Wednesday 29 May 2024

Book Review - Local Legends -The Hidden Pubs of London

One of the fascinating things about London is how much of  "old" London remains and how, relatively, many of its pubs are still pretty well unspoilt. Many of these pubs are either off the beaten track or concealed, either in the suburbs, or masked from view in alleys or byways which only those in the know discover. Additionally, many of these are comparatively unaffected by the passage of time, and some, a bit against the grain in these somewhat homogenous days, have long serving, idiosyncratic, or iconic landladies and landlords. Identifying these treasures is where this perceptive book shines.

You will read that many hidden pubs are steeped in history, with some dating back centuries. The architecture, old wooden beams, and vintage décor transport visitors back in time, creating a unique and nostalgic atmosphere. Often they are small and cosy or have a quirky and eclectic interior, filled with oddities and curiosities that give each venue a distinct personality. This adds to the overall attractiveness and is likely to make each visit memorable, as does the host - more of which later.  Some are, on the face of it, a lot more mundane, but the book looks beyond that to the story beneath. However, as this fascinating book sets out, these curiosities are getting fewer and fewer and may not be with us forever. This is very much a guide to these rarest of beasts, and the descriptions are peppered with a feel of "get there now before it changes". 

The book's narrative is expertly penned by John Warland, who is a down to earth and easy going wordsmith.  His photographic confederate is Horst A Friedrich, who provides this weighty tome - it is 335 pages long - with wonderfully atmospheric and striking depictions of the very diverse pubs included. There is a foreword by Suggs - he of Madness fame - who describes his early days in the French House, Soho, and his local, The Dublin Castle in Camden. His affection for pubs is clear when he says: "Pubs gave us a platform..... I wouldn't have a career without pubs. I'd be a busker or butcher's boy to eternity." This neatly sets the tone for what is to come.

The book covers 38 pubs, arranged by area. Many old favourites are included, such as Ye Old Mitre, The Pride of Spitalfields, The Wenlock Arms and the Cockpit.  Perhaps more interestingly, there are many that you probably won't know - and they aren't all Victorian treasures - but which will nonetheless capture your imagination and make you keen to visit. Each pub is allocated just a single page of text, but so well written and insightful is that text, that the reader gets a clear feel of what each pub is about.  That may be the intriguing local clientele, the fascinating bric-a-brac- within, the history or the nature and idiosyncrasies of the incumbents that run them.  Many of the photos have neat little accompanying subtitles or observations summing up either the photo or the establishment.   The Nell Gynne Tavern's lights are "The casual whiff of a whore's boudoir". The Cross Keys in Covent Garden is "An Aladdin's cave of ephemera", the Nag's Head in Belgravia quotes the landlord describing his rules "if you don't like it - don't come here" and Bradley's Spanish Bar is remarked upon thus; "The sign says "bar", but your heart says "pub".

Publican icons are covered too. The legendary Roxy Beaujolais of the Seven Stars accurately states that "a pub is egalitarian: anyone can come in" before waspishly adding "until I say they can't". This is accompanied by a stunning photo, which captures her essence vividly.   In the "no cards accepted" Palm Tree in Bow, a gem of a pub, still tricked out externally in Trumans signage and run by the same landlord since 1977, the author writes "it is hard to imagine the Palm Tree without Alf. You somehow miss him before he has even cashed out". 

This book has much to offer the pub fancier and those that simply like the quirky and unusual. They aren't difficult to find - most are hidden in plain sight - but reading about them makes the reader keen to visit and to seek them out before they change forever. There is an undoubted degree of tempered nostalgia in this book, but to a certain extent at least, that is the point. Perhaps the raison d'être of the book is best summed up by the pithiest of remarks pertaining to the Lord Clyde in Borough, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The book is highly recommended and frankly, so are the pubs. 

There was a nice quote from Horst at the book launch where, when invited to be involved, he asked John Warland what the book was about. "GFB Horst" he said." GFB?" queried Horst. Great Fucking Boozers" Exactly.

And maybe, some pubs could also take a leaf out of the King Charles 1 in King's Cross's book, and have this as a statutory entry policy to all pubs -  "Strictly no wankers".

Local Legends -The Hidden Pubs of London is published by Prestel. ISBN 978-3-7913-8973-8.



retiredmartin said...

Thanks for the positivity, Peter !

Yes, London has many great pubs, as much because they do welcome allcomers as the bricks and mortar and beer.

Tandleman said...

Cheers Martin. I now have a good few to add to my "must visit" list.

Cookie said...

how can they be both hidden and in a book?

Tandleman said...

Because until you read the book, you won't know. Obvs.