Summer Pubs supplement
Britain's Legendary Landlords
In his monumental pub crawl across Britain, Robin Turner met some extraordinary licensees. Meet Hamish, Alan and Tracey...
14 June 2009
I can't say I envy landlords. Perpetually the designated driver, the landlord's sober, all-seeing eye casts out like a lighthouse over a sea of lost souls. Stories are heard in snatched fragments, tempers rise, strangers entwine in spontaneous displays of inebriated passion and all the while, the landlord is stood behind a counter pulling pints for ingrates.
As landlord, your proprietary super-power is the right to refuse. Lifting a Damoclean sword over the heads of rowdy drinkers, the landlord can stop tap, forcing drunkards on an abortive walk of shame. On the other hand, there is the chance to grant entry to those legendary, boozy elysian fields, otherwise known as the lock-in. Even thankless tasks sometimes have perks.
Last year, I toured the country in the vain hope of documenting our greatest watering holes. In doing so, I chanced upon several brilliantly eccentric landlords, three of whom I'd like to introduce you to...
Easily the most gregarious was Hamish Howitt, genial host of the Crazy Scots bar in Blackpool. Since 1 July 2007, with the Scots as campaign headquarters, Howitt's life has been entirely consumed in fighting what he sees as an injustice against "14 million lawful smokers".
His pub sticks two yellowing, nicotine-stained fingers up to central government by offering a haven to anyone who still believes in the right to light up when they drink. Non-smoker Hamish's struggle has cost him. Fines from the local authority have mounted up to £50,000, and many of the people he set out to defend now shun the pUb: "A lot of my regulars can't afford to risk getting a £50 fine and a criminal record. Three nights a week the council come down and tell me I should be closed. But I'll take this all the way to the European Court of Human Rights."
Further south I met Alan East, who runs The Yew Tree in Cauldron, a tiny hamlet near Stoke-on-Trent. Nicknamed the "Moorlands Magpie", due to his compulsive desire to collect and curate, Alan has transformed The Yew Tree from country pub to museum of Victorian ephemera. Working phonogram machines, a pair of Queen Victoria's stockings, several penny-farthings and a man-sized woodwind instrument known as a serpent (last played by local resident Roy Wood of Wizzard) all vie for space. Even the beer pumps are antique. The only sign that the modern world has encroached is a player piano scroll for Bohemian Rhapsody.
Another licensee creating an immersive drinking environment is Tracey Moberly. She runs The Foundry in east London with her husband, Jonathan. Their pub resembles a collision between the Saatchi gallery and the G20 protests - a place where outsider art, pints and polemic coalesce. Much like The Yew Tree, it's an all-encompassing experience. The toilets are graffitied to hallucinogenic effect, subversive music (anything from glitchhouse to a worn-thin Dolly Parton cassette) pulses away and signage flickers in discomfiting Lynchian neon.
The whole place reflects their personal mission to create a thinking, drinking space, lectures and exhibitions being as important to the set up as booze. Previous speakers in the pub have included Tony Benn, Irvine Welsh and Mark Thomas, while artworks from the likes of Gavin Turk and Bill Drummond adorn the walls. Here at The Foundry, in true Burroughs style, "everything is permitted". Tracey wouldn't have it any other way.
Not all landlords are as approachable, however. The one landlord I was too late to meet was Norman Balon, a man so infamous that the London pub he presided over for 63 years still bears his name some three years after his retirement.
Norman's reign of terror took place at The Coach and Horses, a resolutely grimy Soho pub. For years a semi-official second office for the editorial staff of Private Eye, The Coach is something of a shrine to a golden period where drinking and the media were intrinsically linked. Having provided the setting for Spectator journalist Jeffrey Bernard's Low Life column, its legend spawned the 1989 play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.
Norman's tyrannical status as pump-pulling bogeyman meant that he could run a pub with shoddy pints and grotty toilets and still play to packed houses. People came from far and wide to hear the legendary Soho character deliver pub justice to those whose faces didn't fit. In fact, the title of Norman's autobiography sums it all up: You're Barred, You Bastards.
Robin Turner co-edited, with Paul Moody, The Rough Pub Guide: A Celebration of the Great British Boozer (Orion, £9.99)