Old Men Boozers

“First Rule of Travel: On arrival, buy a local paper and go for a drink.”

Pete McCarthy.   

      I don’t especially like old men, so I suppose that it is a little surprising that I like old men’s pubs so much. It could be said that the two have a few things in common: a distinctive smell, a suspect stickiness, charming shabbiness, a propensity for swearing, and a firm liking for all things traditional. But that is where the similarities end. You would have no difficulty in herding a group of old men into a shed and collectively labelling them as ‘grumpy’ or ‘stinky’ or ‘whiny’, whereas you would find it quite tricky to band together the range of old men’s pubs in London. That is because they are all so wonderfully different and unique, and while each will undoubtedly provide you with a beer and a bag of dry roasted, you will never have the same evening from one to the next.  

      Ever since I was a precocious nineteen year old beer admirer in New York and there was that pesky legal drinking age to get around, I have found that the local old man’s boozer has been my true and faithful friend. Purchasing beer as a teenager in America is possible, just so long as you visit those bars with the darkened windows, flickering neon signs and toothy, mulleted-barmen. They couldn’t give a monkeys how old you were, just as long as you are throwing down the green backs and wearing a very short skirt.  

      My favourite of these establishments was The Subway Bar on the corner of 60th street and Lexington Avenue (which is actually quite a smart location due to the fact that it is slap bang next to one of the major department stores, Bloomingdales.) However, regardless of its superior neighbours, The Subway might well have been one of the biggest shit holes on the Upper East Side. Up until very recently it was run by a 90 year old hunchback called Charlie who seemed to live entirely off soup and a passion for collecting very bad movie memorabilia to place on the shelf above the bar. The beer was just called ‘beer’ and only came in half pint glasses, except on St. Patrick’s day when it was green and was mostly all over the floor. That was the day I first went there.  

      After that, I didn’t stop going for the next two years. There was just something incredibly alluring about the place. Maybe it was Charlie slouching in his booth, bathed in the pink neon strip lights he used to light the place, or the pay phone that would randomly ring ever hour or so, or maybe it was the jukebox that didn’t have a single song in it dated after 1980, or the fantastically obscene graffiti in the loos. I certainly learnt some impressive new words during my time there.  

      Or maybe it was just the clientele, who weren’t especially old or especially male, but were definitely regulars and certainly had something a bit different about them. Whether they were ex cons, transvestites, cat fanatics, 9/11 survivors, or underwear salesmen from next door, they all had an affinity with the place that couldn’t be found down the road in McOldies Pig and Jig Irish theme bar. Or in most other places for that matter. This was their local and it is where they felt at home.  

      Okay, so old men’s pubs don’t necessarily have to have old men in them. Or hunchbacks or graffiti or any of these other things. They just have to have some spirit. Some idea as to what makes them incomparable to the pub next door. Something that makes them ‘local’ to you. If you want shiny pine furniture, shit-brown leather sofas, indoor trees, cardboard cut out blondes and mezze you should definitely head to your nearest Pitcher and Piano or, god forbid, All Bar One. I am sure they will look after you marvellously. Or, for those of you that fancy a more exclusive evening without all that Ben Sherman riff raff, then why not head to one of London’s many chic ‘style’ bars that litter the West End. You’ll only spend a few hundred pounds, and think of all those amazing stylish people you will be mingling with. You won’t actually be able to talk to any of them because the Euro-dance-pop-shit music will be rammed up to ear-breaking volume, but at least you can console yourself with the fact that you were actually there.  

      I might sound overly harsh, but I just personally feel that spending ten quid on a gin and tonic is a little distressing. If you are really that fussed about drinking snazzy Continental beers while listening to the latest Shakira single, you should have stayed in Europe. Here in Britain, we do the pub thing quite well. In fact, meeting friends and drinking beer in your local pub is a fundamental aspect of who we are as a nation. So I suggest that while you are visiting London, you spent an evening, or even just an hour, immersing yourself in a local pub. This does not mean a Gastropub, a Harvester, an O’Neills or any establishment that serves Thai food, but a proper, earthy local pub. Here are a few examples.  

      You are sure to find an old man or two at Sully Shuffles on the Walworth Road in Camberwell, a former full-on football pub complete with blacked out windows and green pitch painted on the ceiling, and now just a pub that happens to show football. When the thick black curtains were pulled down one day, I was a little concerned that the Oriental fusion menu and Robbie Williams soundtrack would follow shortly behind. Luckily, the new owners stayed true to Sully’s grubby roots and only conceded at a lick of paint and some new televisions. The place is still reassuringly dark and furtive, still packed for major games, still sleepy and warm on Sunday afternoons, and still frequented by a wealth of South London locals and their assorted old dogs. 

      My favourite thing about Sully’s is that it won a South East London division of ‘Pub Garden of the Year’ in 1995, which is an a amazing feat considering that the ‘garden’ consists of about a dozen paving stones, one half dead bush, and a pond with some manky carp in it. It is also the kind of place that if you know the ‘right people’ (surprisingly this is not the owner but one of the regulars) a coded knock on the window is all that is required for after-hours entry. There is nothing more satisfying than feeling included in something, even if it is only in your local pub. 

      The regulars in The Rising Sun in Farringdon are of a slightly different breed, mainly due to their proximity to the city. These are regulars who file in after work for a pint to help them shake off the day. Set back from Smithfield meat market on Cloth Fair, The Rising Sun certainly has a touch of the Dickensian to it. Occasionally, a pack of stray American ghost tour-ists might wonder in, but luckily they usually wonder back out again after one light English ale. But for the most part, the place is dotted with an assorted mix of solo newspaper readers, doctors from St. Bart’s hospital, butchers from out of town and quiet folk that just want a peaceful drink by the fire. They don’t play any music in The Rising Sun which can sometimes give it a reverential air, almost as if you were in a library.  

      As you might expect, it can be especially quiet at weekends, and thus becomes the perfect place to throw a gentle game of darts. In fact, The Rising Sun is where I learnt to play darts. It is where I learnt that if the mood is right I can play some very good darts. It is where I beat some very drunk angry Scotsmen and then nearly got into a fight about it. It is where I watched Andy Fordham throw a perfect 180 after he had downed a considerable number of white wine and vodka chasers. I love darts, but even if you don’t, it is still a wonderful place to sit back and have a beer, and a very good place to know about if you happen to find your self around the city on a weekend. It will be one of the only places open.  

      The last pub on my list is currently my local and probably the most fitting of the description old man’s pub. The Royal Oak in Kennington is a true local. It has its check list of hairy old men, willing story tellers, a resident black cat, and a witty Irish barman, but it is a true local in the fact that you wouldn’t really be able find a reason to go there unless you happened to live within spitting distance of its doors. It’s not that it is an unpleasant place to go, rather that it is simply a room with a bar that you can sit in and have a beer. It doesn’t have a ‘thing’ about it; it barely has an atmosphere, which is probably why it is the friendliest place I have been to in a long time. People just get on with having a drink, and there is nothing more appealing or unifying than that, especially when it is on your doorstep. It is just a pub, and that it what makes it great.  

      When I went back to The Subway recently, everything had changed. Charlie had died and the place had been taken over by a German biker from Düsseldorf. The décor hadn’t really been altered that much, but the jukebox was blasting out Green Day and the tables were filled with frotting Bloomingdales employees glugging Budweiser and high-fiving each other. It is someone else’s local now, and that is fine. I have realised while writing this that there is actually very little point in advising someone on where to find a good local old men’s boozer. The whole point is that you have to find one that suits you. So go and have a drink. The sun is shining.  

by Kate Richards

Posted on Friday, June 16, 2006 at 15:26 by Registered CommenterJam | Comments1 Comment