Last week I went for a stroll around Soho for the first time in a while and spent most of the time in a state of shock and confusion at the lack of familiar landmarks: restaurants and bars had changed name, shops had appeared from nowhere, and everything appeared to have been cleverly redesigned to make me feel old and out-of-it.
Just about the only thing that remained consistent were the pubs: Bradleys, the French House, the Sun and 13 Cantons – venues in which I had spent much of my 20s were still present and correct. Indeed, while we can bemoan the undoubted withering of London’s traditional pub life, it’s still remarkable how many old-timers still cling in. The British Library has just republished The Epicure’s Almanack, an 1815 guidebook to London eating and drinking. Fascinating in its own right – did you know there used to be three inns near Westminster Abbey called Heaven, Hell and Purgatory? – it also has brilliant footnotes by Janet Ing Freeman, who maps and chronicles the history of the 650 establishments reviewed by Ralph Rylance 200 years before. In doing so, she notes those places that still exists: all are pubs rather than restaurants and include the still excellent Seven Stars in Holborn, as well as London legends like Wapping’s Town of Ramsgate, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in the City, the Windmill in Clapham and the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead.
Another London institution, the BFI, have also been looking at pubs. Their brilliant new two-disc DVD, Roll Out The Barrel, rounds up a great bunch of short films and documentaries about British pubs. A highlight for Londoners is Under The Table You Must Go, a 1969 film by Arnold Miller, the gonzo exploitationist behind London In The Raw and West End Jungle. His film visits half-a-dozen London pubs, almost all of which appear to no longer exist. The most intriguing for me is surely The Great Escape, a theme bar for RAF man that is filled with paraphernalia from WWII escape attempts (it’s now Mabel’s Tavern), but I also appreciated the moment when Jon Pertwee inexplicably popped up in a pair of lederhosen to serenade a crowd of pub goers with a burst of the classic Chelsea anthem Zigger Zagger. A trailer for the DVD can be seen here.
Long forgotten author, Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 pub- novel ‘The Midnight Bell’ is well-worth a read too. It’s not only gives a fascninating insight into the pub and all it’s various characters, but also offers very detailed observations about how Soho life was at the time.