On Location: Pub closed? Try the minicab office
Columnist of the Year 2015, Mark Steel, is Commentator and stand-up comedian who has presented several radio and television programmes, and appeared on Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. In 2006 he published 'Vive La Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution', and in 2000 stood as a candidate in the London Assembly elections.
Friday 01 January 1999
This is why New Year's Eve is often less debauched than its image. The drinking is planned, expected and excused. For most of us, our most memorable session probably took place on a date that we can't remember, lasting 14 hours and ending on a nightbus with someone who claimed to be a professional wrestler, after we'd popped out in the afternoon for a cauliflower.
The festive Leicester Square party which I was going to write about began to disintegrate at about half past two, until there were a dozen of us left. It's the crackpot licensing law which make it so hard to leave a bar that's still serving after 11. You pathetically beg for a last drink from a dismissive landlord, who carries on emptying his till with the nonchalant cruelty of a medieval judge ignoring a peasant's plea to not be burned at the stake. You consider the people who aren't lucky enough to be in a place that's still serving and, using the same logic as mothers who tell their children to eat their carrots because there are starving people in the world, you decide that to not have another would be immoral.
Suddenly, you look around and the bustling crowd has gone. In its place are a handful of people collecting coats, and a beleaguered barman stacking glasses. It was at this point, dispersing onto the street at last week's party, that someone said, "Does anyone fancy a pint?"
What a magnificent thing to say when you've been drinking for the last six hours; worthy of the line in The Hustler when, after 24 hours of consecutive pool, Paul Newman says to Minnesota Fats, "Let's play some pool."
This is the point at which sessions turn. While in every other area of life I discount anything mystic, with drinking this point revolves entirely around fate. Once, on a crowded train, I realised I was squashed next to an old friend, who insisted I join him for a drink. We stopped after three pints but, as we were leaving, bumped into my friend's next-door neighbour, who was returning a stepladder he'd borrowed from the barman. And he insisted that we both join him for a drink. I have no idea what, but something that night was guiding us to a paralytic stupor and there was no point in fighting it. Let's see Carol Vorderman explain that!
And last week, at 3am, we stumbled into a minicab office, slurringly asking whether they knew anywhere that was still open. "Why, yes," answered the cab controller, "you could come in here."
So we each paid four pounds, and walked up some rickety wooden stairs into a room that stank of damp and was pitch black, except for the flickering multicoloured rays springing from the fruit machine in the corner. Any sober person passing through the door would have concluded that they'd been kidnapped by the Hezbollah, and that they were destined to spend the next seven years chained to the fruit machine (though Terry Waite wasn't asked to pay four quid first). But we were already drunk so, spotting a barely visible Rastafarian who was dancing despite there being no music, selling tins of Hofmeister at three quid each, we all thought, "What a result!", and congratulated ourselves.
None of us, or the other 15 or so already there, thought it at all strange that this place existed above a minicab office. What would have had to happen for us to think something was odd? Somebody releasing a flock of canaries, perhaps? Mel Gibson uni-cycling? And who were these people sat cosily in a dark corner, as if it were their local? Maybe they'd been there for hundreds of years, having sold their soul in the Middle Ages, destined to drink one tin of Hofmeister every hour in the dark for all eternity.
It seems so unlikely, as the indecipherable chatter bounces past, that normal life can be carrying on. Right now, as you're fumbling for the money to buy a tin for a bloke who reckons he knows Peter O'Toole, people are sleeping and snoring and dreaming, unaware that a few miles away there's a rickety staircase which leads, Narnia-like, to another world. It seems quite plausible that upon leaving, you'll wish someone a happy new year, and they'll reply, "But it's August 5th, and the year is 2036."
These thoughts occur because 4am drunk is very different from 11pm drunk. The stage of falling over and demanding more chilli sauce is replaced by a misty haze of contemplation. By this time, with great application and patience, odd tasks can be accomplished. I remember studying the eager flashing lights which were frenetically demanding an urgent decision about which blurred and slowly rocking grapes or cherries I should nudge. Instead of mindlessly thwacking a button at random, like an 11pm drunk, I carefully surveyed the terrain as if it was a crucial move in a game of chess, eventually securing a line of grapes and pounds 1.60 for a pounds 31 stake. "I've taken this place to the cleaners," I thought.
Another aspect of being 4am drunk in a bizarre venue, is the smug satisfaction at having stayed the distance. As we raised the Hofmeister deliberately and proudly to our lips, everyone in that room felt a bond, as if we'd canoed together up the Amazon.
Who knows what internal clock finally lifts you from the broken chair and propels you home. But at some time around five I gave up, wondering when this place actually shut. And if, when it happens, the barman shouts, "Come along now please, it's 20 to seven, get it down you." While customers groan, "Can't we have one last one for the road?"
So I climbed into a minicab ordered from the Hezbollah room, with a fellow drinker I'd never met before who was mumbling "Peckham" at the driver. "Whereabouts in Peckham?" the driver asked. "I don't know," said my companion. "You're the bloody cab driver. Don't you know?"
But maybe the place has a future. All it would take is a visiting celebrity or two to stumble in there, and they'd probably imagine it was the most happening gig in London. Within a year there'd be a chain of chic minicab- theme nightclubs across America called POBs, owned by Sylvester Stallone. Stars like Cher would walk in and scream, "Oh that lighting, that sort of can't-see-buggerall effect, is simply to die for." Club managers would scour London for authentic rickety stairs. Hofmeister would be sold in frosty glass bottles with a slice of tomato in the top for eight quid each, and the Unique Selling Point would be that you never actually got the drink. Instead, whenever you asked for it, the waiter would say "All right mate, calm down, be with you in about another five minutes."
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