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The Rat Hole

On bars.

Most bars are horrible in various ways. Yet those of us (predominantly men) who even slightly like to drink all have ideas in our heads about what bars should be like. The marketing men are well aware of it. They know that we generally appreciate dark, polished wood, engraved glass or mirrors, a brass rail and lights that are not too bright, and in winter a real fire. Then they spoil it all by installing piped music, or putting up huge T.V. screens permanently showing sports programs, or by making us all sit down when some of us prefer to lean against the actual counter. Or they are too successful, so that the place is always too crowded to be peaceful. Recently a new horror has appeared, electronic payment which somehow always takes ten minutes to conclude. And then there are the prices. A cheap interlude has become a major transaction which will leap out of the page when your credit card bill turns up weeks later. And so we go to horrible bars anyway and swiftly forget that we wanted the dark wood or the open fire. What we really wanted was the drink. We probably also wanted the maleness, though none of us would ever admit this nowadays. When I was learning how to mis-spend my time, this maleness was more pronounced in some places than others, and not legally enforced, but it was so. In all my memories of bars the most vivid is of walking into a large pub in a rather basic part of the great city of Dundee, with a woman at my side. It was a Sunday lunchtime, in the summer of 1973. There were perhaps a hundred men in the room. Every single one of them turned silently to stare at us. The barman also stared at us. It was like being in a cartoon. In profound, frozen silence and without a word being spoken, we backed out of the room and into the street, chastened and educated. We had committed a sort of sacrilege, and thought it wise to leave the neighborhood in case things got even worse.

I do not think any woman would ever have wanted to descend the few grubby steps which led to the bar where I learned to drink the soapy, sweetish fluid which in 1960s England passed as beer and was often accompanied by warmish pies made of mechanically recovered meat. The establishment, on Oxford’s Cowley Road, was actually called “The Rat Hole.” It is no longer there. Its official title was “The Crown” but an indulgent brewery, admitting the pungent truth of its unofficial name, had actually commissioned its resident sign painter to depict (rather well) a rat scurrying into a tavern. There is a photograph of this somewhere, but I cannot trace it at present. I seem to recall that the painting showed not just the rodent but a picture of something called “The Book of Knowledge” hanging overhead, a nod to the university down the road, whose spires you could actually see if you stepped out into the gritty street. Cowley Road is now rather funky and vibrant, but in those days it was just downmarket. I shall always remember the day when, facing a liquidity crisis, I tried to sell off a pair of wonky binoculars to a junk shop there. The Irish proprietor examined them briefly and handed them back to me saying, “We don’t take things as is broke.” It was a key moment in my life. There was nothing else for it. I was going to have to get a job (I found one, as it happened, in a brewery, and was shocked to discover just how badly real hard physical work was rewarded).

From the Rat Hole, where I learned many worldly things from the barman, I graduated to the beautiful Port Mahon in a nicer part of Oxford, where I first combined Trotskyism with drinking. There, each Thursday night we debated revolution. Is my memory right? Were some of the foremost minds of our time among those cradling half-pints of sour bitter ale, as we planned the next week’s leafleting of the car factory? I confess that at the time I thought Port Mahon must be in Ireland, and only realized much later that the lovely harbor shown on its sign was in Menorca. The pub—unlike so many from that era—is still there, though I doubt much Trotskyism goes on there now. Then there was the Lowther Hotel down by the River Ouse in York, another unlikely den of revolution, in whose crowded downstairs bar I was quietly and painfully assaulted by an Irish Republican, after I had (perhaps rather forcefully) set out the differences between Marxism-Leninism and terrorism. His response was non-verbal. In fact you might say that words failed him. I was thin then, yet he still managed to grab a handful of the flesh of my stomach and twist it very hard. Nobody could see what he was doing, as we were all pressed so close together, and it hurt like hell. I sensed that in not very different circumstances he could quite easily have killed me.

Upstairs the members of my Trotskyist sect would debate both politics and organization beneath a huge pair of buffalo horns, symbol of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. This had once been their meeting hall, though I think they had become extinct some years before and only the horns remained. They are, as far as I know, a convivial and patriotic lot, and they would have frowned on us if they had known we were there. The place has now been transformed for tourists but whenever York is flooded, which is quite often, the Lowther tends to be in the rather spectacular pictures which go round the world, and I am reminded again of Tom and Doreen, almost certainly working-class conservatives, who served perpetually behind the bar. And I am made to wonder, yet again, what these two canny people thought of their subversive customers. I don’t think we can even have done much for their profits, tight-fisted puritans as we mostly were.

After that I spent far too many hours in the sort of pubs that flourish near newspaper offices, moderately desperate, patronized not so much for their comfort or the quality of the drink (few cared), but because the barman would take phone calls for us and the newsroom was a quick sprint away. Journalists, like policemen, often seem to have a perverse liking for squalid, unpleasant drinking establishments. The raucous, unrespectable and drink-fueled Fleet Street which was dying even then has now disappeared. It amazes me to remember that one of the pubs I used to drink in was actually part of the building which housed the Daily Express, where I then worked. Writers for rival newspapers rarely dared to enter. Those were also the days of Britain’s very sensible old licensing laws, which probably kept many of us from becoming hopeless drunks. These laws did not stop anyone from drinking who really wanted to. But they provided an escape for those like me who had had quite enough and knew it. For the determined, there were supposed clubs, which served long after the pubs had shut. And there were illegal pubs, where you tapped a code on the window to be let in after midnight. Few of these places were many steps above squalor. Far nicer were the working men’s clubs I used to go to in pursuit of trade union contacts. I kept up my membership of one such in the industrial city of Coventry, which allowed me into all the others in Britain. And then there was the once-famous El Vino, a dark, serious wine bar which served delicious rare roast beef sandwiches and rather good glasses of wine, but was despised by most Fleet Street types for being too fancy, and was hated by progressives because it would not serve women at the bar, only at tables. They were a lot gentler about this than that pub in Dundee, and in the end dropped the rule after some noisy protests. That, in those times, came close to being a perfect bar, but it has been modernized now, and has become ordinary like everywhere else.

I don’t think I really ever fully understood the human, or rather male, impulse to drink outside the home until I visited a beer bar in communist Moscow. This establishment had one clear purpose and nothing stood in its way. No frill, no flourish, no décor, no ambience, no piped music got in the way of its simple aim. I do not think it even had a name (“The Rat Hole” might have done), but its filthy tiled floor was scattered with scraps of newspaper, and the bones of dried fish which the clientele brought with them in parcels made from the previous day’s Pravda. You brought your own drinking vessel, usually a washed-out pickle-jar. You then fed a few kopeck coins into a slot. I think five kopecks, the same brass coin that would pay for a trip on the Moscow Metro, were enough. Then you held your jar under a grey-metal pipe, from which would gurgle a quantity of yellowish fluid, not that clear. It tasted much as you might expect it to have done, and was weak. By a miracle of perversity, even on a freezing winter evening, it was not particularly cold. You then stood next to one of the plastic topped tables, around which others gathered, crunching their fish and slurping their ale. I never heard any conversation. But the point was that, for some Soviet citizens, this place and everything in it was preferable to their own homes. They had put on warm clothes and hats, and journeyed, perhaps miles, to be there. Whenever I go out for any sort of drink now, I think of those Moscow boozers and their pickle jars, and wonder how I and my habits might look to a visitor from a superior, or at least richer, civilization. Human society is far stranger than we think it is. We are used to so many things that are astonishingly odd, that we do not see it.