Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Wonky Panels III

Fancy a Drink?

If, like me, you are fond of a drink once in a while, especially a companionable one, enjoyed in good company, in a nice setting, then I think you will be no stranger to Spitalfields. Of course the West End also has its plethora of watering holes and drinking dens, its pubs, bars, restaurants and nightclubs, in vaulted, glitzy, venerable spaces, in ancient, characterful, oak-panelled public houses and cramped, ill-lit cellars, and very nice they are too. But increasingly people are heading East looking for divertissements, new excitements - something fresh, out of the ordinary. And who can blame them? People come to Spitalfields looking for experience that is authentic and true, and Spitalfields seldom disappoints. If West is jaded, East is energized. Isn’t this why, after all, we came here in the first place?

I hail from Australia. Don’t think too badly of me for this. In my day we mostly thought very fondly of the “old country”; as a child growing up in the Sydney suburbs we all stood up loyally in the darkened cinema to sing “God save the queen” in the expectant pause after Mickey and Minnie and the Pathé newsreel but before the magical drumroll that heralded the main feature. Australians now are more republican-minded of course, inclined to express rebellious feelings toward their ancestral parent, as a raw, inexperienced teenager might when he first gets his own ideas. But back then we loved Britain without reserve.

And how we loved our deeply unglamorous, toilet-tile pubs. We were famous for these, and the slightly pathetic, infantile male drinking culture they enshrined. The first time my wife and I ever stepped into a Sydney pub (in the Rocks, near Circular Quay), a brawl erupted right in front of us within seconds of our arriving. I had wanted to give my young English wife the authentic Australian experience. I hadn’t bargained on this. Four or five men scrummaged on the floor at our feet. Fists flew and shirts were torn. The air turned blue. Other drinkers appeared indifferent, sipping at their Tooheys. The landlord turned his back. Then the whole thing ended as speedily as it had begun. Who knows what trivial remark had sparked the fracas. The combatants promptly returned to their drinks at the bar, quite as if nothing had happened.

I flew away to England, a young man restless for new experience, longing among other things to see a real English pub. Imagine my displeasure, then, when I fetched up in London and found digs in a quarter which, in accordance with its strict Quaker past, was totally devoid of any pubs or bars: Muswell Hill. The place was as dry as the Simpson Desert. I soon found my way downhill to explore less salubrious, but more energetic, characterful, thirst-slaking neighbourhoods, finally ending up in Spitalfields. What a relief!

Back then in the early nineties all Spitalfields pubs, with perhaps just two or three honourable exceptions, were strip joints. Customers were loutish City boys wanting something extra with their lunchtime pint. Bouncers with bulldog faces and non-existent necks, in pressed white shirts, narrow ties and barely fitting dark suits, stood guard at the door. Leaded lights and decorous, ornate windows were blacked out and boarded to thwart prurient and prying eyes. Pole-dancing beauties and blokes in bars peppered a neighbourhood incongruously undergoing gentrification. It was a strange era of transition and jarring contradictions. Needless to say, I never visited such establishments myself, not even out of a natural spirit of curiosity. I didn’t like the beer.

Spitalfields is a thirsty place. If you were to compile a gazetteer of its drinking establishments, I think the document would run to several pages. There are times when all London seems to pounce on our streets and, locust-like, sweep through our bars and watering holes, leaving no pint glass undrained, no Champagne flute unbroken. I shall take just a cursory look at a few of these - since alcohol should be enjoyed, as you must already know, as government and everyone keeps saying, only in moderation.

I shall begin with the oldest first.

If you were to chance upon The Pride of Spitalfields in some quiet corner of the English countryside, in some forgotten village or rural idyll, then I shouldn’t think you’d find it in any way surprising or out of place. This charming little pub in a narrow turning eastwards off Brick Lane, opposite the police station and leaving behind the curry houses, is pure rus in urbe. There is a tiny bar and a snug to one side. There are swirly carpets on the floor and wainscot panels on the walls. The barmaids in their cramped quarters behind the optics, pulling pints and tugging at the fridge handles, give every appearance of having been confined there for decades. You even have to stoop to get through the front door, though I might just be imagining that.

This pub was always rammed, or is so now in my memory. On warm summer evenings, under iridescent star-flecked skies, drinkers spilled out nightly across the pavement and cobbled road in front, only two steps from Polly Hope’s warehouse conversion on one side and Richard McCormack’s architects’ studio on the other. I hope they weren’t troubled by the noise. Twenty years ago The Pride was one of the famous lock-in pubs of Spitalfields which prospered in the days before Tony Blair’s government liberalized the licensing laws and ushered in the so-called “cafe society”. Provided you were in before 11, the drinking continued till early morning on certain nights. Anyone who left heard the dull thud of the door bolt thrown behind them. I always thought this private club scene glamorous and interesting. Am I alone in feeling nostalgic for this lost era?

The Duke of Wellington, tucked away in a side street off Petticoat Lane and Spitalfields Market, is one of those splendid, old-fashioned, unreconstructed London pubs that time slipped gently past and might have escaped everyone’s notice but for its extraordinary valuation in today’s febrile London property market. It recently changed hands for an eye-watering figure I would blush to confide. I can’t think how this old pub might command such a giddy price. The Duke has its followers I know, though I confess I never was one of them. I don’t think I ever set foot inside. I walk past often enough. It always reminded me of one of those typical suburban pubs you see over and over again until some day when you walk past and suddenly they are closed down, boarded up, sold. But this would be a huge shame. The Duke is part of the fabric of old Spitalfields. Some of my friends go there I know for a darts match, or a solitary pint. It is unpretentious, and that is always a virtue. This is an attribute increasingly scarce in Spitalfields. But The Duke, stout and trustworthy as it is, with good cellar and trusted ales, and a happy band of regulars, may nevertheless not be the first choice for someone seeking sparkling conversation and a lively atmosphere.

That place might just be the Golden Heart, Sandra Esquilant’s iconic and achingly trendy pub perched on a bend in the restlessly flowing fleuve that is Commercial Street. I once heard this spirited Spitalfields matriarch interviewed for a Radio 4 arts programme - she had just been nominated in a list of Britain’s most influential figures in the contemporary art scene. That gives you the flavour. I remember the times when this pub too was a lock-in. People would tentatively tap on the door after hours and Sandra would exercise her autocratic veto on who should be granted admittance. Many young people failed to make the grade. But those others seemed very pleased with their endorsement. Sandra’s genius was always to express her personality, open and brave and undiminished, through her pub. And what a pretty pub it is, with its fresh flowers in ample vases on sills with glass casements, its laboriously polished brass fittings, its bare narrow floorboards, its fireplaces and stone hearths and classic Twenties pale oak joinery that surely hasn’t been disturbed since the day it was first fitted. It is a glamorous place, a resource and an asset, where you might easily, unless you are careful, bump into a celebrity, and where it is surely almost impossible to leave without having had an enjoyable and interesting conversation.

Many years ago, I cannot recall exactly when, as I was working to create our restaurant business, I met a charming and personable young man who was new to the area, who it pleased me to see seemed to admire my old place, and was anxious to seek my advice. He was considering taking the lease on a local pub and wondered which of the several on offer I preferred. At that time Spitalfields looked tired and a bit sad. It was not the trendy, busy destination it is now. Pub leases could be snapped up. I’m pretty sure I was not much use to him. His name was Peter Dunne, and he is the landlord of the phenomenally successful Water Poet in Folgate Street.

If George Orwell’s imaginary ideal London pub, The Moon Under Water, has a modern parallel, then I think that pub may be the Water Poet. Looking at it, and admiring it as I do, I can only conclude that Peter Dunne is a business genius. He once told me hired a public relations consultant, and after a seemingly interminable wait his investment eventually bore fruit. His trick is to capture exactly the right tone and match it to his customers. And the customers are many. A courtyard garden is thronged with drinkers. At each of its several bars, banks of people queue for pints. Private rooms host cheery, well-oiled gatherings. The place has a joyous, friendly air, and is a marvelous antidote to some of its dull and sober rivals. If “atmosphere” can be bottled, then this is where to find it.

Peter is so good at the job, he did it all again in Norton Folgate with the Crown and Shuttle. As much as we do for the people who made the Vibe Bar, and other famous bars of Spitalfields, we applaud such creativity and inventiveness. Crucially, all of these places I have described are not corporate. There is no wall of money behind them from banks and investors. There are no men in suits with clipboards. Each bears the mark of the hand of its creator, not some wretched “design consultancy”. Entrepreneurs have simply relied on their natural instincts. That is why the outcomes are so pleasing.

And I shouldn’t wonder if there is a skip in the back to hold all the takings.