In the late 1940s, my father and his friend (both aged 14) were sitting in a pub in Glasgow. Two middle-aged drunk men were sat at the bar; they were well known local gang leaders from the notorious thirties. One of the men turned to other: “I dare you to stick this glass in my face,” he said in a fading act of bravado. “No, I dare you to stick it in my face,” replied his sparring partner. So the first man did. Blood burst from his face and the stools went over. But instead of going at each other, they left together to seek out the nearest hospital (Try reading No Mean City for more on Glasgow in the 30s).
Pubs used to be (still are?) notorious for churning out drink-fuelled violence, which often took place in queues – a queue at the chip shop or taxi rank with a ‘you pushing in mate’, or ‘you looking at my missus’, etc. But pubs have long been the social hub for the working classes that didn’t just involve fighting or getting so pissed you start dancing with a table. As I have written before, when featuring Daniel Sluman’s poem Barmaid, my friend married the barmaid in our local and many of my lifelong friendships were forged there. The pub was divided into three parts – the bar, the smoke, and lounge. The bar was where all the older men went after work, and where they would take their girlfriends or wives at the weekend. The lounge was for families. Then there was the smoke, where at one end the oldies gathered (we called it the death end), then the other end where we were – a panoptican of faces spread round the pool table. There were very few women. In fact there wasn’t even a women’s toilet for many of the first years I went. They would have to go round to the smoke or lounge; this meant going outside, which in the wet cold winters was not an attractive option.
Sadly, pubs are in decline. I don’t really put it down to the smoking ban, it was more a result in the rise in property prices, the financial crash in 2008 resulting in the heavy debt of the pubcos who sold the pubs on. Ironically, they are often turned into residential dwellings, with only 10% remaining as pubs. At the current rate of closure (around 30 a week), there will be no more pubs by the middle of the century.
But let’s forget about the pubs’ demise for now and engage in a bit of nostalgia with Julia Webb’s funny and riotous poem, Friday Night King’s Head. This is a pub you would love to go to, if only to be a fly on the wall. “Some girl is pulling another girl’s hair and screaming, and some other girls are in the loo skinning up, and Andy is trying to force his way into the Ladies with his watery eyes, wet lips and flat cap.” Pubs are more than their insides, especially in the summer, when people spill out into the car park, the garden or the wall. “there’s a row going on outside, a Cortina is revving its engine, and someone is laughing, it sounds like a tree full of monkeys, but when you go outside it’s just the usual crowd sitting on the wall around the tree smoking.” But there’s always music, at least if it’s not a Wetherspoons, in this case a Disco, with Black Sabbath, Status Quo, Fleetwood Mac that situates the poem in the 70s, and what people then become some time later. “Billy is shaking his blonde head like someone demented, ten years from now he’ll be in the army cleaning his gun, his hair shorn off.” Such pubs are still out there and so are their characters, but I fear for how much longer.
Julia Webb is a compulsive writer. She grew up in Thetford a small town in Norfolk. She lives in Norwich where she teaches creative writing in the community and runs Norwich Stanza and a poetry book group. She is a poetry editor for Lighthouse Literary Journal. Her first collection Bird Sisters will be published by Nine Arches Press in May 2016.
Friday Night King’s Head
Some girl is pulling another girl’s hair and screaming, and some other girls are in the loo skinning up, and Andy is trying to force his way into the Ladies with his watery eyes, wet lips and flat cap, and it’s your job to keep him out and to keep his tongue out of your mouth, and the Heavy Rock Disco is playing Paranoid, and before that it was thumbs in belt loops for Status Quo, and Billy is shaking his blonde head like someone demented, ten years from now he’ll be in the army cleaning his gun, his hair shorn off, and there’s a row going on outside, a Cortina is revving its engine, and someone is laughing, it sounds like a tree full of monkeys, but when you go outside it’s just the usual crowd sitting on the wall around the tree smoking, someone is astride a motorbike, someone is being sick, someone has had beer thrown over them, a couple are kissing under the coach arch, and the night is screaming and booming in your ears, and though your eyes seek out the dark corners you can tell that Dan’s not here, but here comes Andy dogging your footsteps, so you’d better keep moving, and if it was fifteen years from now he might be spiking your drink, someone buys you a vodka and orange, someone whispers in your ear, someone passes you a joint, back inside the bar the air is hot and thick with smoke, the music is pounding, you push through a wall of sweaty bodies, the D.J. you used to date plays your favourite Steve Hillage, the one you ask for every week, in twenty years you won’t remember its title though you will remember the keyboard thrill, Rory is on the floor gyrating, his aging mum in her leather jacket is leaning against the wall, two guys are shouting at each other by the speakers, a boy with a Mohican and acne passes something to a girl with dead eyes, you check the poolroom but Dan’s not here yet, you dance to Fleetwood Mac, someone moves close, you can feel his breath on your neck, his long hair brushes your shoulder, thirty years from now he will email you to say he was a berk back then and that he’s cut off all his hair.