You know the cliches. Surly landlords, reassuringly shit beer, pork scratchings, ultra marine fruit machines, men on bitter, ladies on shorts, the absence of natural light and the presence of life crumpled locals with tough exteriors and hearts of gold. Life at its most apparently real, its most direct. The ‘old man pub.’ It’s not even that they’re untrue as images, just false. They represent an inverted-Carry On style gurning vision of the Great British social life, neatly presented in a bleak twee picturesque package by those with little actual interest in the places they romanticise.
There’s even something in the phrase ‘old man pub’ is a bit queasy. It just sounds like something a child would say. It’s just one of those unavoidable and unhelpful shorthands we’re lumbered with, like ‘trendy cafe’ (which might now mean anything from a greasy spoon to the latest angel investor backed Kale N’ Mimosa joint run by two lascivious brothers from the Home Counties) and ‘men's rights activist’ (previously, ‘cunt’). It’s not ideal, but I suppose at least you know what it’s getting at. The ‘old man pub’ is something unpretentious, time-honoured and traditional.
I’m afraid I have to take you back to my own childhood to explain why I prefer to drink in what we have to describe as ‘old man pubs’. It’s a strange quirk in the minds of the very young, how certain familiar places take on a wild, disturbing character. For me, the two most vivid both relate to my Gran’s flat in the drab Forest Hill/Catford borderlands in South East London.
At the end of one of the adjoining streets, just off the fringes of Blythe Hill Fields, there used to lie an abandoned house, slightly rotted at the edges. As the street terminated with a dead end, I naturally thought it must be stuffed with dormant corpses, ready to spring up and attack if we got too close. A pub at the other end of the road excited similar flashes of anxiety as it seemed to be plotting in tandem with the corpse house.
Only this was a house of living ghouls, full of dark, leathery figures tottering in and out of heavy doors in fogs of fag smoke and resignation. Wild, sour old geezers with the Doombar jitters, faces like unmade beds and haunted by the occasional apparitions of wife or bailiff. The windows were frosted, which meant not being able to see what went on inside, which I took as both nightmare and a prompt to imagination. The atmosphere on the threshold was always heavy and smelled of violently moulding brown bread. If my gran ever went to drink there, it wasn’t something I was privy to. You simply knew, without being told, that this was no place for children.
And that was fine. Even then, with occasionally heightened perception, you’re dimly aware how much time you take up, how much of others energy you expend. It seems only fair then, that there should be one space when the balance is redressed, where an adult can the freedom from reason and its absence from responsibility children enjoy, even if only for a few snatched hours a week. For me at least, the pub is the venue where I can temporarily drown out reason and smother the thousand boring little responsibilities of my life in the company of other adults.
If that seems a low-key way to start a love letter, well, it’s not to be helped. I’ve always been a bit suspicious about the more breathless stuff valorising pubs as a cross between cathedral and semi-magical community centre, stuffed full of cheerful locals and oozing with a non-defined authenticity and ‘community spirit’. It’s a strange kind of false nostalgia, emitted by people who were too young to know a time when it rang true, or who’s commitment to the ideal might not equal the feeling of their bowels turning to ice upon stepping into the local estate boozer on a Friday night.
The ‘old man pub’ stands in contrast to a conceptual nemesis which doesn’t really have a name, just its own images. Exasperated looking burgers served on chopping boards, ADHD coloured liquid in jam jars, ‘mood lighting’, Arrested Development-themed Thursday nights, lentil and parsnip crisps, equity punk hangouts and pink shirted men on carpark rooftops drinking white wine spritzers. That is to say, against an opposite set of unsatisfactory cliches that stand for the flippant, the insubstantial and the encroaching.
Now, it’s important to acknowledge that everyone is free to use their spare time in whatever way they want, so far as society will let them. It might even be that your idea of bliss is different to mine. It might not even involve spending weekend afternoons slouched against the limits of Zone 3 London, equipped with packets of Taytos and gurning the same four catchphrases at well meaning friends until the sun fades to evening and finally, to last orders. I understand that, even if I can’t bring myself to love it.
Regardless, however you want to wrap it up and give it grander airs, it all eventually boils down to the same thing. Staring down the barrel of your mid/late twenties you start to realise that leisure is an ever diminishing commodity. Work, partners - God forbid - children all have their own way of pushing you to the suburbs of your own life. How you manage what’s left is a contortionists trick. Either embrace the embedded prejudices of your temperament and your routine, or strike out for something new. Spend Friday nights mashing the Skehans jukebox to dust, or Saturday mornings trudging around the RA. Feel good now, or feel good later. It’s not fair to expect to have both.
At time of writing, I’m halfway content with the former. It feels that with all the ways life manages to throw up chaos, the prospect of a day in the pub offers a very tangible kind of certainty. Football, nonsense chat, companionship, bracingly average beer. It represents a world aside from the things that can sometimes feel alienating or strange. A cityscape of carparks turned into tiki bars, or vans selling deep fried kale. That’s not a comment on these things, or a sneer. It’s a comment on me and my own boorish anxieties.
As with so much else, it’s an easier task to rail at what you don’t like rather than explain what you do. Yet it’s often worth the added strain. If pressed to distill what I love about pubs as against other social spaces into something other the usual hollowed out phrases, it makes me think of ghosts, not the zombies at the house on the dead end. They’re the ghosts of old friendships cemented over pints of flat lager in London or Scotland, of dead relationships that flatlined in needy cornerside fleapits in Glasgow, or of teenage nights that ended with vomiting blindly from a friends bedroom window after a night on the whiskies at the places that find the concept of ID as unfathomable as table service. It’s in the idle satisfaction you get from thumbing through a greasy copy of the Racing Post, or knowing precisely which place to avoid the cask ales because the lines haven’t been cleaned since the mid-1870s. It’s the thought of sitting outside in the heat of a London summer, surrounded by both my uncle and my aunts, surrounded by noise, pint glasses and the familiar cacophony of jokes, stories and time honoured, impenetrable family banter. It doesn’t really lie in anything you can grasp or put on Tripadvisor. It lies in memory, not nostalgia.
The thing that distinguishes Old Man Pubs from the other spots where you could just as easily clink glasses, share stories and be merry until closing time, is that they’re filled with the near-tangible presence of other people’s memories, the ghosts of a long history of other patrons who have spent their evenings in almost exactly the same way. A history that isn’t confined to any one specific Old Man Pub, but to all of them. Each entirely different in its own individual quirks, its features and its fittings, its location and its locals, its events and its anecdotes, its ineffable ‘character’ and its history; and yet all Old Man Pubs still remain redolent of one another. It’s funny, how the object of that childhood terror is one of the most childishly reassuring to me now.
It’s strange too, the directions memory pulls you in. About six months ago I was walking about those same Catford/Forest Hill borderlands with a relatively new friend of mine. I suppose I was trying to explain to him why these streets meant something to me in some abstract way. As it hit around 3pm we decided to find somewhere to watch the football. Almost by chance we alighted on that same pub at the end of my Gran’s road. It didn’t seem like a threat or nightmare vision now, not that it had changed in any material way. And I’m certain we didn’t leave until close.