Imagine you have been banished. You are whiling away your expatriate existence in some far-flung emirate among the air-conditioned apartment blocks and mathematically-spaced palms. You have a swimming pool, you have servants, you have everything you want except a ticket home. You lie awake listening to the roulette wheel spinning in the casino next door, and the gentle belching of camels, thinking of England, thinking particularly of your own county, Kent.
What do you see? I see cherry blossoms, almond blossom, windmills, black and white cows, wet sunlit orchards seen through train windows, mounds of snow on motorway verges, spangled with grit from passing juggernauts – and some shabby old men sitting in a pub. Inevitably, they are discussing sheep, cesspools, roofing tiles or the cultivation of monster vegetables.
Our “local” was once a place where evening sun shrivelled the potted plants on the windowsill, where the door stood open all night to admit a breeze carrying the scent of nettles and roses, and motorbike exhausts. Where there was a girlie calendar, but you weren’t allowed to lift the page and sneak a look at next month. Where there was a piano but, mercifully, no one able to play it – and anyway, the key had been lost centuries ago. A place where malodorous dogs slumbered heavily across their owners’ feet, or monitored their every move with pessimistic eyes.
It was a place where you could eat whelks (pron: wilks) and could purchase a pickled egg from a large jar to dunk in your bag of crisps. The landlord would roll his sleeve back to the elbow and plunge a great greasy hand down into the vinegar to capture one for you. It was a place for tall stories. Each one was so lengthy, so complex, so elegantly inconsequential that you might well have gone away believing every word – if you hadn’t been forced to hear it at least a hundred times already. Sadly, this last ingredient for my whimsical Essence of Kent is becoming harder and harder to find. I watched it fading in our own local pub – saw the gleam in the storyteller’s eye out-glittered by fairy lights, his audience mesmerised by the manic whirlings of blackcurrants and lemons in the fruit-machine. The fruit-machine and the pool table attracted a new kind of customer – the wafer-thin, cynical variety of teenager that makes a lot of noise.
Nowadays the old men are truly old. They shuffle in and hunch themselves over their beer. They mumble at one another. Once upon a time such a man would have swaggered into the room, knocked his pipe out on his heel and announced his latest Thought to the entire company. Now the place has been done up. It has springy armchairs, fake horse-brasses and a cheese-plant in a ceramic pot. It’s all in the best possible taste. No more Thoughts. No more ancient jokes. No more tall stories, ever.
A public house needs to be shabbier and in every way less salubrious than your own home. It should be a familiar, restful place full of all the things you’re not supposed to like – emerald green flock wallpaper; bendy cardboard Babycham ladies; candles in bottles; those coloured glass ball things with which fishermen were supposed once to have kept their nets afloat; piano-stools full of sheet music for unheard-of ’50s hits; insanitary toilets with spiders in the corners and unshaded light-bulbs. A pub is the kind of lady a man quite likes to spend an evening with but would never aspire to marry. She is Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna. In a pub a person should be able to relax – in other words behave worse than he would at home.
If you were beamed down in the middle of a supermarket or fast-food outlet you would be hard put to it to say whether you were in Dartford or Dumfries. Could the same soon become true of pubs? Hopefully not just yet. At least few strange, murky hostelries still lurk in the back streets of Kentish towns and villages.
However odd or uncomfortable they are, one remembers them. They are part of the area, its colour and its character. This is why foreign tourists head straight to our little inns – they are looking for the real Britain and real Britons – people, not dummies over-awed by plastic décor.
If your town or village is lucky enough still to have an untampered-with sleazy pub, look after it. Don’t let anyone suck down your cobwebs and paint everything eau-de-nil. Don’t let them install Hawaiian Muzak, bamboo furniture, potted creepers and a ceiling fan and rename your Pig & Whistle the Paradise Lost. If they suggest it just narrow your eyes, put on your best rural accent and tell them, with a sinister hint of a threat:
‘We likes our pubs sleazy!’
First published in Kent Life, November 1987