorry condition. The dream was much more vivid once I was inside the building and the general state of unkemptness certainly extended through into the interior. 

My companions and I were in the saloon bar, which was on the right hand side of the building. There was an island-type bar and then behind this was a large room which may have been a conservatory. Whilst at the bar I could see through into the adjoining public bar, which looked in an even worse state of repair, and the customers drinking in there looked rather rough and not at all friendly. I ordered a round of drinks, but whist I can’t remember what my two companions had, I distinctly recall asking for a “pint of bitter” for myself. “We don’t sell much bitter here,” was the landlady’s reply. I had already noticed three old-style, ebony-handled, Gaskell & Chambers beer engines, but a complete absence of pump-clips. “We do have John Bull Bitter”*, was her next comment. I gave her a firm “No thank-you”, but enquired if anything was available from the hand-pumps. She reached for a glass and pulled me a pint of a quite pale looking beer.

I paid for the round, then went and sat down with my two companions at one of the tables in the rear part of the saloon. It was then I looked at my pint. It was hazy and the glass it was in was both scratched and dirty, with lime-scale deposits on the outside. It had probably never been washed properly in its entire existence, and certainly had never been polished. The beer was as flat as the proverbial “witch’s tit” but, and here’s the surprise, it actually tasted rather good!

As I sat chatting to my two “friends” I was thankful for the fact that the other customers were taking no notice of us. Like the clientele in the public bar they looked very rough and ready, so when one of my companions remarked upon the general run-down and roughness of the pub and its customers I replied with “At least there are no glasses flying through the air!” This was true but what there was instead were a load of kids running around the place.  A group of them passed our table, doing the “conga”, along with a few adults.
It was at this point that I woke up with severe cramp in my left calf. Stretching the affected leg didn’t help, so I had to hop out of bed and walk a few steps around the bedroom in order to cure the cramp. Of course the dream was gone so I never found out what happened next, nor what the pub was called, the names of my two companions or what were we all doing there. In fact if I hadn’t awakened with cramp at five in the morning I doubt whether I would have remembered anything about this rather strange dream.

No doubt there are people out there who will attempt to offer some very Freudian interpretations for this dream, but I explain it by a subconscious fear of being stuck in a grotty pub. Having said that, it’s not as though I’ve been in that many places where I have felt that uncomfortable that I wanted to walk out. There have been even fewer where I have actually fared for my safety, but I will recount one such experience which I recalled when I arose a few hours later, and which I’m sure was prompted by the dream.

The much missed Morrells Brewery
During my final year as a student at Salford, I spent a weekend in Oxford with a group of friends I was sharing a house with. One of the group had a friend studying at Oxford, and we had been invited down for the weekend to stay at this friend’s place and to spend a bit of time in the city. It wasn’t my first visit to Oxford, as I had been there with a few of the group the previous year. On that occasion we had stayed in this particular student’s rooms at Worcester College, but for his last year he had been renting a flat close to the late lamented, and much missed Morrell’s Brewery.  Morrells were still very much in operation back in the late 1970’s and sampling their beer in some of their unspoilt pubs was an added attraction of an Oxford weekend. One particular favourite was the Gardners’ Arms, an unspoilt back-street local which I’m fairly certain I have seen featured in an episode of Morse.
Gardener's Arms, Oxford

Anyway, to return to the story, Mike, my friend’s friend and our host for the weekend, told us there was a party happening on the Saturday night, and it would be a good idea to go along. Fine, we all thought, so after a lunchtime session in the Gardeners’ and a mooch around Oxford in the afternoon (this was before all day opening, don’t forget), we headed off in the direction of the party. The party was taking place at a house in Cowley; the industrial suburb of Oxford and home at the time to the famous Morris car works. Now the factory turns out Minis on behalf of its new owners, BMW, but that is not really relevant to this story. 

I’m not certain how well Mike knew the people who were throwing the party; that’s if he even knew then at all, but  back then we never let a thing like that worry us. We ended up walking to Cowley from central Oxford. I’ve no idea now how long it took, but at the time walking was the only option. We didn’t know anything about bus services in the city and a taxi was out of the question for students – after all why waste good beer money when walking would get you there in the end?  En route to Cowley we decided to stop off in a pub. This may have been to pick up some bottles of beer to take to the party, or it may have just been an excuse for a few pre-party beers – something which was quite common amongst our particular group.

The pub we went in was a large 1930’s type road house, similar to the one in my recent dream. For some reason we chose the public bar, which was on the right hand side of the pub. It’s difficult to describe exactly why, but after 40 years I can still say this was the roughest and least welcoming pub I have ever been in. I wasn’t really paying that much attention; not that is until a lighted cigarette butt flew by just an inch or two from my nose! I also heard some derogatory and rather unsavoury things being said about students. It’s probably fair to say that we stood out more than was perhaps wise, in this staunchly working class pub. It would have been better to have opted for the saloon bar instead, and it was even more unwise to have stood, as a group, in the middle of the pub, thereby drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves. Having said that, I don’t think there were any free seats or tables in the bar, so standing was most likely the only option.

Why the abject hostility? Well I can only think it was due to the old Oxford antipathy between “town & gown”. We were very obviously students, even though only two of our number were studying at Oxford. The ironic thing is that none of us came from the type of privileged background normally associated with Oxford University. Even our host Mike was the son of a Liverpool dock worker, and definitely not someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth!

Actually Mike was more astute and streetwise than the rest of us and had noticed much earlier than we had the hostile atmosphere building around us.  He indicated quietly that we ought to leave, so we did, in as orderly and less obvious manner as possible. Fortunately no-one followed us out into the car park, and we headed off to the party. I don’t remember a thing about the party, but I do remember not feeling at all concerned about the events in the pub. 

I was somewhat puzzled though, as I had been in some much more basic and down to earth pubs in Manchester and had never received such a hostile reception. With shoulder-length hair and an afghan coat, I obviously looked every bit the student, but no-one batted an eye-lid.

I want to finish this tale with a story about a Salford pub we used to drink in regularly as students and which ended up featuring on a TV programme about Britain’s Toughest Pubs. The Staff of Life at Rainsough Brow, was just up the road from Agecroft Colliery, and the massive Agecroft Power station. When my friends and I first knew the place it was a traditional Victorian two-bar local, but we frequented it because it was the nearest Marstons pub to the halls of residence. A year or so into my time at Salford, the brewery closed and demolished the old pub and built a brand new one in its place.

Staff of Life, Rainsough Brow,  Salford
The new Staff of Life was much larger than the old one but, as was the fashion at the time, retained two bars; a comfortable saloon plus an equal sized Vault, as public bars were referred to in Manchester at the time. We students favoured the saloon, especially as it had a comfortably furnished “raised area” where we could congregate and enjoy out pints of Burton Bitter or Pedigree. Occasionally though we would venture into the vault; this was a totally different world, the haunt of hard-working miners enjoying a few well-earned pints at the end of their shift. It was also home to several card schools which, as they were playing for money, were almost certainly illegal. I used to watch fascinated as one or two “old boys” would regularly fleece some of the younger players, probably taking half their wages off them!

In 1978 I moved away from he Manchester area and down to London. Twenty or so y ears later I was most surprised to see the dear old Staff of Life featuring on an episode of the Roger Cook Report when it was linked to protection money rackets by Salford and Manchester gangs.  The morbidly fascinated can see the programme by clicking on the link above. According to the Pubs of Manchester Blogspot the Staff of Life changed its name to the Rainsough Brew, an obvious pun on the road name, but closed down in the late 2000s. It has since been demolished; a sad end for an old favourite drinking haunt.

The purpose of this post is really to focus on rough pubs. They obviously still exist and most of us know which ones to avoid in our own localities. The problem arises when visiting an unfamiliar town. Again, most seasoned pub goers will pick up the vibes before even setting foot in such a place. Black paint or blacked out windows, is normally a bad sign, as is high decibel, thumping bass being pumped out, but sometimes things are more subtle but equally dangerous. The Cowley pub my friends and I visited back in the 70’s certainly looked innocuous from the outside, however once inside the door it was anything but.

Rough pubs have always existed though, with stories of rough houses down by the docks legion in most port cities. Like in most situations every cloud has a silver lining and the good side to rough pubs is that they tend to attract all the dross and local scumbags and keep them  in one place; thereby preventing their presence from ruining decent ones.

* John Bull Bitter was a famous keg beer brewed by Ind Coope of Romford during the 1970s and 80s. The company were a  part of the national Allied Breweries group.


Cooking Lager said...

a subconscious fear of being stuck in a grotty pub?

Quite the contrary. I think it reveals a craving, a yearning, a desire. A grotty pub with fights, wifebeater lager, sky footie is what you most crave.

Give in, indulge. Why deny yourself your hearts desire? It's the 21st century, no one will judge you. Come from that closet within which you cower and stand proud in the world and proclaim "I like grotty pubs"

Paul Bailey said...

So where do you recommend, Cookie?

Curmudgeon said...

For various reasons, most of the old-fashioned dog-rough boozers where everybody went quiet when strangers walked in have now closed.

Paul Bailey said...

I’m sure Cookie still knows a few such places though!

Jeffrey Bell said...

That is absolutely first class stream of consciousness blogging. I thought the bit about the dream was going to have a punchline, but, no you were literally just telling us about a dream you had. This is brilliant, i needs to be shared. I love it.

Paul Bailey said...

Jeff, if I hadn’t been awakened by painful cramp in my left calf, then the dream may well have had a punch-line. On the other hand being suddenly awakened no doubt helped me recollect the dream far more vividly than had I slept through.

Glad you enjoyed it, but I would still like to know where this grotty pub was and what I was doing there!