This book is the story of my grandmother, who was born in a London pub and who, in the 1950s, became the first woman to be given a publican’s licence in her own name. Through her I shall also trace the social history of the English pub: how did pubs begin and develop? Why have they meant so much to us? What future do they have? It is questions of this kind that the book will seek to answer, interwoven with memories of my grandmother, a remarkable woman whose life was defined by pubs and who – as it seemed to me - embodied their essence.
She was one of the great landladies. I spent part of my childhood in her little pub in the rural Home Counties, and was mesmerized by her quasi-theatrical gift. She generated that enclosing yet liberating pub atmosphere, the one that reflected our national character: the stoical humour, the craving for clannishness, the relish for a downbeat kind of glamour, the jokey attitude to sin, the sentimentality and the fleeting aggression. As she grew older, she recognized – with characteristic pragmatism - that pubs such as hers were a dying breed. Perhaps the world around them has simply changed too much. Yet they still hold their treasured place in our consciousness.
From her I inherited stories of my great-grandfather’s pub: the dray-horses who transported the barrels of beer, the lump of ice bought from the local tannery and wheeled through the streets in a pram, the war, the black market whisky, the pub tart Queenie… Meanwhile memories of my grandmother’s own pub are intense and sensory: the beer and dead ash on the carpets in the morning, the deepening rhythms of mirth at night, the magical brightness of glass behind the bar. It was a wonderful education, to observe that adult arena, and its mysteries still fascinate me. Part-memoir, part-social history, part-elegy, this is the book I have wanted to write for many years.
These, then, are some of my childhood memories, from the many times when my parents were away or out late, and I stayed in the spare bedroom at the pub. The mornings, first of all, when I crept downstairs before breakfast and wandered out of the tiny living quarters and into the two little bars. At that hour the air was grey and uncertain, ghostly with dust. A thin trail of day, easing its way between the drawn curtains, fell upon the crazy solar system of circles on the table tops.
The smell of the mornings, which I can still conjure without the least effort, was that of beer and smoke, through which ran a powerful stream of disinfectant coming from the cleaner’s bucket propped against the old wooden door of the Gents’. Within I could hear Mrs Brennan banging around with her mop, singing wheezily, ‘yew were meant, for me.... and ay was meant, for yew!’ She had hair permed to a crisp and an Embassy glued to her bright pink lower lip. From the open door came another smell, unspeakable, winding its way through the Jeyes’ fluid. I was nervous of the Gents’ and never once went inside it. The Ladies’ I loved: it smelled like my grandmother, of Camay and Estée Lauder.
Later Mrs Brennan would tackle the carpets, which every morning were newly dank and sour. Beneath the high stool where my grandmother perched – next to the counter in the public bar, leaning against the stone wall – was a patch of carpet that never dried out, because every night my grandmother threw at least five whiskies on to it. ‘Cheers, darling!’ she would say to whoever had bought her the drink, then at a discreet moment empty the contents on to the floor. Most regulars knew that she did this, but they didn’t mind: it was part of her legend, like her inability to add up behind the bar (‘call it a tenner’, she would say, when everyone else had calculated that the round cost nearly £12), the strength of the drinks that she made (her gin and French was akin to a knockout punch), and indeed almost everything else about her.
The regulars knew about her life: the ‘old pub’ where she had grown up, the parents to whom she had been devoted (a charismatic little father, a sweet-natured mother who died in her forties), the five older brothers, the short-lived marriage to a husband who went to war and never returned home (‘bloody good riddance’), the accolade of being the country’s ‘first landlady’. Yet she had secrets, not to be probed, at which she would occasionally hint. The sight of canoodling couples in the pub (always a source of general scorn and mirth) might elicit a mysterious throwaway remark. ‘Oh, we’ve all done that... we’ve all had abortions!’ I would wonder about her, but always so far and no further. She had immense mystique, and I was always very slightly scared of her.
She was born in Paddington Green and, until her old age, when she moved in with my parents, never lived anywhere but a pub. She said that being a good landlord, running a proper establishment, gave her father a real standing in the community; she would never have bothered to say this had it not been true, and the remark pointed up for me the way in which pubs have changed.
She herself served behind the bar from the age of fifteen, wearing full-length black satin dresses that she lent to the local homosexuals (Lot and Lil, as she called them). She was a beauty, had been a film extra in the 1930s, and she remained glamorous until she died: small yet powerful, her Jewish ancestry giving her an exotic gleam. She also remained very much a Londoner. This was part of her mythology, the London childhood and war years.
Hallo and thank you, as ever, for your generosity in bringing this book so close to funding - I am so grateful!!! Metaphorical drinks all round.
Here's an extract from the early part of the book, in which I recreate my childhood memories of my grandmother's pub.
Mornng trade… the crack of the door-latches was always a sound of promise, but this was an extraordinary testament to the optimism…
Another huge thank you to the lovely people who have pledged to this book. A big thrill every time I see a new name. The book is nearly done now - harder than I expected; one somehow thinks that a labour of love will flow, which it doesn't. I dared to re-read the first half, an evocation of my grandmother's pub from my childhood memories. At the time I'd been happy with what I wrote but had I, in…
Just a belated (forgive me) thank you to all the incredibly kind people who have pledged to this book. I have wanted to write it for so long - I love doing it (a rare sensation!) and I am, please God this isn't tempting fate, really happy with how it is going. I hope you will all agree. My mother said the other day how delighted my grandmother would have been with it - she is certainly a rich and…
These people are helping to fund The Last Landlady.