London Perceived. Text: V.S. Pritchett, photos Evelyn Hofer (2/5)

The Salisbury, St. Martin’s Lane, 1962. © Estate of Evelyn Hofer.

V.S. Pritchett, writing in London Perceived*, 1962:

The square is our characteristic alternative to the grande place or the piazza. There are no central places, foreigners complain, where “Londoners meet” or stroll along together to pass the time of day. The answer to that is, first, that Lononders do not meet, do not gather, and reject the peculiar notion that people like “running across each other” in public places. They emphatically do not. We are full of clubs, pubs, cliques, coteries, sets, although the influence of mass life are changing us so that even the London public house is becoming public. But most pubs are still divided into bars, screened and provided with quiet mahogany corners where the like-minded can protect themselves against those of different mind. And – one must admit – with different purses.

Clearly, between the saloon bar and the public bar there is, or was, a class division; nowadays, the public bar is where men play darts. In the public bar, there being the thirsty tradition of manual work, you drink your beer by the pint; in the saloon, in the private, you drink it in half-pints; occasionally there is a ladies’ bar, and there ladies – always in need of fortifying, for they have been on their “poor feet” – commonly order stout or “take” a little gin in a refined medicinal way. The pubs catering for the Irish are rather different; the Irish like to swarm in public melancholy, their ideal being, I suppose, a tiled bar resembling a public lavatory a mile long, and with barmen who, as they draw your draught stout, keep an eye on you, show their muscles, and tacitly offer to throw you out by collar and shirt-tail. This is not the London English fashion, which is livelier, yet more judicious, sentimental and moralizing. The London publican cultivates a note of moneyed despondency and the art of avoiding “argument” by discussing the weather. One foggy, snowy morning in a pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street, near Gray’s Inn, I hear a customer mention the cold and the snow, and, in doing this, he was simply repeating what every customer had said as he came in.

“Couple of cases of sunstroke in the Feobal’s Road, I hear” said the poker-faced old Weller behind the bar – belonging to that generation of Cockneys who pronounced a “th” as an “f” and were averse to a final “d”. He spoke in the gravelly voice of one about to “cut his bloody froat”.

There are pubs where the same people always meet, where they tell the same stories, where they glance up at the changing London sky and sink into mournful happiness or fatten and redden with natural bawdy – I do not mean dirty – stories but with licence of their own invention. One is reminded that this is the city of the riper passages of Shakespeare and the sexy London papers. London is not puritan; it is respectable – quite another matter. Behind the respectability is the sentimental and fleshly riot. If they can be sure that they are among “a few pals, the male and female Londoners like to abandon themselves. The whited sepulchres turn rosy, the tongues wag, even raucously sing, and the ladies come out with quiet remarks that are surprising. There is a touch of “Knees up, Mother Brown” in all of them; in London, Eros is a shade hearty, and what is elsewhere called passion, in London is called being “friendly”. Friendliness is, of course, double-edged , for it suggests that some would-be friends must be kept out. A little scene I once observed at the bar of the Edinburgh Castle, in Camden Town – the Bob Cratchit country – goes to the heart of this aspect of London manners. A middle-aged couple were having a friendly talk, and an old man, suffering from city loneliness, occasionally “passed a remark” – always an offence – hoping to join in. The lady reached for her large handbag – an emblem of respectability – and took out a pound note  – a sign of grandeur – put it on the counter and called to te old man in a “friendly” voice:

“Have a drink. Say ‘No thank you’; I always say ‘No, thank you’ when a stranger offers me a drink.”

And she put her pound note back in her bag, closed it with a slow snap, and, swollen with savoir-faire in the art of “friendliness” she resumed her private conversation. The Londoner know how to finish things without being, as the saying is, “nasty”. One had witnessed a death, of course.

* © 1962 and renewed 1990 by V.S. Pritchett. Used by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.

[Special thanks in assembling this week’s feature are due to: Jim McKinniss; Mark Giorgione of the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica,  California; Andreas Pauly at the Hofer Estate; and Carl Scarbrough at David Godine.D.S.]