I was sitting in the back room of The Oxford Bar, in Edinburgh, drinking 80 Shilling, and the guy sitting opposite me was Ian Rankin, right enough, but I couldn’t help feeling that at any moment Inspector Rebus would come through, and might take offence at something I’d said; he might lean over and grab my tie and slam my face down into the table, until I tell him where I hide the key to my lock up full of dodgy DVD’s, or something. Rebus comes in here lots in Rankin’s novels, for a couple of beers, or a Laphroaig, or a half and a half (that’s a whisky chased with a half of beer) and so crammed full of verisimilitude are the books, that sitting in the bar, you can’t help but feel that Rebus must be due at any moment. Mr Rankin comes in here too, to drink pints of Deuchars IPA; I asked him if he wasn’t worried about ruining his favourite boozer by writing about it.
‘No, its too spartan in here. Not many tourists are going to want to come and stand about in the Ox, are they?’ I could see his point. There is a front room with a bar for standing at. The far corner has a couple of seats in it. Ian told me this is known as ‘Dead Man’s Corner’, because a couple of old guys used to sit there, who are dead now. Then there is the brown back room where we were sitting, with its collection of rickety furniture, and its photographs of old landlords on the wall. Ian pointed to one of these photos. ‘See him?’ Ian asked me. ‘In the old days, he wouldn’t have let you in, on account of your Englishness. He was a hard man. They tell a story about him; a bloke came in here once and asked for some crisps with his beer, and the old landlord dragged him outside by his collar and said ‘Did you no’ see the sign? This is a pub, no’ a fuckin’ restaurant’. Outside on the pavement, half a dozen guys were drinking and smoking. ‘Did you go out in the Beer Garden?’ Ian asked of the street. I didn’t; I’m an ex smoker, so I’m allowed to stay in Scottish pubs. One of the locals came through to the back room, carrying a pint for Ian. ‘What’s that?’ he asked. ‘That’s because of what I said last time you were in,’ said the punter. ‘What was that?’ ‘You know,’ said the punter, who winked at me. Ian looked puzzled, but pleased. ‘Fuck knows what that was about,’ he said. I was worrying about the wink. Ian is a local here, a proper one. This means that the largely middle aged and entirely male clientele are not thrown by his celebrity. They do to Ian what men do to one another in pubs, which is they take the piss. I thought The Oxford Bar was the almost perfect literary boozer. It features in fiction; writers get in there, it’s the proper colour for pubs (brown), and they do a good pint. My worry though is that there are only guys in there. Maybe that’s why Rebus likes it. But its what makes me uncomfortable. Most pubs are lady lite. I watch street scenes on the news from Kabul, or Islamabad, and think ‘Where are all the women?’ Then I go over the pub, and I think it again.
Historically, there were three kinds of pubs; inns, which served food and provided beds; taverns, which served wine and food; and alehouses, the boozers, which just sold beer. This structure is still largely intact after a thousand years. And women still prefer taverns. Men, both real and fictional, like boozers. This means that the most legendary pubs are almost always entirely male. That even fictional women don’t go to the pub, which is a shame. The most important fictional pub was written by George Orwell. It’s called The Moon Under Water, and it has shaped our ideal of what a pub should be since the end of the last war; the homely barmaid, no music, liver sausage sandwiches, draught stout; the whole panoply of hail fellow well met boozer architecture is preserved like pickled eggs in the bottle at the end of the bar. Take Jake Arnott’s local. It’s called the 3 Kings, and it’s in Clerkenwell. Readers of Arnott’s books will be familiar with the crossover worlds of police and thieves, and the 3 Kings is the kind of place you can imagine his heroes and villains going for a few quiet drinks together. It is dark inside, a Moon Under Water dark, a darkness which allows for discretion, an ideal place for dropping bungs to bent coppers. Clerkenwell is an odd place, sandwiched between Smithfield and Islington. Crooks liked that; liked places on the fringes of the Met and the City of London police where quietitude could be guaranteed. I liked the pub at once; the landlord’s father kept the Hope and Anchor back in the seventies and eighties, and he told me that he had slept upstairs while Madness and the Stranglers played down in the basement. So the 3 Kings has that look of a rock and roll pub. Switzerland were playing the Ukraine on TV, but there were only a handful of souls in, and by the time of the penalty shootouts, only Jake and I were left, head to head at the table. It’s strange. I’ve been on my own in pubs in the wilds of Scotland, or in the empty quarter of Wales where I live; but never in London. London pubs will always surprise you; I think you could find out everything you needed to know about the English pub, just by staying in London; so vast and complex is its pubscape. What Jake likes in the 3 Kings is to watch the way the profile of the pub clientele changes over the day. There are lads from Smithfield in the morning, city types for lunch, old time power drinkers in the late afternoon; and more city types after work; now, in the evenings, a few locals, though tonight its just me and Jake. But, again, no women. The 3 Kings is friendly, and cool; but its also a boozer, an arena of blokishness. Jake likes a drink, but separates it from his writing life; all the writers I met do the same. ‘Drink is the opposite of creativity’, Jake said. ‘Look at Hemingway and Fitzgerald, sniping at one another, being driven mad by drink. Or all those guys like Julian MacLaren Ross. All that Jeffrey Barnard is Unwell shit. All that stuff about drink and creativity is just a myth,’ said Jake. ‘A load of bullshit.’ This is why the best place to drink is the pub. The point about pub drinking is that it is, on the whole, moderate, because the pub is a self regulating mechanism, which encourages moderation. I ask Jake if he has a writing routine. ‘Not really a routine,’ he told me. ‘Same again, Jake?’ asked the barmaid ‘Yes please love.’ The barmaid clearly knows Jake well; she pulls him a pint as soon as he walks in, know what he drinks; so although he might not have regular writing hours, he’s quite clearly a regular here. This is one of my theories about writers; that regularity frees the imagination. So the pub can become routine, a daily anticipated pleasure, whose pleasure would be only increased in the company of women. Poets could turn the Café Royale into a boozer, were you foolish enough to invite them in. I met the poet Neil Rollinson in Franklins, a gastro-pub in East Dulwich, where they serve rook as a starter. This does not stop Neil treating the place like an ale-house, despite the very good tavern that’s going off in the back. But this clearly once was a pub, and no one is going to stop a poet from going down the pub. It would be like trying to stop migrating wildebeest. ‘I love it, me,’ says Neil. ‘I go everyday. If I don’t go to the pub, the day hardly seems worth living. I agree entirely that the point of going to the pub is that it’s routine. It helps me clear my head, to shake the page from my fingers.’. ‘Do you believe all that Dylan Thomas mythology about poets and Bacchus?’ I asked. ‘Never. Show me a drunk, and I’ll show you a shit writer. You need to be sober to find meaning.’ . ‘Or hungover?’ ‘Yes. It can be useful, can’t it? Vibrant and raw…’ ‘But why do you come to a gastro pub? Its not exactly the Dog and Duck, is it?’ ‘I like it. Nobody disturbs me if I don’t want to talk. I like watching the dust rising in the light…’ Poets say things like that. ‘I know you’re a poet…, but is this really a poets boozer?’ I looked around, and thought that maybe it was after all. There were plenty of couples eating, but at the bar sat the usual suspects; the all day topers, giddyheads, afternoon men, blokes one and all. I was reminded of a scene from Anthony Powell’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’. Powell was a great writer about pubs, as befits Orwell’s best friend. ‘If you want a poet’s pub’ said Neil, ‘you should go to the Cross Keys at Aldeburgh, from where every famous poet on the planet has staggered back to a hotel room drunk and sick as a dog after all manner of indiscretions.’ ‘Lucy’s in Hay used to be like that,’ I said. ‘Until it burned down.’ But I’m coming to see that there isn’t really such a thing as a writers pub, just pubs where writers go, to chat, to relax, and in search of a particular brand of inspiration. The inspiration that Ian Rankin finds in the Oxford Bar comes, not from the drink, but from listening to the punters. Show me a writer wearing an iPod, and I’ll show you a liar. I asked Niall Griffiths if he writes and drinks. ‘Drinking doesn’t help creativity.’ He paused. ‘But it does unlock chaos, and that’s not always a bad thing.’ Niall is a Liverpool lad who now lives and writes in the hills of the old lead mining district east of Aberystwyth. The Druid Inn is a roadside boozer in Goginan, one of the villages that straggle up the side of Plynlimmon. This is not, as Niall conceded, a foodies pub; the first thing you notice as you come through the door is the smell of fried food, but it is Niall’s favourite of the locals. ‘I just think it’s a place that has soul.’ Niall lives a few valleys over, and has brought his girlfriend as designated driver, (and as good company). Out in the country, you always need a designated driver. Like Morris dancing, drink driving has not entirely disappeared in the countryside; though, also like Morris dancing, its not always terribly popular with the locals. Flowers sprout from where the young men of the district are culled by driving their Subaru Imprezas and razzed up Golf Gti’s into lampposts and trees. ‘What’s soul?’ I ask Niall. ‘Just somewhere you feel at home, I guess.’ Niall’s characters would be at home here, I suspect, getting bladdered on Brains lager, waiting about for the Man. A couple in their thirties stopped to say hello to Niall and his girlfriend, to talk about a long walk they had been on together at the weekend. It was clear that The Druid Inn could not make a living just by being a boozer; and although it might not win Michelin stars for its breaded plaice chips and peas, and the décor might not be quite from the pages of Elle Interior, it is light and friendly; and there is little question that women would feel more comfortable there than they would in The Oxford Bar, or even the 3 Kings. Orwell wanted The Moon Under Water to be a place where women and children could come, but it seems that blokes, geezers, guys have lost sight of that ideal. One old bare board spit and sawdust boozer I used to use was The Regency Tavern, tucked away behind Churchill Square in Brighton.. In the early eighties, I used to drink here with my pals from the Mecca bookmakers shop round the corner where I was the boardmarker. It was a place for ‘working girls’ and minor gangsters, one of whom had offered me ‘jobs’ on a couple of occasions. Now it has been transformed; from a boozer into a tavern; swags of plush drapery hang from the walls; plaster cherubs sport across the ceiling. I had lunch there with Lynne Truss, on the day of the England vs Portugal World Cup quarter final, to get our strength up for the game. ‘I think it’s rather lovely’, she says. ‘ You could take this place as a model of what a pub could be.’ Women, most women anyway, don’t like going to the pub on their own. Women are not looking for a rough old boozer. Lynne told me that she liked coming here for lunch with friends, but would never dream of coming on her own, or sitting at the bar; that men always thought that women at the bar were on the pull. ‘Men try and exclude women anyway, by talking about topics they think would not be of interest,’ she told me. ‘But Lynne, you know loads more than most men do about sport,’ I said. It occurred to me, as I sat eating lunch with Lynne, that just like Ian Rankin, she is exactly the kind of person you would want to meet in a bar, except much prettier. She talks about the things that people in bars know about, such as football, and golf, and rock and roll, and is even funnier in person than you might expect from her writing. But the thing with Lynne is that she actually knows what she’s going on about, as she’s really been to the matches, and met the people she talks about. Now, like lots of men, I love the boozer. If it’s got a bit of literary mythology about it as well, if Dylan Thomas propped up the bar, so much the better. But these old boozers which men lament the passing of are no good for women. That’s why they are going out of business; because the money isn’t in drink. You can’t expect colourful boozers to stay open all day waiting for the odd stray poet or journalist to come through and prop himself up at the bar. Virginia Woolf wrote one of the best known essays about what a writer needs; it is called A Room of One’s Own. You could see it as a mirror for The Moon Under Water; the men down the pub putting the world to rights, while the women stay at home writing the novels. But, I repeat; Orwell wanted women to feel comfortable in his ideal pub, and I do too. The modern well run pub is a thing of beauty, and it doesn’t really have to be a foul old boozer to be comfortable, surely. I don’t want to go somewhere Lynne Truss doesn’t feel free to make me laugh about football and golf. I like women, and I don’t want to go to places where they feel excluded This isn’t because of any great feminist principle on my part; its because I’m heterosexual, and the father of daughters, and I like the company of smart lasses. All we have to do is smarten the old boozer up a bit, get some better lighting, and serve some decent food. Yes, and start listening.