RED IS SUPPOSED to make you thirsty. So say the psychologists, Stephen Joyce thought dryly as he surveyed the flock wallpaper on the wall of the pub. Old and dirty, it had an unloved look about it. The walls between the cream chipped paint sash windows had framed prints of scenes from Old London. The one nearest him had a Victorian gent in a top hat promenading along a pavement with a parasol-touting lady on his arm. Glancing at his smart phone, he checked the time again – a quarter past two. Sean was late.
It was Sean who had proposed that they meet up for a pub crawl on his birthday. They had used to work together from the late 80s to the mid-90s on Fleet Street when he was a young reporter on the Daily Mail and Sean Malone was a printer in the dungeons of Associated Newspapers. By the mid-90s the golden age of newspaper publishing on Fleet Street had come to an end, with Associated moving west to Kensington as the financial sector spread its tentacles outwards from the City to meet the legal firms clustered around the Inner Temple, squeezing out the wheezing alcoholic newspaper men. Both Stephen and Sean left the company at that time and moved on to pastures new. They had kept in touch, but now only met a couple of times a year as their lives moved on divergent courses.
He was in one of his favourite City pubs, the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street in the heart of Fitzrovia, once the bohemian centre of literary inspiration from the Romantic Poets right through to twentieth century figures including Dylan Thomas, George Orwell and Anthony Burgess. Yes, inspiration in the bottom of a glass. How many of the great poetic and prose works of English literature were inspired by beer, wine and high spirits? His musings were ended by the bustling figure of Sean, who brought a draught of cold air with him as he burst through the side door. “Sorry I’m late, Northern Line, you know. Anyway, great to see yer and happy birthday!” He shook Stephen firmly by the hand. “What are yer having?”
They settled into a corner booth and started to chatter like a couple of excited teenagers. Now both in their mid-40s, they had not lost the timeless pleasure of sitting in a pub, sipping on a pint and enjoying the company of a friend. Sean’s Irish accent was as strong as ever, despite having lived in London for over twenty years. “Oi’ve been workin’ for a printing firm up in Kilburn, not far from my digs. It’s not as well paid as Associated but it’s walking distance from where I live, and has the best pubs in North London.” He took a long draught from his pint of Guinness. “What have you been up to?”
Stephen described his ups and downs. He had left Associated after completing his training as a news reporter and went to work for Reuters News Agency. This had enabled him to travel to some of the worst war zones on earth – Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. He had lived in tents and army barracks and reported on the lives of soldiers in the field, as well as on the wars themselves. He had come to understand the utter futility of these stage-managed conflicts, and seen the shattered lives and despair absent from the steralised war rooms in London and Washington. He now worked as a home-based freelance feature writer, from his cluttered office in a cosy flat in Islington. He had also found the time to get married to his girlfriend and fellow reporter, Julia, and they had a six-year-old son, James.
“So what’s the plan?” Stephen asked his friend. “Oi thought we would go ‘round the pubs in this area and end up in the Tattershall Castle – y’know, the boat on the river by the Embankment.” He grinned as he raised his glass and had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Oh yeah, I remember many a boozy night on the floating pub on the river – good call,” Stephen laughed and they clinked glasses in a toast to old times. “Drink up, let’s move on,” Sean said as he downed his pint and grabbed his coat. Outside they turned north up Charlotte Street, crossing over the road and round the corner into Charlotte Place and into the Duke of York. “Ahh, one of my favourite pubs”, Stephen said, “A decent pint of bitter and the place where Anthony Burgess was alleged to have found inspiration for A Clockwork Orange, following an altercation with some knife-wielding thugs.”
They found elbow room at the bar and stood supping their pints. “Have you tried writing a book yerself?” Sean inquired. “Well, actually, I have copious notes from my war correspondent days and it is in the back of my mind to write up an account. But you can’t separate the politics from what happens on the ground. War is what happens when the political process breaks down. Getting stuck into the motives and machinations of self-serving political leaders like Bush and Blair kind of puts me off from starting.” They drank quietly for a couple of minutes. “Come on, let’s move on.” They drank up and wandered down Rathbone Street to the Marquis of Granby. They entered the grand old pub, with pictures of prize fighters adorning the walls. Sean said, “Now it’s my turn to tell you something about this pub. It was here that the rules of boxing were first thought up by the Marquis of Queensbury and his high society friends. A gentlemen’s sport, fought by poor men for money.”
Stephen was not to be outdone and added; “Literary figures also drank here, including Eric Blair, who wrote as George Orwell. He worked for the BBC, just ‘round the corner, during the Second World War, helping the war effort with propaganda programmes and where he no doubt got his ideas for Animal Farm and 1984. This pub inspires me, Sean. To think that one of the great English novels – 1984 – may have been dreamed up in here, that Orwell rubbed shoulders with working class men having a pint after work, and sketched in his mind the character of Winston Smith. That TV programme – Room 101 – is based on 1984. It was the place where political prisoners, including the unfortunate Winston Smith, met their fate. ‘A boot stamping on a human face forever’ was Orwell’s bleak description of what happened in Room 101. The fact that they’ve made light entertainment out of it cracks me up.”
“Never read it,” Sean said in a nonchalant manner. It was as if the entire works of English literature was nothing more than a colossal waste of paper. He tried to move the conversation back to sport. “The only English literature I’m interested in is the form on the horses in the Saturday paper. This is more of a sporting pub, with the pictures of boxers on the walls. You got any interest in sport?” Stephen paid for the beers and sipped the frothy top of his pint. “Only the fortunes of Arsenal. I used to go up to the old Highbury Stadium and stand on the North Bank. Those were the days – the Adams, Bould, Winterburn, Dixon back four, and David Seaman in goal. Those ugly buggers scared off all attackers. No wonder Arsenal boasted the meanest defence and the most humourless manager in George Graham. I like the current manager, Arsène Wenger, but somehow I can’t summon the enthusiasm to go to the new Emirates Stadium. I hear the ticket prices are astronomical.” “Yeah,” Sean chipped in, “I only watch the horses in the bookies and the footy in the pub.”
From there they stopped in The Wheat Sheaf on Rathbone Place, a narrow pub which used to be a coaching inn in days gone by. “This was the pub in which Dylan Thomas met his wife-to-be, Caitlin.” Stephen had not given up trying to educate his Irish friend. “She was with another man, but Dylan chatted her up and started seeing her. After a whirlwind romance they got married and lived happily until Dylan’s early death from the demon drink.” “Sounds like a man after my own heart,” Sean chuckled. Stephen continued: “I brought Julia here for a drink one time and told her the same story, about Dylan Thomas. She surprised me by reciting a few lines from his poem Under Milk Wood. I can still remember it:
The only sea I saw
Was the seesaw sea
With you riding on it
Lie down, lie easy
Let me shipwreck in your thighs.
I knew from that moment that I was in love – I was destined to marry her.”
IT WAS A CHILLY, blustery October day and it was already getting dark at 4:30pm as they headed towards Oxford Street. Stephen, whose 44th birthday it was, had already had four pints to Sean’s three, and he was starting to rock from side to side, like a ship caught in a heavy sea swell. “Whoops! I’m rolling on the seesaw sea!” he cried as he stepped back onto the pavement as a Boris Bike sped by, splashing some rain water onto his shoes. It was crowded with shoppers, and he turned to see Sean dodging his way past a group of five or six Muslim women, clad in black from head to foot, who hurried by, not replying to his “Oops, sorry!” as he nearly walked into them. “Bejesus, they can’t even acknowledge you,” he muttered under his breath; “London used to be a friendly place.” They navigated their way past black cabs and red buses to the south side of Oxford Street and headed towards Soho Square.
As they hurried down Dean Street into the heart of Soho, Stephen decided to have some fun with his friend; “You’re a fine one to comment on the multicultural society – you Paddies are everywhere!” Sean let out a loud guffaw and replied, “Come on, the Brits and Irish are practically cousins. We’re all from the same wet and windswept islands off the north coast of Europe. London’s now full of those who tink they can bypass hundreds of years of development by taking a short plane ride or bunking through the channel tunnel just so they can get subsidised housing, free education and healthcare. They’re spoiling it for the rest of us.”
They pushed through the door of the next pub on their journey, the Coach and Horses on Greek Street. A busy pub with an upstairs restaurant frequented by actors, actresses, playwrights and theatre workers. Sean muscled his way to the bar and ordered the round. Stephen had been reflecting quietly and said, “You know, London has a long history of absorbing waves of immigrants, going back hundreds of years. But there’s something not right about what’s happening now. In the paper this morning it said that there are already over 600,000 unemployed migrants from EU countries. Add that to the millions from Commonwealth countries and you wonder if this island will sink under the weight.” “Yeah, and they won’t even talk to us. Integration my arse”, Sean added as he supped his pint.
Stephen decided to change the subject: “Now, let me tell you something about this pub. The journalist and barroom raconteur Jeffrey Bernard used to drink here, and it is where playwright Keith Waterhouse got his inspiration to write the play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. It is set in this very pub, where Jeffrey awakes in the early hours of the morning and emerges from under a table to reflect on his life-long association with booze. In fact he died from alcohol-related complications shortly after the play opened. Like I said before. There is a strong relationship between booze and English literature.”
Sean put his empty pint glass down on the bar and said: “Sounds like the sort of play I should see. OK, we’ve done literature, immigration, politics, religion and sport. Let’s take a break and get something to eat. How about we go over the road into Chinatown for a Chinese?” Stephen nodded and they made their way across Shaftesbury Avenue and through the archway into Chinatown, walking along Gerrard Street and into the Four Seasons restaurant. The ground floor was full of diners, and they were ushered up a rickety wooden staircase where they were seated at a large round table with other recent arrivals. “Service is rubbish but the aromatic duck is to die for,” Sean whispered. Stephen briefly scanning the menu, before Sean leaned over and pointed to the ‘Set Menu for Two’. “That’ll do,” Sean said, ordering two pints of lager from the tiny waiter. Stephen opened up a new subject: “You haven’t told me if you’re seeing anyone at the moment?”
“Erm, no, not at the moment. I’m between relationships,” he smiled. “I had a girlfriend, Molly, until a couple of months ago. She’s from County Clare, and works behind the bar in The Jolly Miller. It didn’t work out – she worked long hours on evenings and weekends; it was impossible to get a date, and I became jealous of all the lads chatting her up. I bet you’re loving it, being a husband and daddy.”
“Yeah, it’s great and it has given me new purpose and direction in my life. You can’t go on being young, free and single forever.”
“Don’t know about that,” Sean said, “London’s the place to be if you’re single. There’s plenty of distractions here.”
They laughed and joked as they rolled their duck pancakes, and tucked into bowls of fried rice and things swimming in monosodium glutamate. Sean insisted on paying as it was his friend’s birthday and he had invited him out. “You’re a bad lad Sean, but it’s good to see you again. I remember our drinking days around Fleet Street and Blackfriars. We were young then – work hard and play hard, spending whatever we earned in the pubs. This is a timely reminder that it’s all still here. Life goes on; it’s just that the punters get younger. Let’s head on to that pub next to Charing Cross Station and then down the alleyway to the Embankment and onto the Tattershall Castle.”
Sean took his opportunity to say what was on his mind. “Steve, you couldn’t help me out could yer? I hate to ask, but I need a job – do you have any contacts in the production side of things?” Stephen eyed him cautiously, feeling he had been ambushed. The alcohol had made him slow to engage his brain and think of a reply. “I can’t think of anything offhand. Let me give it some thought over the next few days.” There was a slightly awkward and embarrassing silence, broken by Sean, “Yeah, of course, sorry to ask, but yer know how it is.”
“No problem mate, that’s what friends are for. I’ll help if I can.”
They walked out into the well-lit narrow street and turned their coat collars up against the wind and rain. Theatre-goers hurried by, smartly dressed in their evening wear, on a special night out. They returned to small talk about the people they had worked with and the nights out they had had. Time changes things, the intervening years had taken them in different directions with differing fortunes. The excitement and energy of youth had given way to a more circumspect and practical view of life. ‘For one night only!’ a neon sign shouted above a theatre. Stephen pointed to it and said; “One night only for me, my friend – I hardly get out these days. I’m really enjoying this nostalgic stagger across London!”
The Tattershall Castle swayed gently at its mooring next to the Embankment riverside walk. The old iron boat had been colourfully painted in blue and yellow, and they had to duck their heads as they went below decks to the cosy bar. It gave the sense of being somewhere away from the city, the illusion of travelling to faraway places. They were both pretty drunk by now and Stephen in particular was feeling the effect. “I think this’ll be my last, I’m as pissed as the proverbial newt.” Sean eyed some attractive office workers giggling across the bar as they moved to a standing-only table.
“I feel the sudden need for a fag,” he said. “You haven’t smoked at all this evening, I thought you’d given up,” Stephen said. “Ah well, you know, after a few pints I still get the urge. I’ll just go up on deck for a quick smoke. See you in a bit.” Stephen smiled as his friend bounced off the wood panelled walls and followed an equally-drunk woman up the stairs. He fished out his mobile phone and checked his mail, replying to a message from his wife.
He was distracted by shouts, screams and a splash coming from the deck. Most of the drinkers responded and ran up the stairs. Stephen followed. A distraught, inebriated woman was pointing into the river, and Stephen saw his friend Sean, bobbing up and down, arms flailing as he struggled to keep his head above the murky water of the Thames. Stephen ran along the deck and pulled a plastic life ring from the railing, throwing it to his friend. “Here! Grab hold of this!”
They managed to coax him around the bow of the boat and hauled him out onto the pontoon. “Are you alright, mate? What happened?” Stephen was sobering up fast in the cool night air. Sean looked up at him and rolled over, vomiting brown river water mixed with Chinese noodles. “Come on, let’s get you home.” Stephen managed to get him to his feet and got him to put his coat on – at least that was dry. “We’d better get a taxi back to my place.” Sean just groaned.
After a shower and with a hot mug of coffee in his hand, Sean sheepishly apologised to Stephen’s wife, Julia. She tutted and fussed, blaming her wayward husband for what she assumed was a drunken prank that got out of hand. “Come on Sean, tell us what happened, and get me out of jail!”
Sean groaned and said; “Stephen’s not to blame, Julia. In fact he wasn’t there, as I was on the top deck, flirting with a woman who I’d just bummed a fag off. Well, I leaned backwards on the rail, and it opened like a gate, and before I knew it I was falling down into the river.”
“Oh my God! You must have been terrified!” Julia said, shocked.
“Yeah, my life flashed before me, and it wasn’t a pretty sight! Anyway, now I know what the Thames tastes like, and I won’t be bottling it.”
Stephen suddenly sprung to life: “That’s it! I think I’ve got a job for you! Honey, you remember your friend who works for the bottled water company?”
“Yes, you mean Lucy at the Essex Spring Water Company…what about her?”
“Well, she said they were looking for someone to organise their publicity leaflets and advertising materials…well, young Sean here is a publishing guru and is looking for a new job. It could be a perfect match!”
Sean brightened up and managed a smile: “Wow, a job referral is almost worth taking a swim in the Thames for. That’s the only thing missing from my CV.”
“What’s that?” Julia asked.
“Good contacts and word of mouth recommendation – that’s the only way to get a job in this unfriendly, divided and deeply suspicious city. Another coffee?”