An excerpt from

The Last Landlady

Laura Thompson

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.

Once a month she returned there with my mother, while Irene and the barmaids held the fort. They drove to the carpark at Harrods, where my grandmother visited the hairdresser on the fifth floor then prowled the food hall, returning with mysterious things like baklava (she was a great feeder of other people). These expeditions were of a Proustian nature. Even after she left London my grandmother continued to regard it as home. For years she visited it once a week with her long-term boyfriend, a former jazz guitarist who had played with Louis Armstrong. She had been on intimate terms with Jack Straw’s Castle at Hampstead and the French House (her conversation usually revolved around pubs, about which she spoke with a proprietorial air even when they were nothing to do with her). She usually dined with her boyfriend at Wheeler’s on Old Compton Street, where Francis Bacon was always ‘falling all over the place – oh he was a terrible nuisance. Terrible drunk.’

My grandmother loved alcohol with a tender and respectful passion. ‘Oh, a drink’s beautiful’. She gave me my first gin: the glass glistened with tonic, a crescent of lemon lounged upon fat cubes of ice, and when I told her, truthfully, how much I liked it she nodded with cursory approval. But although she worshipped the mellow state she disliked drunkenness, especially in herself, and was unable to tolerate hangovers. ‘There isn’t a cure’, she would say, snappishly, when Irene proffered an Alka-Seltzer fizzing in a glass, or a Bloody Mary dense with celery salt. ‘Take it away, Rene. There isn’t a cure.’

So my grandmother threw her drinks on the floor, and the smell beneath her tall stool remained pungent throughout the day. It was overlaid only by her own evening smell, Estée Lauder’s Alliage (her satiny collars were impregnated with it), and by the new layers of drink and smoke that accreted after dark.

Breakfast was made in the tiny kitchen, which could fit no more than three people. The air was thick with the smell of frying butter and the back door usually left open; it led to an alley, lined with crates reeking of old beer, among which the flicking tail of a rat would often be seen. My grandmother and Irene would bustle about the kitchen, getting in each other’s way and talking in half-whispers about the previous evening. They wore ageing silky wraps smeared with make-up, and lumpy hairnets over tight-screwed rollers.

‘Ron brought that little tart in here again, then?’

‘Oh well, Rene, you know a girl can wrap a man like that round her finger. You know what a girl can do, if she’s got a bit of sense.’

There was a pause, while Irene turned sausages with a quick, jabbing fork. Then she said:

‘He’s a daft sod, though, eh?’

‘Oh’, said my grandmother, ‘proper soppy.’

On school days she would drive me, dashingly and badly, in her little MG. In the holidays I would hang around the pub as she and Irene readied the place for opening. I would sit in one of the settles (which had furnished ‘the old pub’) and watch my grandmother taking down the bottles that hung behind the bar. She would unscrew the optics and top up the contents through a funnel - Gordon’s, Bells, Teacher’s, Courvoisier, Beefeater (not that anyone ever drank Beefeater) – as a thin, spirituous smell rose into the air like a spell. Then she would cut up slices of lemon, spear some cherries and put change into the huge old Bakelite till, which didn’t add up and was frequently jammed.

Outside, in the mornings, you could hear the boy who did the garden as he filled crates – ‘bottling-up’ – and, on some days, the industrial noise of the barrels in the cellar being changed. My grandmother remembered the draymen who drove the barrels in carts: whenever she mentioned this, in her offhand way, I would instantly see the old pub, with the horses standing patiently on a west London street, jostled by men in caps and tired-looking women with shopping baskets, and my grandmother watching at the window as she readied herself for the customers: brilliantine on her Eton crop, Max Factor lipstick and l’Aimant scent by Coty.

Now, in the modern world that she didn’t match but somehow put firmly in its place, she was pulling back the heavy bolts on the doors (her hair still in curlers, now under a silk scarf). At the very moment of opening, the local butcher would enter the public bar in his apron.

Civilly, with an air of mild surprise at his own request, he would ask for a whisky. ‘Large one, Vi, while you’re there.’

Then he would have another double, meanwhile conversing about the weather or some such topic.

Then he would have another. Then – it was by now about 11 am – he would produce an empty half-bottle from his apron pocket, and pleasantly ask my grandmother to fill it with Teacher’s. This she did, as between them the atmosphere remained that of a garden tea party. Finally the butcher would walk, with a minimally lurching gait, out of the pub, and up towards the road.

Once, after this performance, Irene had ventured the comment: ‘Drunken old bugger’. But this had not gone down well with my grandmother. The butcher, in her view, adhered to the code of the pub: he was an entirely gentlemanly alcoholic, and criticism was therefore entirely out of place.

The afternoons, in these years before all-day opening, were dead time. As the curtains were drawn the air again became dull and grey. In the little sitting-room Irene and my grandmother retreated into immobility, two weary women in dressing-gowns with faces covered in cold cream. They had proper lunches – the big meal of the day – while at their feet the Chihuahuas pattered hopefully. The television, usually something fearful like Love Boat, murmured in the background as the women dozed. Only Sundays broke the pattern: they were card school days. My grandmother’s friends (publicans, children of publicans, people of her robust sort) would arrive at about 3.00 for a few hours of solo, the jazzed-up form of bridge that they all played and whose traditions they fiercely revered (nobody shuffled in the wrong way and got away with it). In the soft pink afternoon light, with the smell of roast beef hanging warmly in the air, they played hand after hand at a table moved to the middle of the saloon bar. The inquests – ‘what the bloody hell did you go misère for, Margaret?’ – were conducted with rancour, but the atmosphere was rich with the sense of a shared past. As I recall nobody drank alcohol. Tea was served in my grandmother’s good old china.

At around 5.00 she would make her way upstairs to prepare for the evening. The bathroom was enormous, having been constructed to fill the hole above the saloon bar. It was also immensely luxurious, like no other bathroom I have ever since used: carpeted and marbled and pink-tiled, blissfully warm from the airing cupboard, sweet with the smell of sodden soap and Gordon Moore toothpaste.

Depending on her mood, I might sit on my grandmother’s worn satin bedspread and watch her making-up at her dressing-table. Wonderful she looked, a business-like enchantress, surrounded by the paraphernalia of female transformation. I frankly deified her at those times. She was nearly sixty then, her waved hair dyed near-black (its salty roots invisible in the velvety gloom), her complexion still supple and olive. A Player’s untipped smouldered in an ashtray. Alongside it were tarnished silver brushes, a big bowl of powder with a puff stuck askew in it, gold bracelets which she would push on to arms as shiny as snakeskin.

Downstairs Irene, whose red waves had at last sprung angrily free of their curlers, would be putting on the lights and the background music. Sometimes, when the wrong first customer was seen approaching the pub – timing his arrival for the stroke of six - the lights would not go on. The women would hiss up and down the stairs at each other – ‘It’s old Glyn!’; ‘Don’t open up, Rene. Let him p.o!’ – and Irene would crouch behind the sitting-room curtains. ‘Has he gone, Rene?’ ‘He’s gone.’ ‘Greedy old sod, I’m not opening up for him.’

Then the evening would begin. Slowly, at the start. I would hear the occasional clicks of the door latches and desultory, effortful conversation (‘Alright, Pete?’ ‘Not too bad’; or, when the customer was of the waggish variety: ‘Not three bad’). Chief barmaid Marion would arrive and take up her position behind the bar, bending this way and that to pull a pint or push a glass against an optic. She stood framed, dispenser of favours and recipient of admiration: a ‘proper’ barmaid, my grandmother would say.

I can still picture every detail of the little square bar. Like the kitchen it barely held three people. To your right hand were two beer pumps – Tankard and (far less popular) Trophy – and a pump of Heineken, with plastic trays beneath that constantly overflowed. To your left was the sink, under the counter, into which the slops were constantly poured. There was a square of dark red carpet, soaked with spills and scattered with ash: everybody smoked behind the bar. Beneath the counter were rows of bottles. Mixers – R White’s, Britvic, Schweppes; Guinness, Double Diamond, Bass; Cherry B and Babycham; and, at the bottom, terrible dusty things like barley wine, which my grandmother always pronounced the strongest drink of all (a boy with a crush on me once drank five before lunchtime, and was last seen tumbling sideways in the direction of the garden).

At eye level were the bottles of spirits, hanging upside-down in front of a mirror. The prices stuck on the optics – 50p; 65p – were changed after every Budget: always a black day. Above was another level of bottles, even more gorgeous and glittering, their contents the colours of jewels: curacao, grenadine, Drambuie, Green Goddess, Parfait Amour, and crème de menthe (‘tart’s drink’, according to Irene), for which ice had to be crushed in a little mincer machine. Cigarettes were stacked in rows, and the cellophane-shiny colours of Dunhill, Benson & Hedges and St Moritz gleamed on their glass shelf beneath the bell for calling time. Above were the serried rows of glasses, far smaller than the swelling goblets of today, which my grandmother polished every morning in her carelessly efficient, womanly way.

From the outside - where you could not see the overflowing beer trays, the sink full of foaming water, the litter of bottle tops, fag ends and slimy bits of lemon – the bar was luminous, configurative, the gleam of glass and mirror and electricity so much refracted as to fuse into an absolute of light. It was a shining cave of plenitude, a lucent vision that a child might dream but that offered a promise and haven of the most adult kind.

…So the evenings would wear on, identical in their way, although some of them acquired the status of pub myth. The night that a barmaid, a good fifteen stone, hurled herself on to the windscreen of a car owned by one of the pub’s most taciturn regulars; nobody had known that he was her errant lover. The night that Marion went into the cellar for ice and found a half-dressed couple cavorting among the boxes of Walkers crisps. The night that one of my grandmother’s old flames came into the pub, thinking to delight her with his presence: those who heard it never forgot the precise tone of her sotto voce ‘oh fuck’ as the aged dandy pranced towards her. And then there were the dazzling Christmas parties, when the rugged black beams in the bars were covered in holly and the great silver tree sparkled inside the fireplace; the riotous New Year’s Eve parties, with their exquisitely uncool congas and hokey-cokeys; the card games of solo and brag, this time played by customers, in which the shrewd old farmers would remorselessly fleece the would-be shrewd town people; the cornucopia of drink and colour and jokes... so different, all of it, from the smoke-free drunkenness, the Wetherspoon’s faux fun of today.

In childhood it all passed through me, or over me, in a whirling haze of bright-lit mystery. All I knew was that just a few feet away, beyond the sitting-room door, was what I believed to be adulthood: a world in which ordinary life bloomed and took colour from the pub.

I understood none of the sober realities within the lives of the people I saw, many of whom were in the midst of agonies that only subsequently became known to me. Nevertheless there were things that I did understand. I grasped, in my way, the code of the pub: its quotidian valour, its compassion (and faint contempt) for the needy, its celebration of the human urge towards pleasure. I also grasped, dimly, that its belief in display meant the necessity of concealment. When you went in the pub, you put on a show. What mattered was the external, the facade; not the same thing as shallowness.