Keith Richards, writer and resident of Chiswick, documented his Corona lock down, living on his own, in a weekly blog from 24 March to 7 July called Chiswick Confined – My Corona. Now he’s free to roam at will, the blog has mutated into Chiswick Unbound.

Image above: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, Fleet Street; Samuel Johnson

“I think there’s a danger that we’re moving towards a state where the people we are expected to admire are almost not human anymore, and I don’t like that. I prefer it when someone looks like a nice person, and you think, ‘I could have a laugh with them in the pub.”

Jo Brand

More Pub Conversations

Last week’s piece was about my Local, The Raven. Now, clearly, having a local is wonderful but life is about choice and diversity which is exactly what I had to tell landlord Dave when he called me unfaithful for going to other boozers! Me? Unfaithful?

The thing about a ‘local’ is that it is local, so if you are out meeting the boys and they are not local then ……… obviously one is ‘forced’ to go to other pubs. Also, when I say ‘the boys’, I don’t actually mean boys but rather a bunch of grey haired geezers most of whose children are telling them that the term ’middle aged’ no longer applies to them. Bugger that! Most definitions put ‘Middle Age’ as up to sixty-five but I reject being categorised as ‘elderly’ or ‘old’. Ok, I am willing to accept ‘old enough to know better’ but that is not the same thing. Anyway, if I was ‘old enough to know better’ I would not have had two glasses of red wine on top of several pints one day last week but maybe that’s getting ahead of myself.

So, anyway, last week ‘the boys’ in question decided to meet up for a little urban stroll and a few pints. Said, ‘boys’ are a group of blokes who all once worked in BT at a distant point in time and started a walking group. Though the core group worked together and in fact were all interviewed, recruited and mentored by one of their members they have allowed a random group of other non-BT mates to join in – including me. (There are even honouree members from North of the River Trent, not to mention Chiswick and Vancouver.)

For the last twenty years or more they have met up for walking weekends with periodic trips to the pub after the walk to recover or before the walk to plan or just because….. well, you get the drift. This year’s main walk in the Peak District had fallen fowl of the Covid crisis but that didn’t deter us so last Wednesday we had a stroll round the Temple area of London, though much of it was closed or boarded up. My quotes from Samuel Johnson in last week’s blog had inspired us to visit his house – also shut – and some of the pubs in that area. Many of those were shut too and it was obvious walking round and seeing shops and cafes had not re-opened how few of the people that would have been working round there had actually not returned.

Now, I have mixed views about the ubiquitous Wetherspoons Pub chain. The owner/boss, Tim Martin, is a deeply unpleasant person by my reckoning but, as I have to grudgingly admit, he does run an effective chain of boozers. Some of them actually count as ‘locals’, some of them are as welcoming as a service station Starbucks (that counts as a serious insult in my book) but they all serve decent beer at a very reasonable price. Given we were on a mini history walk around the Chancery Lane area, home to those warrior knights, we dropped in to Wetherspoons’ ‘Knights Templar’ for a quick ‘couple’.

The pub is in a converted Victorian bank though the street it is in apparently dates back to the 12th Century. We then headed off to a favourite of ours down the road ‘The Old Bell’ at the Blackfriars end of Fleet St: a genuinely old city pub that was built by Wren for the masons working on the nearby St Bride’s Church. With quirky nooks and crannies, it is probably impossible to open within Covid guidelines – so it wasn’t. Our walk took us now to Blackfriars Bridge and, indeed, ‘The Blackfriar”, built in 1875 on the site of a Dominican priory and where a friendly staff allowed us, as it was raining, to sit inside (we were supposed to have booked). A couple of pints of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord were supped.

It was probably about this time that ‘old enough to know better’ started to come into play. As we all head back to varying points of the compass we usually round up at a sensible time but as we broke up, a splinter group decided one last one at what was reputed to be Samuel Johnson’s favourite pub, ‘Ye Old Cheshire Cheese’, on Fleet St. Originally dated about 1538 it burned down during the Great Fire and was rebuilt in 1667. It has a long literary heritage with Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and P. G. Wodehouse being said to have been habitués as well as Samuel Johnson.

My favourite story though is of the 40 year old Parrot that died in 1926 and was so famous some 200 newspapers across the world published its obituary. It (the pub not the parrot) has long winding stairs down into several levels of cellar bar that on this visit were still closed. I have memories of the bottom cellar having the old river Fleet running through it on it’s way to the Thames. We did genuinely only have one drink and then said our farewells and I headed off to Temple tube only to find it was closed. A sort walk to Embankment did me no harm except by the time I got there I realised I was hungry and should grab a bite.

Around there are a lot of fast food outlets including a very good Ramen bar that I thought was a sensible option. In these Covid times it was eerie to see a normally thronged 10 pm Villiers Street empty with practically everything shut. Practically everything, because the only place that seemed to be open was Gordon’s Wine Bar. Dating from 1890, a dingy damp cellar that must be a health and safety nightmare but that has a real atmosphere and an amazing collection of old photographs and newspaper clippings on the walls, it has been a drop in place for me for years. Unfortunately, on this occasion it was the site of my ‘old enough to know better’ moment because a game pie salad and two glasses of red wine were not the ideal combination for preventing a sore head the next morning.

So, I have discussed the perfect local and a selection of some of my favourite city boozers but I have one more to add. One of our number commented that another, Tim, had turned his garage into a pub. Well, a pub of sorts, as he is prone to inviting mates over for bottles of Timothy Taylor’s ‘Landlord’ and a natter or a game of darts. His family apparently refer to it as ‘the pub away from the pub’ but for me it qualifies for the sobriquet of ‘pub’ because, as everyone should recognise, its genesis is entirely within the traditional historical development of licensed ‘Public Houses’. I said to Tim I would include his establishment in my ramblings if his ‘pub’ had a name and if he had a Vinyl with a story attached to it to accompany the post. I am pleased to inform you, dear reader, that my mate Tim’s garage/pub is called “The Dundee Arms” and, indeed, there is a Vinyl album cover with a bloody marvellous backstory to accompany it.

Now, for my younger readers, when next you see a small bunch of ‘late middle aged’ gentlemen supping ale and sharing ‘grumpy old men’ banter you might find it hard to believe that beating under those woolly cardigans are often the hearts of former anarchists, hippies, radicals, pot heads and other ‘ne’er do wells’. This group might superficially resemble that which they are – former (and current) BT accountants – but I can tell you, some of us have had our moments and at that point I hand you over to Tim and his choice of Vinyl.

“…….here is the cover of a vinyl record that means a lot to me. I lived in a squat / Commune in Bonnington Square in the early 80s. There was a lot going on and out of 80+ houses 80% were squats. Initially they were in a dreadful condition but we worked hard to make them habitable. They now sell for up to £1.5m. Our house was on three floors and because next door was derelict we knocked though the top floor and had that one for ours as well. There was a real buzz in the area – lots of activity around community projects setting up a café, shop and a memorial garden where impromptu concerts were held. From here a band was formed called the Happy End – with Sarah-Jane Morris as a lead singer – who later joined Jimmy Somerville in the Communards. The band had about 20 others mainly playing brass.

Songs were mostly from Weil/Brecht and were socialist driven. Thatcher’s Britain had begun – unemployment was nudging or over 3 million with a lot of unrest and riots in flashpoints such as Bristol, Toxteth and Brixton. We really believed that Thatcher wouldn’t last and Labour would come back to represent the downtrodden. How wrong we were. With privatisation and money for the masses it is now easy to see that Thatcher bought the voters’ ballot cross. The period was one where there were loads of free park concerts allowed by the GLC under Ken Livingston with each Saturday night culminating in a fireworks display around County Hall – we used to watch sitting on the ridge tiles of our house – happy days.”

So, just as Tim promised here is the cover of The Happy End’s first album entitled “There Is Nothing Quite Like Money”. The collective were just as Tim described them …… this is from the site ‘discogs’.

“Source material was drawn from the political left: the songs of Bertolt Brecht (with both Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler), Maoist anthems, Chartist protest songs, Cuban rhumbas, miners’ anthems, South African township jazz, Irish jigs. The essence of The Happy End was in delivering this music with humour and energy rather than dourness or overt preaching. Many early gigs were part of the mid-eighties anti-Thatcher movements, the Miners’ Strike and the GLC (Greater London Council) included; the band was also involved in the burgeoning alternative comedy circuit, especially at Roland Muldoon’s Hackney Empire. At its best, a Happy End gig was a genuinely celebratory experience.”

Bloody ‘ell Tim, you lived in a genuine piece of social activism ! In fact, this is what Wikipedia has to say about those squats. “Bonnington Square is a square in Vauxhall, south London, which was built in the 1870s. It became famous in the 1980s when all the houses in it, vacant and awaiting demolition, were squatted.”

My research took me further and I found this Vimeo film. While it took me back to a time when we were young and activist it gave me much to consider in our current political/economic/climate situation. That piece of thinking will stew over the coming week so prepare for the next edition of Chiswick UnBound.

I leave you with a short clip – it is not clear if this is still a late version of The Happy End but it certainly looks like it could be and it is definitely the Brecht inspired “There’s Nothing Quite Like Money”.

So, next time you see someone in your local in a grubby cardigan doing impressions of a grumpy old man – buy him a pint and ask him what he did back in his youth. You never know!