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.
The Goose, an isolated building of indeterminate age, had been selling beer for more than a century but was still about as close to being a private house as it could be while performing the functions of premises with a magistrates’ on-licence. The pub sign was as rough as the pub: a painted sheet-metal goose, neck outstretched, perched on a 10ft wooden post. There was no bar: the beer, brewed down the road by McMullen’s of Hertford, appeared through a hatch in the wall of one of the two rooms open to the public.
The furniture was junk-shop, the gents was outside, and open to the sky: a luminous green fungus grew on the black walls of the urinals, looking as if it was about to release its spores and conquer the planet. The Goose was utterly basic and utterly marvellous, and the local Camra branch loved it, sticking it in the Good Beer Guide and travelling out regularly by the minibus-load to take on, and lose to, the cloth-capped locals at darts and dominoes. Even with Camra’s help, though, the Goose could only have been doing minimal business, and it closed around 1979.
Now Paul Moody, a music journalist, and Robin Turner, who works in the music business, have produced The Rough Pub Guide a celebration of 50 British boozers from Glasgow to Cornwall all 180 degrees round the circle from chalkboard menus and four different house whites.
Inevitably this is a list to argue about endlessly over pints down your own local rough boozer, both about pubs that have been left out and pubs that have been included. The Lewes Arms, for example, number 6 on Moody and Turner’s list, gave Greene King a black eye in the row over stocking Harvey’s beer and it’s a great pub, but I don’t think it’s “rough” in any way. And what is the Green Man, the extremely expensive bar in the basement of Harrods, doing in a list of “rough” pubs?
But it’s still good to see the “rough pub” experience being hymned. Yes, the toilets probably whiff a bit, and the beer isn’t that great, but there’s something about being in a basic boozer at 3.30 in the afternoon with the racing on the telly high up the wall and only a Polish barmaid, a half-eaten packet of salt’n’vinegar and five or six other sad, silent losers for company that is as British as Trooping the Colour or the Last Night of the Proms …