If you live in central London beware the tendency to make pretentious statements that must seem plain daft to the rest of Britain. Only the other day I read that a grotty pub by the Grand Union Canal in west London is to reopen under new management – with almost nothing changed.
The new bosses, who include the former owner and designer of the Groucho Club (Tony Mackintosh and Tchaik Chassay) have decreed that what we all need in the current time of international crisis is a "local".
Unpretentiousness is in – from patterned carpets to ghastly foaming beer and flock wallpaper and pork scratchings. The food supplied will be of the "nursery" variety. These new postmodern pubs aren't gastronomic temples serving designer food and bottled beer, but plain, simple places for the new trendies – acceptable to people who previously wouldn't have been seen dead in the public bar standing next to a plumber smoking Silk Cut.
This 21st-century irony is lost on me. Pubs, whether themed, tarted up, revamped or renamed, are generally places I avoid at all costs. Didn't the writer Simon Nye get it completely right when he created the grim pub complete with monster barman (brilliantly played by John Thompson) in Men Behaving Badly? Aren't pubs where men go to get away from women? They certainly are outside London and the rarified confines of W11.
Funnily enough, a friend has just turned a "local" pub in Notting Hill Gate into a restaurant and found that he had to pay off the local drug dealers, who were furious that their principal place of business would now be full of people paying for dim sum rather than a quarter of hash.
Of course people in the country feel differently about their village pubs – it's not as if they have a huge choice of places to walk to to have a drink anyway. But God created the pub for men. It's as simple as that. In fact, pubs are the reason I know that God is male. There's something about walking through the door of any pub for the first time that makes my flesh creep. Men with sagging paunches tucked into pale grey Dacron trousers hunch together in clusters, like something out of a David Attenborough programme on endangered species. Being over 50, and generally wearing hiking attire, I do not interest them at all, thank goodness. The washed-out blonde with a fag behind the bar is far more thrilling than me.
Once you have penetrated the smog of cheap cigarette smoke, and opted for passively induced lung cancer, then there's the problem of getting served. It's not easy getting attention unless you know the local codewords. And most pubs offer "house" red or white wine, ie blended muck you'd be better off using as patio moss remover. Forget getting a seat – there are never enough, and you won't be stopping because most pubs are worse than any fashionable nightclub. "Fit in or fuck off" should be engraved over the doors of most of them.
Pubs are also a licence for people to shout their heads off. For some reason pubs have appalling acoustics so that after about 20 minutes you can forget conversation and simply revert to sign language. Well, it's a levelling experience.
One of the reasons I like clubs is that whole swaths of people get to be banned. For many years I sat on the membership committee of the Groucho and rock drummers were excluded, along with anyone who worked in advertising. I like places having a door policy. Don't care what it is, as long as it keeps out men with paunches, braying locals, and the cast of Casualty.
Pubs try from time to time to impose dress codes. How ludicrous is that? In the City of London, signs read "no denim and no work clothes", which I take to mean no builders. Of course, the people who so attractively urinate in the alleys near my home in Clerkenwell and puke around Liverpool Street Station every Friday night aren't builders, but the besuited City prats who gained admittance to the pub at 1pm and have been in there ever since.
Once I was walking near Petworth in Sussex on a summer Saturday with the temperature at about 85 degrees. My male companion and I were both in shorts and vests when we entered the Dog and Badger, or whatever it was, to order a couple of cooling shandies. The manager refused to serve my friend, because men in vests were "banned". That's as ludicrous as the Queen Vic in EastEnders not serving people who say "all right mate" every two minutes.
The fact is, a man can walk into a pub by himself and quickly feel at home. Some sad sap will draw him into conversation. But a single woman popping along for a gin and tonic after work? I don't think so. Pubs are where middle-class men go to after work in places like Mr Blair's old territory, Islington. Advertising chaps park the Porsche, pop indoors to change out of their Helmut Lang suits or Prada jackets, pop on a pair of faded denims and try to blend in with the local council-flat blokes, while the wife makes the dinner and puts the kids to bed. They live out their working-class fantasies talking to "normal" men about football, cars and other yawn-inducing subjects. So, don't try to sell me the "new" old-fashioned pub. And as for pork scratchings, didn't you know that even GNER buffet cars sell vegetable crisps these days on their Edinburgh route? And they have a better wine list.
PS. Of course there are exceptions to the rule but these tend to be in North Yorkshire – such as William Hague's local, the Blue Lion, in East Whitton, the Golden Lion in Osmotherley, or the Sportsman's Arms in Wath.
Last week I went up to Oxford for an art opening and dinner at Wadham College. At my table was a charming young woman with curly hair whom the museum director was fawning all over. It turned out to be Chelsea Clinton. I sat two places away from Bianca Jagger who looked at me as if I had just sat in cat poo. I'm sure this woman has done work for charities etc etc, but let's be perfectly clear, she's only famous for one thing – marrying Mick Jagger.
Bianca excels at the snooty sneer. I first met her in the Sixties and then again when we were both staying in the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles for two weeks in the mid-Seventies. She seemed to spend her entire time carrying bundles of crumpled white linen clothes to the dry cleaners. Nevertheless, she always pretends we are complete strangers, as admitting to knowing me might age her.
A friend, who is a successful theatrical producer, recently encountered Her Highness's full regality. Ms Jagger arrived in her office wearing large dark glasses and expressed a desire to be cast in a new production. She droned on for 20 minutes. When asked if she could at least take her glasses off, she shrugged heavily, and pushed them down her nose a couple of inches. Sadly, she didn't get the part.
Handel, after Hendrix
This week the first museum devoted to a composer opened in London: the Handel House Museum, in Brook Street. Although the ground floor is now a shop and you enter from the rear, via a charming mews, the restoration of this relatively small and simple set of rooms, from drawing room to bedroom to music room, has been beautifully realised, complete with plain wooden stairs and a terrific selection of portraits of contemporaries of Handel.
At a time when many museums are keen to expand, it's refreshing to see one that's tiny and with a very particular agenda. The museum is trying to think of some cross-over events to honour the house's other famous inhabitant, Jimi Hendrix. How about the Hallelujah chorus from the Messiah (which was written in the house) on electric guitar?
Handel House Museum, 25 Brook Street, London, W1K 4HB (020-7495 1685)Reuse content