Monday, 16 November 2009

Street people

One last point I'd like to make about the street people who infest the city of Nice - I saw the best busker I have seen for many a long year there.

She was an old lady who sang without any form of amplification in the market place. She was accompanied only by a guy in a beret, who plonked away on string instrument (I'm no good at identifying such things) to very good effect.

Altogether, they were an excellent combination and the marketeers applauded with the public at the end of each song. They performed for about an hour, which I thought to be the limit of the old lady's strength and repetoire, as she really put heart and soul into such classics as "Je ne Regrette Rien", then gathered up their money and left with dignity to an all-round peal of applause.

What a contrast to the buggers who make a damned nuisance of themselves in our High Steets, blasting out amplified crap to annoy passers-by.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Streets of Nice

Someone recently told me that Ralph McTell's famous folk song "The Streets of London" was originally written about Paris. Well, all I can say is that neither London nor Paris has got anything on Nice for the number and variety of "street people". The mild climate and the number of nooks and crannies in which to doss has attracted bums and stiffs from all over Europe. One favourite spot for dossers is round the side of the rather magnificent War Memorial garden (pictured), so much so that the place stinks permanently of piss.
Every day as I went from the flat I had rented to the beach, I passed an old bag-lady who had made herself a regular home on a street-corner out of old junk, umbrellas and broken deck-chairs!

All very picturesque and you might be inclined to sympathise, but not if you've paid two or three hundred thousand euros for a flat with a view and what you get is a permanent street encampment outside your front door and visible from your balcony.

On the promenade I passed a lovely public garden with palm trees, flowers and benches but it was NOT available to the public, having been completely taken over by a pair of tramps who had spread themselves and their belongings over all the benches, even hanging their clothes up in the trees as a wardrobe. Once during the week I spent in Nice I witnessed the Police moving them on, but they were back within hours.

It's little wonder we sometimes hear of "police brutality" in dealing with these people. It must be very frustrating for them.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

It's nice in Nice

Recently, Marion and I rented an apartment right in the centre of the Old Town in Nice. I was on the Garibaldi trail (he was born there), indulging my fascination with that greatest of all heroes of the 19th century. The Old Town was everything we could have wished for, with wonderfully atmospheric narrow streets, full of life. It was a treat to wander around in the evenings, down the narrow alleyways brightly lit by shops of every description.

One thing that didn't suit me, however, was the price of the beer - 6.5 euros on average for a miserably small glass, not even a pint! Even during the "happy hours", the price only fell to 4.5 euros. And yet the amazing thing was how many drunks there were. Each night inebriated revellers reeled around the streets shouting and making a nuisance of themselves. How do they afford it? Barely had the last of the revellers cleared off than the street cleaners arrived, whistling and rattling about as they hosed down the roads and pavements. Very necessary no doubt, not only to clear up after the drunks but because Nice is a town of not-too-conscientious dog owners.

No, Nice is not the place to go if you want a peaceful night's sleep, but it's a great place nonetheless. Who wants to sleep anyway?

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Keelman's Way

A year or two ago (when I felt leaner and fitter) I followed The Keelman's Way, a cycle track along the south bank of the river from its mouth to West Gateshead, a distance of about eight miles. I passed one or two interesting pubs along the way, including the exotically-named Elephant on the Tyne, a subject I will write upon in the future.

The keelmen were a bunch of hard-drinking bargees who punted the coal down the shallow river to the waiting ships in centuries gone by and the pubs along the riverside saw many a wild "spree" (as they called a boose up) when the keelmen decided to celebrate. The engraving opposite shows "keelmen gathering for a spree". Keelmen's sprees were invariably accompanied by the music of a fiddle or the pipes, and ferocious stamping by way of participation.

I have read a report in an 1805 copy of The Newcastle Star which records that the publican of the Dunston Tavern was "obliged to call out the Watch for the stamping and ranting of numerous keelmen did threaten the integrity of his premises". Too late, the Watch arrived to find that the tavern had collapsed into the river, drowning two of the keelmen. Perhaps this is the origin of the expression "to bring the house down"!

If you want to know more about the keelmen and their unique way of life, you might do worse than to buy one of my little booklets, as featured in the left-hand column of this blog (oh well, it was worth a try...)

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Refurbished Zoo

Once upon a time we had a bar in our town nicknamed The Zoo. It was so called not only because of the plate glass window along the front of the bar where habitual drinkers sat and stared out moodily at passers-by, but also because of the behaviour of the clientele.
A constant row seemed always to be taking place in that vandalised and smoke-blackened bar-room. People hurled insults at each other across the room in the ripest of language, although the arguments, no matter how endless and fierce, never progressed beyond verbal combat.
It was good to go there and quietly enjoy the spectacle. Alternatively, if you felt like letting off steam, it was equally good to join in. Leaping to your feet you could roar across the crowded hubbub;
"YOU, you f**king bastard, shut your f**king hole!", or some such pleasantry.
Yes, it was a wonderfully refreshing experience and one left feeling light as the air, having gotten all the aggression and rage out of one's system. Far better, and cheaper, than a visit to the psychiatrist.
But now the owners have spoiled it all. Recently the premises was closed for a fortnight and was fully refurbished. Gone are all the old slashed sofas and greasy tables and the place gleams with new paintwork. No-one feels at home there any more. The creatures of The Zoo have been scattered to the four winds and the old place is as quiet as the grave.
I went in there yesterday and heard no swearing and not even a single cross word.
What a let-down! I left feeling all bottled-up and frustrated. There was no relief to be found.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Waggon at Eighton Banks

A generation or so ago, if you had mentioned The Waggon at Eighton Banks, near Gateshead, people would have thought you meant a railway truck. For this area was once one of the hubs of the thriving North-East coal industry, employing hundreds of men and working day and night.

Now, sadly, all is dereliction. Since Thatcher's feud with Arthur Scargill, all the pits have been closed and all the associated work in the area has come to an end. Some of the buildings still survive, like the incline hauling station shown opposite, but most are in the process of being ground up to make rubble for hardcore on the roads. It's a sad sight.

But the nearby Waggon Inn is thriving - and rightly so. Here you can get an excellent home-cooked meal for a very reasonable price, big portions too. There's none of your standard menu stuff as dished up in the chain pubs. The Waggon cooks on the premises and I can recommend the home-made steak and kidney pie and, most especially, mince and dumplings, if you can get there early enough before they run out!

They serve a good pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord, but my favourite has to be Mordue's Workie Ticket, a bitter beer which retains its head right down the glass.
Yes, I would say that if you are interested enough in our industrial heritage to go and visit Eighton Banks, you could do a lot worse than to stop off for a pint at The Waggon.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Soft Furnishings

If I were a pub licensee, I would certainly keep soft furnishings down to a minimum.

On a recent visit to Haworth, I was driven out of two pubs by the pong. In the first, The Black Bull, the smell of dogs was very strong and I certainly wouldn't have liked to eat there. I like dogs and like to see them in pubs, but they cannot help but leave their scent on the carpets where they lie.

In the second pub I visited, there was a lingering smell of cigarette smoke. I'd better not mention the name of the place in case they are foolishly ignoring the ban (I don't want to get anyone into trouble) but actually, I think it was because the place needed refurbishing. It's very hard to get the stale smell out of carpets (and clothes!) so I suppose years of impregnation has taken it's toll (as the guy said to his wife after their fifteenth kid).

No, if I were a licensee, polished wooden floorboards (like in The Gunmakers, Clerkenwell, my son's gastropub) and simple wooden or metal furniture would be the order of the day.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Goodbye to The Alkali

The Alkali, the oldest pub in Jarrow, has finally called "last orders" and has been converted to offices.

The pub opened in 1857 to serve the nearby chemical works, where soda (alkali) was produced from a process involving the evaporation of seawater. The major problem associated with the job was that the process released hydrochloric acid which was very harmful to the workers' health, although some employers had the nerve to suggest that it was actually good for them! It cleared the lungs, they claimed.

No safety equipment being provided, workers who did not like having their lungs "cleared", were obliged to "muffle up" as a rudimentary protection.

Despite the hazards of the job (blokes like the pair shown in the photo rarely lived past 50), times were so desperate that there was no lack of takers for the jobs. Irishmen flocked to Jarrow and set up a bit of a colony around Church Square, near the ancient ruins of Bede's Monastery.

Working people will always make the best of things, however, and I have no doubt that many a raucous night occurred at The Alkali when the workers had a bob or two in their pockets.

But now their ghosts will be finally laid to rest.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Belching Olympics

Yesterday, arriving too early for visiting time at the hospital, I went into a nearby pub to sink a pint whilst waiting.
At first I thought that I had come across a swearing contest : everyone in the place was addressed as a c**t and no sentence, or even part of a sentence, was complete without the descriptive and imaginative use of the word f**king.
But I soon discovered that it was in fact a belching contest I had stumbled across. In fact, it was possibly the belching Olympics. A thickset middle-aged man who looked like he had suffered a hard paper-round started the proceedings with an explosive offering. Glancing round, I noticed that this performance impressed no-one. All the c**ts sat stoney-faced.
Next came a wet, crackling effort from a huge, bald, tattooed f*cker, but this drew no comment whatsoever. I soon knew why - they were all waiting for the champion, a little bandy-legged fellow wearing a cloth cap!
His contribution, which I cannot find superlatives enough to describe, almost lifted the roof and drew roars of protest from the assembled company:
"For f**k's sake, is there no peace in this f**king place, you c**nts?"
Apparently not.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Apologies to readers

I'm sorry that I haven't been able to give my blog any attention for quite a while now. Unexpected serious illness has cropped up out of the blue, affecting a very near and dear person, so I haven't been able to give my mind to writing. I shall be trying to get back on track soon.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Off to Yorkshire

As the title says, I'm off to Yorkshire this morning. We have hired a cottage near Haworth for a week, so when I get back I will no doubt have many real-ale experiences to relate.
Last time I was in that part of the world, I found some excellent pubs and some great beer.
The more it rains, the better reason to sit in the pub!

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Asda come home

There are many reasons why pubs fail. It's a very complex issue - it's not just down to the "credit crunch", or cheap supermarket boose, or poor management or even the greed of the big brewers.

One of the main factors in pub viability is (as quoted in the housing market) "location, location, location".

Since Asda moved it's supermarket across to another quarter of our town (South Shields) there has been a noticeable fall-off in custom at The Wouldhave, which for years has enjoyed a site adjacent to the old Asda store, which is now closed and deserted. The whole axis of the town has changed and shoppers no longer pass the pub on their way to the supermarket.

Yesterday, I was in The Wouldhave at lunch time and I counted only fourteen customers besides myself and my wife. There used to be many more than twice that number.

Asda can hardly be blamed, but it's a disaster for the pub.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Great Rip-Off goes on

Since my son, Stonch, bought the lease of a pub in London, I have been idly considering whether to get into the business myself - after all, it could be a bit of an adventure (a late mid-life crisis?).
But I am appalled at the bum deals being offered by the big brewers who have a stranglehold on pub ownership in this benighted and too-docile country.
For instance, The Allison Arms, a pub well off the beaten track in Jarrow, where you'd have to work really hard to build up any kind of regular business, is being offered at over £18,000 for a 5-year occupancy. Not even a lease, mark you! And the mug who took this on would have to pay them rent for the premises, besides giving them a cut of the takings by being tied to buying their beer at their inflated prices!
But they are running out of mugs and all over the country, good pubs are closing down because of the big brewers' greed.
We are losing a precious aspect of our heritage. Can nothing be done to reverse the decline before it is too late?
It may be time for people to start petitioning the Government to begin issuing new licenses en masse, sanctioning a new wave of public houses, leaving the big brewers with dead assets on their hands.
That would fettle the greedy buggers.

Monday, 1 June 2009

The End of Rum 'n Egg Bars

I am reliably informed that these great institutions finally died out in the 1920s, when the shipbuilding industry hit its great slump.

The Naval Limitation Treaty had been signed by all major nations, severely cutting back on warship production and world trade was slowing down after the postwar boom, hence fewer merchant vessels were also being built.

A reader of mine, themaninthemoon, has sent in this wonderfully atmospheric photo of River Drive, near Readhead's Shipyard, where the Rum 'n Egg bar once served its early morning repast to the hurrying hordes.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Beer Party?

I have just received my ballot paper for the European Elections (how I wish we could get out of the damn' thing, then we would have less exploiticians and less bother voting) and was startled to see how many parties were fielding candidates. Really, we are fast becoming a Banana Republic!
I was a little disappointed, however, to find that there was no Beer Party candidate standing. If there is such a party I hereby offer myself as a candidate for future elections.
My manifesto, if elected, is to try all beers throughout Europe (at taxpayers' expense) and send back reports via this blog to the beer-drinking public.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Girls Allowed

Further to my previous article, about the "gentleman's buffet", the last bastion of male chauvinism was once the workingmen's clubs.
In my local club in Primrose, Jarrow, ladies were only allowed in the "lounge". All other parts of the club were banned to them until government regulations forced changes to be made.
Oddly enough, the consequence has been a deterioration in the behaviour of the "gentlemen" and much more trouble than in former times.

Friday, 22 May 2009

The "Gentleman's Buffet"

One of my regular readers, themaninthemoon, asked me recently if I knew what a "gentleman's buffet" was. You can still occasionally see this legend engraved on the glass doors of some of our oldest pubs.
Well, it was room in which men could talk "freely", as women were barred. Not possible nowadays, of course, with all our equal opportunity legislation.
In effect, it was a room in which "man's talk", replete with the most colourful swearing, could be enjoyed.
Actually, I think it originated in pubs which catered for commercial travellers, who were renowned for their dirty stories and coarse sense of humour. Those of you who saw the T.V series Pennies from Heaven may remember scenes where the salesman Arthur and his friends met in the gentleman's buffet to swap jokes etc.
Bar managers used to make sure that only their fiercest, most experienced barmaids served in the gentleman's buffet, battleaxes who had heard it all before.
Got that, you f***ing c*nts?

Monday, 18 May 2009

Was this a Rum 'n Egg Bar?

I have been informed by a friend of mine that the premises now used as McNulty Offshore's Offices was once a Rum 'n Egg Bar.
Certainly it is in a likely location, being along by the River Tyne and in close proximity to what was once Readhead's Shipyard.
But when I went to look at it and to take photographs, I could see only one doorway.

The long thin frontage WAS indeed very reminiscent of the Rum 'n Egg Bar I remembered seeing in Howdon during my wild and demented youth (see my previous blog), but I couldn't get away from the fact that there was only one door.

But look again at the second picture (below), taken from the other side of building. Is that the hint of a bricked-up former doorway in the left hand side of the frontage? Look at the curve of the wooden boarding above.

I rest my case.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Rum 'n Egg bars

During Tyneside's heyday as a shipbuilding area there were a number of Rum 'n Egg bars near the shipyard gates. One still existed in Howdon in the 1950s and was pointed out to me by a pensioner who remembered these historic institutions very well.
Apparently these pubs had a long thin bar fronting the street with a doorway at either end. By tradition, you entered at one end, progressed along the bar and exited by the other door.
Lined up along the bar were rows of glasses of strong dark rum and a (peeled) boiled egg on a saucer. This was breakfast for the shipyard workers, who began work so early in the morning that they had merely bundled out of bed and rushed off to work with nothing in their bellies. It must have been very invigorating for the workers as the neat rum hit their stomach - a real awakener!
The old bloke told me that the barman watched like a hawk as the shipyard workers dashed through, each slamming down a tanner (sixpence in old money) on the bar before throwing down the rum at a gulp and departing, munching on their egg. It was all done on the run, no-one lingered or even stopped at the bar or the flow would have been broken.
How I would like to experience a Rum 'n Egg bar today!
It was part of a whole world of working-class culture which has been forgotten.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

The Fleet at the Gunmakers

My son Stonch, who runs The Gunmakers pub just off the Clerkenwell Road, was very excitedly telling me recently that he had heard the Fleet River rushing through a drain near his pub.
There had been heavy rain in the preceding days and the old river, now well and truly buried beneath London's streets and part of the Victorian sewer system, was swollen to a noisy rushing subterranean flood.
Over the centuries, this venerable river, to quote Barton's "Lost Rivers of London", had declined "from a river to a brook, from a brook to a ditch, and from a ditch to a drain".
Rising on Hampstead Heath, it formed a tidal inlet to the Thames as much as 600 feet wide at the time of the Romans and ancient anchors were discovered in its bed when it was enclosed by the Victorians. In actual fact, its name is taken from the Anglo-Saxon word "fleet", which means a tidal inlet capable of floating boats.
Nowadays it carries much used beer down to the Thames and that certainly floats my boat, my friend!

Monday, 4 May 2009

The Robin Hood, Primrose

Last night I was summoned to The Robin Hood to see my brother and many other prime boosers of the family. The Robin Hood is an historic pub which stands on the old turnpike road from Newcastle to the coast on the south bank of the Tyne. There has been a pub on this site since Elizabethan times at the latest and it sits in a quite picturesque dip of the land beside the River Don. Nowadays it is run by the Jarrow Brewery and, until recently, they brewed their beers there before transferring all brewing to The Maltings, their new premises in South Shields (see my previous blogs).

Anyway, I sank a few really first class pints of "Rivetter", a blonde, hoppy beer with a great head and lovely aftertaste while my brother regaled us with jokes which he had picked up in the prison service. Before he retired a couple of years ago, he was a Deputy Governor at The Scrubs. I know from a previous life, when I was the bar cellarman at The Duke of Cornwall opposite Brixton Jail, that lots of jokes originate in prisons where the guys have nothing else to do but make them up. The Prison Officers who frequented the bar in those days could keep you laughing for hours until your face ached. I had to ban joke-telling on a few occasions when I could stand no more of it!

Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Gunmakers, Clerkenwell

At last I managed to find the time and energy to go down to London to see my son's pub, The Gunmakers, and I certainly have no cause to regret it.
The atmospheric old premises exudes character and is all that a pub ought to be. Tucked away off the main roads, it is a haven of peace and tranquillity. No raucous music disturbs the free-flowing conversation in the cosy little front bar and there are two rooms further through the pub where seclusion can be had for those seeking it.
Ghosts of the thousands who have frequented the place over the century of its existence seem to fill the place too, so that it is possible to sit alone, contemplating the world, without feeling lonely in the least. In any case, there is always the much-travelled Peter, ensconsed in his corner, who radiates bonhomie, is willing to strike up a conversation with anyone and is full of anecdotes and wit.
My son being a connoisseur of real ale, it is not necessary to say how good the beer is, but I can certainly recommend the Bateman's XXXB, of which I imbibed many pints. Equally good is the food, Chef Sebastian's fiery peppered steak sandwiches taking the "cordon blue" as far as my palate was concerned.
Roll on the next time I visit the City, so that I can get back to The Gunmakers for another session.

Thursday, 23 April 2009


I was in Consett the other day (yes, actually voluntarily!) and was impressed by the number of pubs which still exist in that poor, Thatcher-ravaged township.
Just over 20 years ago, the steelworks was ruthlessly closed, throwing half the town out of work, but it appears that the community survived. As there is still very little employment in the area, and even less money, I wonder what their secret is. How do they keep their pubs open? Do the town council impose a local bylaw on the population that they must visit a different pub every day, for instance?
Whatever the circumstance, it was good to see that the "hillbillies" are keeping up the tradition of the good old English pub. Good luck to them.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

A waste of a good pub

Reading my son's blog (Stonch), I notice that he mentions certain sites and premises which would be ideal for a pub.
Actually, it often strikes me that there are some pubs which are a complete waste of a good building.

Take The Britannia in my home town of South Shields, for instance. What a beautiful building it is, but what a lousy pub! They serve no real ales and the notice board which invites you to "watch live sport here" is a con. I went in there last summer to watch the cricket and was told that they had discontinued Sky Sports, as it was too expensive.
It's a crying shame as the site is ideal too, directly opposite the magnificent Edwardian Town Hall in the centre of the town.
To celebrate the days when South Shields was a great sea port, a Great Lantern from the stern of a sailing ship adorns the entranceway.
Pubs like The Britannia will soon be as extinct as sailing ships.
And they deserve to be.

Friday, 27 March 2009

The Gaslight

Here's one we can't blame the pub chains for (not even Wetherspoon's)!

The Gaslight, a venerable old pub in Jarrow, is being demolished to make way for the new Tyne Vehicle Tunnel.

Of course, it has only been The Gaslight for twenty years or so. Before that, in a previous lifetime, it was The Tunnel Tavern, a name which celebrated its proximity to the Tyne Pedestrian Tunnel, an institution which boasts the longest escalator in the world. During those bad old days of the 80's it became principally known as a hang-out for dropouts and drug addicts.

But painted on the rear of the building in bold Victorian signboard lettering was its TRUE identity - The Commercial.

Back in the 1890s, during its heyday, The Commercial was so named because it lay at the bottom of Commercial Road, just before the Tyne Ferry Landing, and was frequented by commercial travellers as they plied back and forwards across the Tyne (shades of Arthur from Pennies from Heaven).
The lettering remained for over a hundred years, finally disappearing sometime in the 1990s.
No matter, for now the whole pub is due to disappear.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Pub Management : The big British rip-off.

I see my son Stonch has been laying the blame for the rash of recent pub closures at Wetherspoon's door.
Actually, it's about time the whole issue of pub ownership and management was tackled in this country. The big pub chains have been ripping their publicans off for years.
Not content with charging enormous up-front sums for leases on the pubs they own, the big pub chains have the nerve to then charge rent for the premises on top of that. They also dictate that the lessor "keep the standard of the pub up to their specification", so that a publican is not even allowed to decorate his own pub without their approval.
Finally, and by far the worst imposition on the person foolish enough to lease a premises from them, they "tie" the pub to their own beer supplies, charging the lessor inflated prices for their stock and fining him/her if he/she buys elsewhere.
I understand that the E.U is looking into the whole question of pub ownership and management in the U.K.
About time! It's a wonder that these crooks have been allowed to get away with it for so long.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Lingering Aura

I gave up adding to this blog over 4 months ago. I decided that it was a waste of time as I was only getting 30 or 40 hits a day and the number was not growing. Since then, I have been amazed to see that I still get roughly the same number of hits each day, even though I have added nothing.
Is it a sort of "lingering aura" as I fade into the distance?
Or could it be that the "statcounter" device is untrue and gives a blog a "false floor" to sustain it?