Around three quarters of the way through the 1970s, I made regular trips to the North West of England to see my then-girlfriend at Liverpool University. Occasionally we would visit Manchester, which could (and still can) boast a range of old-established family brewers superior to anywhere else in Britain.
Supported by a copy of the local Camra guide, I’d try to fit in beers in places owned by as many of these small operators as I could in a single trip. It meant visiting pubs for their proximity to each other, rather than the quality of the establishment/the beer. This is not always a good idea.
One day I found a place listed in the city centre that served the beers of a brewer from much further out that I hadn’t then tried, and told the willing Kathy R we had to visit it. The outside looked as if the brewery estates department had last paid it any attention at least 20 years earlier: undeterred, we went in, got beers at the bar, sat down, and realised that the walls were covered in porn: not even the polite, airbrushed Penthouse/Playboy sort, but pages torn from magazines at the “readers’ wives” end of the spectrum.
Unsurprisingly, my girlfriend was the only female customer in the place, and every one of the customers looked like their only income was from acting as a copper’s nark. There was probably a stripper on later. We didn’t wait to find out. I might be alone here, but I find naked women too distracting when I’m drinking beer. Still, the experience gave me a marker: “roughest pub I’ve ever been in”.
I’ve found myself in a few actual strippers’ pubs, and I’ve been in pubs where fights have exploded, though these generally looked perfectly respectable before it all kicked off. There was a bar in Glasgow where a table started brawling among themselves at 5.30 in the afternoon, for example: wonderful, I thought, someone’s putting on the Glasgow pub experience for us without us having to stay out late and drink too much ourselves. The barman was given a fist in the face for going over and trying to calm it down, and I saw him later being given the classic folk-remedy of a raw steak applied to his blackening eye. Doubtless, this being Glasgow, the steak was later recycled onto someone’s plate: well-done, I hope.
The only other place I’ve seen bar staff assaulted was in a pub in the back streets of Weymouth, normally a quiet seaside town with the nearest whiff of danger being the prison a couple of miles down the coast on Portland Bill. This time the barman had his shirt ripped off his back. As his attacker was carried out of the pub, the barman turned and glared at us: perhaps he felt we should have been more than spectators. Or at least paid for our entertainment by offering to replace his shirt.
Rough pubs don’t have to be a bad experience, of course. Around the same time as my visit to the Manchester porn pub, I used to travel out to a little rural beerhouse called the Goose, in the hamlet of Moor Green, part of the lost East Hertfordshire landscape of fields, woods and farms that seems 300 miles, rather than 30 miles, from London, and 50 years in the past.
Continue reading In praise of rough pubs