The Last Landlady

By Laura Thompson

A homage to the English pub

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Extract from The Last Landlady

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 generated by pubs. So often it was unfulfilled. The stage had been perfectly prepared, but the show was reluctant to take wing. The very light was uncertain of its role: the pub demanded that it dimple and glow, but pragmatic day refused to give way: the soft electric gleam behind the counter had not yet reached the bars. They were rooms, rather than rich little treasure boxes. The air was parched. The darkness held no mystery as yet; the wedges of sun that sliced through it showed up bare patches of carpet, ash stains, untouched hair roots, wrinkles, all the imperfections and weaknesses that the pub – in its infinite knowing humanity - was there to forgive. The thing had not yet come together. Irene, perched on a stool behind the bar like a tough old parrot, smoked her menthol St Moritz cigarettes and rustled viciously at the Daily Express as time moved at a stately andante pace: in accordance with pub tradition the clock above the fireplace was kept about eight minutes fast, so the joy of seeing its hands move was tempered by the knowledge that they told a permanent lie. Victor, his black coffee thick with undissolved sugar crystals, sat on a companion stool at the saloon bar counter, smiling gamely at nothing, blowing smoke into the emptiness. My grandmother, in her role of impresario, would march in and out from backstage, carrying cheese and gherkins with the Chihuahuas pattering at her heels. The show looked like a failure, killed at birth in fact, but she was undaunted. She would assess the scene with a cool eye, as if faintly disgusted by the failure of her public to do its bit, before demanding that the music be turned up and illusions created. In the sitting-room I would watch from the window, with its sumptuously sagging curtains and half-covering of soft net. And slowly, one by one, the morning regulars would come up the road, looking towards the pub as if it were their sole destiny, yet at the same time affecting a kind of nonchalance, as if they had just happened to be passing and thought, why not?  

Poignant, this was. I knew it even then, although I did not know why. There were three morning customers in particular, who occupied the settle in the public bar, in alliance and yet in solitude. A sad little woman with scanty permed hair, who drank Double Diamond. To her left, a man with a pipe, defiant in his lack of charm. To her right, a man who communed with his pint and his Embassy as if they alone could comprehend his memories of years as a POW... The woman bought her round, taking her money from a purse full of Green Shield stamps, although in a gesture of grudging gallantry the pipe-smoker would go to the bar on her behalf. When it was his turn to pay he would say to her: ‘You having another one, then? You’ll be on the floor with them dogs’, or some such thing, at which she would laugh in a bruised, brave, ‘hark at him’ way with anybody who caught her eye. When the ex-POW went to the bar he would command the attention of Irene, or whoever it might be, with a sharply mumbled: ‘Achtung!’ Back in his seat he might say: ‘What’s today?... Today’s Freitag.’ Other than that he barely spoke.

What were these three people doing there? Drinking, one might say: these were the days before alcohol could be bought at every pit-stop. Drinking, of course. But drink and pubs are not the same thing. Co-dependent, but different. The butcher’s desire for alcohol was clothed in a ritual courtesy, a public dimension imposed by the Public House. And the pub was doing something more for the threesome on the settle than selling them beer; it was assuaging something more complicated than mere loneliness.

Not that it brought pleasure, exactly. The proper pub is about far more than having a good time. It accommodates the miserable, the misfits, those who are in their seats at curtain up, having nothing in their lives to make them late: from the moment of waking, they are waiting for the moment of opening. By the fireplace in the public bar was a small table with its own stool. This was the domain of another morning regular, an old farmer, with a fearsome face beneath his tweed cap, who would bang on the table with his stick when he wanted a drink. He was the only person who didn’t approach the counter. He hated everybody – although he eased off a little at the sight of my grandmother – and apparently hated being in the pub. ‘How much?’ was his response to every request for payment. ‘Can’t drink that, woman, it’s flat as a bloody pancake’ was a regular reaction to his pint.

Yet his dogged appearance every day was mysteriously courageous. In he staggered, on brittle legs, roaring and spitting and, in his way, doing his bit. ‘Old sod’, my grandmother would say, when Irene reported the latest complaint about the beer, but this was token. In her early years at the pub, she and the farmer had shared a telephone line. They went way back, to the time when the pub had been patronized only by country people, and she took him for all in all. The same thing with the threesome on the settle. ‘Poor old sods.’ She had a brisk compassion for the needy, never dirtied by the urge to patronize. So too did the livelier people who began to gladden the look of the place around midday: the exquisite mistress with the high grey chignon, giving out smiles like a film star meeting the England football team; her blazered paramour, offering drinks all round in a pantomime of manly nods and winks. With this smooth invasion, the tick-tocking strain of the morning began to ease. Irene would hop from her stool and pour Victor a Guinness, which he sipped with his habitual air of experienced discrimination. From the sitting-room I would hear the discreet hum, punctuated by little bursts of adult laughter, signifying that the show was on the road. Now came the comfortable crunch of wheels on the carpark tarmac, the generous swoop of Rovers and Jaguars. Now the morning regulars, arranged around the edges of the bar, became so many staring gargoyles. They had played their part, nevertheless: more than anybody, they proved the value of the pub, and by turning up, when it would have been easier to stay cloistered at home in front of Crown Court, they earned its venial sanctuary.

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