Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Norman Balon, the rudest Soho landlord

'Teachers were poorly educated'
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The Independent Online

Norman Balon, 79, ran the Coach & Horses pub in Soho for more than 60 years, a favourite haunt of artists, writers and actors, and where Private Eye still holds its lunches. Credited as "the rudest landlord in London", he is the powerful off-stage presence in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, starring Tom Conti, at London's Garrick Theatre. His memoir, You're Barred, You Bastards!, written with Spencer Bright, was published in 1991

I am one of life's successful idiots. I began as a complete failure at school, and went on to become a confidant of the journalists at Private Eye. I'm fortuitously famous. I used to pull faces and blink at the teachers like I was an idiot. Consequently, I was sent to a psychiatrist, who found there was nothing wrong with me except that I didn't like teachers. I got a lot of, "Take 100 lines and stay in on Wednesday!". I tried to annoy teachers; these days, they'd call it "dumb insolence".

Teachers then were poorly educated - they still are today - and were not capable of passing on their knowledge and making young people interested. I became very shy, and was lanky, so stooped to make myself look smaller, which is where my present back problem comes from. I think school days were the worst of my life. I was a bit of an outcast and loner, not having many friends.

In those days, boys were more physical, but I was puny and didn't like any sports. My family ran a boarding house on Bournemouth's West Cliff, and at the Grammar School, we had to go in six days a week, with sports on Saturday morning and Wednesday afternoon. I was puny and didn't like sports. We would form up in a crocodile and on the way to the sports ground, two or three of us would bunk off behind the gate of a house that we passed.

The trouble is, I have a butterfly mind and can't concentrate, but I was fantastic, absolutely brilliant at mental arithmetic. When I came to the pub, I could look at a round of drinks and know how much they cost. So I suppose my schooldays weren't entirely wasted. I still know what 13x13 is. Schools are completely different now: I ask my grandchildren, "What's 3x3?", and they can't tell me.

People were not allowed on the coast in case of a German invasion, so we had to sell out at a loss and move back to London when I was 12 or 13. I eventually went to Hendon Technical College, where they tried to teach us woodwork and metalwork and things of that ilk. I wasn't good with my hands. I said to my parents, "Complete waste of time, nothing useful".

My father obtained the licence for the Coach & Horses at 11 o'clock on 3 February 1943. I phoned him up at lunchtime and he said, "Leave college immediately and come and work in the pub." The idea of finishing my course in engineering to make screws for the rest of my life didn't appeal. So there was I, at 16 years old, leaving school at midday and serving behind the bar at three in the afternoon.

I don't regret it - I don't regret anything - but I miss not having gone to a university and not having had a better education. I don't begrudge the Private Eye crowd their success - when they started they had nothing - but what I envy is the connections a university gives you: they are trawled by companies with the best of the money jobs. But I had a good education in life and have mixed with both the finest in the land and thieves and murderers.

Education isn't everything in life, but it does give you an ability to think coherently for more than three minutes at a time. I always lose the later stages of arguments, but I win the first. My problem is that I'm too direct: "You're a bastard - you're talking rubbish!" Someone more educated would just make the other person feel incompetent.

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