Saturday, 14 January 2017
Visiting The Corner Pub, A Very English Custom
There was a time decades ago when, young, impressionable and much in love, I sat enthralled at the feet of one Vidar L’Estrange and listened attentively to his many informative stories some of which concerned how he faced life as an eighteen year old newcomer from Germany after the war intent upon studying first English and then perhaps medicine. At least half of his edifying accounts involved episodes he thought I would find fascinating that occurred in his family such as how his mother’s first husband had regrettably died on the honeymoon and what led to his paternal grandmother to go to Paris to become a follower of nineteenth century magician Eliphas Levi. Others were directly personal accounts - how he starved himself out of the German Army the previous year or how he reacted to his initial introduction to the quintessential English Pub. Apparently Pubs as the English know them certainly did not exist in Germany in the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties. He had been in South East London for one week only and under strict instructions from his mother to always behave well, when the motherly Mrs Morrison with whom he boarded in Sunnydene Crescent said that her husband and oldest son would be visiting the local Pub after tea and added that she thought her young boarder might like to accompany them. Vidar’s English was still not entirely fluent and so he asked for clarification as to what exactly the `local Pub’ was. She said it was a Public House and was called The Star Tavern. Her Boarder was confused and not a little shocked at this further information and even more so upon hearing that the men in the family `usually visited the Public House on a Friday and Saturday evening after tea’. However, the men were by this time bundling themselves into their coats and caps and waiting politely for him so he felt he could do nothing else but join them. He felt compelled to tell them, however, that he would wait outside the establishment rather than go in with them. Mr. Morrison said, `Not even one drink then?’ but Vidar was firm and said he would rather not and was happy to simply wait. The reason for his reluctance to join them inside was not because he was completely averse to alcohol but rather because the term `Public House’ in direct German translation became `The Brothel’ and the fact that these Londoners so casually visited their local bordello on Friday and Saturday evenings after tea was immensely shocking to him. Furthermore, that there seemed to be such establishments conveniently placed on every corner scandalized him and he wondered how the decadent British could possibly have won the war. He stood outside and peered fearfully through the window at the bar where now more than a dozen men between the ages of twenty and seventy stood and ordered pints of beer. He imagined this would be to occupy them while they waited their turn and marveled at their nonchalant attitude, their casual banter, their jokes and their laughter. This could never happen in the suburbs of Berlin or Munich even under the worst excesses of Adolf Hitler. The crowd at the bar grew thicker but every few minutes one of the customers would leave his pint unattended and head up the stairs in the corner of the room where an arrow pointed the way to the WC which the watchful Vidar decided was something to do with where the wantonly degenerate and now very busy woman could be found in some room above and her services engaged. He noted that even the septuagenarians headed up the stairs and that their absence from the bar was longer than that of the younger men which he felt from his so far brief encounter with medicine, was only to be expected. To his continuing horror even though he had fully expected it, his landlady’s husband and son also mounted those stairs when their turn came. Later when they emerged from the Public House into the growing darkness of South East London they seemed to have not a hint of shame about them. Mr Morrison even slapped him on the back heartily and said that maybe next week Vidar would join them inside The Star Tavern rather than waiting without in the cold. And Vidar for politeness sake said perhaps he would but felt compelled to add that he would simply stay downstairs in the bar and drink a pint of beer. Mr Morrison nodded but looked confused so Vidar told him firmly, `I will not be going upstairs to the WC,’ then added by way of explanation, ` because my mother would be very unhappy if I did so.’ Years later when he told this story, Vidar was still discomfited by this youthful blunder with regard to the very English habit of regular visits to the Pub and in all the years of my devotion to him, never all that keen to patronize them.