Thursday, 5 April 2012

The London Nobody Knows by Geoffrey Fletcher

To mangle a quotation by LP Hartley, the past looks distinctly foreign sometimes, especially when you consider the matter of licensing hours in the UK, which until living memory (and in my case, drinking memory) were quite restrictive. Getting a drink of an afternoon was hard work in a lot of the country, and if you wanted a beer after eleven o’clock at night, you could forget it unless you were prepared to pay money to go to a club or could find a hotel bar that wasn’t too fussy about serving guests only.

In this light, Geoffrey Fletcher’s descriptions of the pubs in London in his marvellous The London Nobody Knows, are almost despatches from a newspaper correspondent posted abroad:

If you have a mind for it, you can pretty well drink all round the clock in London pubs, by an elaborate system of timing which includes visiting dockyard pubs with special licensing hours and those of Covent Garden also with special arrangements for the convenience of market men.

A collection of drawings and pen sketches about the small places in London, easily missed, ignored or unappreciated, The London Nobody Knows lovingly describes the crumbling Victoriana and Edwardiana that Fletcher saw around the capital, which in the 1960s when he compiled this book from his newspaper column, was in distinct risk of extinction, swept away by the clean lines of glass and concrete brutalism. Fortunately, the city didn’t turn into this predicted mix of the Westway flyover and Paternoster Square, but a lot has gone since. I cannot find any trace of the King and Queen in West London, and fear the worst:

London pubs are rich in all the trappings of the Victorian age, which knew exactly how a town pub should appear. A fine one is illustrated here – the King and Queen in the Harrow Road. This is nineteenth-century Baroque at its most florid. Grey marble columns rise from a mosaic floor, raised a step above the pavement. There is splendid ironwork – iron letters and wrought iron – over the door. The words ‘Saloon Bar’ have a bucolic abandon, showing the influence of art nouveau... The architects of the late Victorian pubs and music-halls knew exactly what the situation demanded – extravagance, exuberance, and plenty of decoration for its own sake.

I believe that the late Victorian period was the highpoint in pub building and design in this country, especially in London, but then I like bevelled mirrors and dark wood with my beer:

The bar counter and its imposing fittings is invariably the pièce de résistance of the London pub. Mostly horseshoe-shaped on plan, the island rises in an infinite number of curly brackets, railed shelves with turned balustrades, brilliant mirrors and bottles (the display of bottles is a later innovation – during the nineteenth century spirits were kept in barrel shaped porcelain containers) – the whole thing rising up like a great organ, often surmounted by a clock under an elaborately broken pediment.

He finishes with a description of one of my favourite pubs, the Black Friar:

The Black Friar is Victorian above and art nouveau below. The door I have drawn is of white stone and marble with an infilling of coloured mosaic; the metal plates by the doors, ‘To the Saloon’ and ‘Worthington Ales on draught’, have figures of monks, and the interior is as rich as the exterior, slightly tinctured with an underlying hint the Art and Craft movement.

I realise that times, like licensing hours, have changed and things move on, but whereas the preposterous restrictions on pub hours have been replaced with something a bit more civilised, the loss of Victorian public houses and their replacement with faceless vertical drinking establishments is something to lament.

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