Monday, 4 July 2011

The Lost Pubs of Burslem by Arthur Berry Part 2

I remember the Rose, the Shamrock and the Thistle, which had a three-cornered taproom. I once saw a pot woman dance an impromptu fertility dance in there. There was low life pubs with shilling women standing, holding hold pints in dark passages. And there were respectable pubs where publicans would sit with wing collared Councillors. And there were pubs where wing coloured publicans would meet the shilling women sometimes-disastrous results for hearth and home. The Jig Post was such a place. Just think of the name the Jig Post! What the sound conjures up I dare not think. " I met my lady in the Jig Post" man three parts drunk said to me, his cap pulled down over his eyes. He had difficulty focusing and repeated it again and again. " I met my lady in the Jig Post". The woman sitting next to him had knees the size of hams and drank a case of bottled beer as she sat there. I should have thought he would have been better off leaving her in the Jig Post but there is no accounting for taste.

In the world of the public house, there are many mansions and many hovels, and many and varied are the customers who attend these temples from the ordinary husband and father that can manage a couple of pints at a weekend, to men that are sodden in it, men who are waiting for the opening time every day, who leave only when the ashtrays are emptied every night.

Then there are the princes of boozers- men held high in the hierarchy of booze, popes of the taproom. There are not many of these men of quality. Do not confuse them with characters; they are more than that. Every pub hasn’t got one; some pubs would not recognise one if they saw him. But when a pub has a drinking man of this calibre, they’ll soon know for where he sits other men will come. Soon a drinking club is set up. These high Mafiosi have usually reared their families and finished work long ago, if they ever did any work in the first place.

It is below the dignity of these men to be employed, and somehow or other they manage to live and live with style: to smoke and drink and back horses without ever seemingly to concern themselves with money. These men have attended the University of the Street Corner and are Professors in the life of the street. They sit steady and watch all and say nothing. But then they judge and their judgement of a man or a publican is deadly and final. Other more ordinary men who cannot make ends meet and are under the rule of women look on these paragons with wonder. These popes of the taproom are rarely seen the worst for drink, but that is understandable as they have had a lifetime’s practice and have become immune. As one of them said to me once "When I can’t drink anymore I told them pour it over me and let it soak in". To watch a man of this quality come in at the tap room door and watch him survey the scene at a glance, watch him order his drink, pay his coins for it and watch him make his way to his usual seat, nod his greeting to the company, Good evening Colonel, they’ll greet him. And he’ll nod at this and smile and salute in a daft way 2 Good evening adjutant, he’ll reply to watch this is to be present at a moment that will live in the memory, and to savour the full richness of the working class who can live without work
It is no wonder that lesser men who are pestered by women and children, whopping cough and rashes of one sort or another, sit agog with at the doings of these cardinals of the tap room who look and listen and have seen it all before and have learned the proper value to place on things. Troubles that seem baffling and hopeless and endless, troubles that reduce an honest man to a worrying machine have no account with them. They can dismiss them without a moment’s attention. All the belly aching and mither and half pint scrimping never bothers them. They will have none of it. They have seen it all before, down the street they have lived in- the poverty and the poverty of just having enough, just being able to make ends meet. They have found a way of escaping this. These drinking popes have always understood that they must keep their dignity at all costs- and bosses and women and children pull men down from their dignity and they would not be pulled down in this way.

They are gentlemen and treat themselves as such and the first need of gentlemen is to be independent and somehow they manage it. I have known such men rear big families on the dole and strut up the street with a rose in their buttonhole. They have defeated their circumstance by wit and character. And understand it is not for all men. Other men could not manage it. They are the centres of their own world. Publicans become worried if they are absent for a single night. What if they have found another pub? It is unthinkable. When such men die there should be a moment silence. There should be an extension the same night and the President of the Licensed Victuallers should read a funeral oration in the smoke room and the taproom should be decorated with garlands made with empty fag packets and wet beer mats because, make no mistake, this is a serious thing, a holy time when a man of such quality passes on.

I once remember the death of such a man, powerful in the world of drinking. He was sitting in his usual place, surrounded by his convivial and admiring friends when he got up to answer a call of nature and took himself off to the urinal. And the night went on in the usual way. The noise of the arguments of the card players mingled with the fall of dominoes and the idle banter of the bar. Half an hour had passed and one man mentioned Percy had been gone a long time- he must have got stuck. No one thought about it until it was getting close to closing time. Then someone thought that they better go look for him. And they found him sitting there straight up, as large as life with his cap on and his trousers down- dead on the lavatory as dead as he will ever be. What a way for a man to go! In the full flesh of his drinking life. No better death could be wished for a drinking man. The fates had given Percy his proper due- perhaps a little short on dignity at the very end, but what of it. He’ll never know.