A small-town boy in the Big City, a Northerner in the South (of England), newly married, living in an apartment, thinking of buying a house, finding my way…
Funny how a chance encounter can change your life. One day, I had to visit someone in another neighborhood. I mis-timed the journey and arrived at their local subway station earlier than planned. I noticed a pub. Its sign indicated that it sold a decent beer, Young’s.
To kill half an hour, I popped in for a pint. I had never heard of the pub, but it was love at first sight.
The pub still exists: it is called The Thatched House. Perhaps it once had a thatched roof, but today the name seems incongruous. When London was a smaller city, the pub would have been at the rural fringe. An area where minor royals once lived became blue-collar during the industrial era, then accommodated Welsh, Irish, Polish and Black immigrants. For the last few decades, it has been accommodating what we used to call yuppies, who don’t want to live in the outer suburbs
It is called Hammersmith, and it has no thatch. Nor is there anything visually striking about the exterior of The Thatched House, apart from the contradiction of its name hanging beneath a tiled roof.
A Sympathetic Ear
From that first visit, all I can remember about the interior is that it was unobtrusively comfortable. That is enough to ask of pub décor. If a pub is a gem of Victoriana, or art nouveau; or has a world-beating collection of bicycles, dubious banknotes or severed neckties hanging from the ceiling, that may be a bonus—or not.
The nearest that The Thatched House came to such contrived eccentricities was the genuine customer who, after a two or three pints, would stroll around reciting the speeches of Winston Churchill. Mellowed by four or five, he would segue into the songs of Richard Tauber. If his voce was anything more than sotto, the publican turned down the volume by the simple device of raising an eyebrow.
On my first visit, the publican—a tallish man in his 40s or 50s, fit-looking, in shirtsleeves—was having a low-key conversation with a customer wearing a Tony Curtis haircut, frilled shirt, bolo tie, and drainpipe trousers.
Two decades earlier, young men in the United Kingdom had dressed like this to attend screenings of the movie “Rock Around the Clock” and dance wildly to Bill Haley and the Comets. These young men occasionally erupted into what were regarded in those innocent days as riots. They trashed coffee bars, sometimes breaking plastic spoons. People were afraid of them, and mayors of affected communities said that rock’n’roll should be banned: these people were juvenile delinquents.
This quaint survivor of proto-delinquency was not breaking anything. He was talking about his kids. They were not doing as well at school as he had hoped they might. Schools were not strict enough. There was no discipline. A shirtsleeved shoulder and a sympathetic ear were being provided by the publican, but with the professional boundaries of a psychotherapist.
He offered me his other ear with a friendly smile, then turned his hand to the pump. He drew me the best pint I had acquired in many a month, or possibly a year. My next significant purchase was a house three minutes’ walk away. (In the interests of accuracy, I have just timed it.)
The Shirtsleeved Publican
Like the deraciné delinquent, the shirtsleeved saloon-keeper had seen more exciting days in the 1950s. Being myself a supporter of Rugby League rather than soccer, I did not recognize Bedford Jezzard. Had someone told me, as they eventually did, I would have known the name. “Beddy” Jezzard had been a star player, and later coach, for one of London’s teams in the national league. He had also played for England. The local London team, Fulham, has enjoyed only modest success, but its stadium is regarded in London as being especially friendly, in much the way that Wrigley Field is in Chicago.
Soccer players did not make big money in those days, and upon retirement would often cash their fame in a pub. For Beddy, this situation was more than expedient. His family had been in the pub business, and he understood that it was more than a source of income. In the time it took him to pull a pint, the course of my life had been significantly determined. I still live in the same house.
“I hear you wanted to borrow a ladder for your decorating,” Beddy’s wife Joyce said on one of our early visits. “See that fellow with the curly gray hair? He’s called Jeff. He’ll lend you his.” The Thatched House made better neighbors of us all.
A lonely lady widowed in December was provided with Christmas dinner in the pub. Most evenings, a blind lady had a beer while her husband quietly read her a selection of stories from the afternoon paper. If the husband could not be there, another of the locals would deputize.
One regular customer always looked drunk, but had actually been the victim of a stroke. He needed help to get off his bar stool and walk across the room to the john. He was a Protestant from Glasgow. His voluble comments in support of the Protestant soccer team Glasgow Rangers were dangerously inflammatory in our Catholic and Irish Republican neighborhood of London. One day, I saw him being helped to the john by a regular who sported the green scarf of Celtic, the Irish-Catholic team. The Catholic gave me a resigned look, and a hushing gesture: “Don’t tell anyone,” he pleaded.
An Ecumenical Pub
Despite Beddy’s previous occupation, The Thatched House had no big-screen televisions, nor any other electronic intrusions. The most local of the borough’s three league soccer teams attracts Irish Catholic support. When the team won an important trophy, an army of drunkenly chanting supporters occupied the streets. A platoon marched into the pub. “Not tonight, lads,” smiled Beddy. They left like lambs.
There are within a further three or four minutes’ walk several Irish Catholic pubs, some favored by people from particular counties. Within five to ten minutes walk, there are pubs favored by Black Londoners; gay pubs (one for drag acts, another for people who are turned on by leather clothing); pubs that serve cuisines from French to Thai
The Thatched House was—and still is—ecumenical.
Within Hammersmith, our neighborhood has no natural center, but is within a square formed by four main roads. These also mark the boundaries of our electoral ward. A more representative system would be to deem as the electorate the regular drinkers at The Thatched House, my wife once suggested, only half joking.
She did successfully run for election—within the official boundaries, of course. Then, while still in her thirties, she died suddenly. She had become very popular in the neighborhood, and I was very conscious of this when one day I walked into The Thatched House with a new partner on my arm. I need not have worried. In its own quiet, warm, way, the pub made her feel at home.
I had also wondered whether her father would approve of me. A connoisseur of pubs, he had barely crossed the threshold of my chosen local when he extended unreserved approval.
A Club for All Classes
In the mid 1980s, Beddy let it be known that he wanted to retire. Regulars protested but in the end had to accept fate. Popular wisdom has it that no one is indispensable, but Beddy was the exception. For 21 years, he had run a pub that must have been a goldmine for its owners, Young’s brewery. Their attempted replacements for him ranged from the dull to the daft to the drunk and the dishonest. In recent years, The Thatched House has staged a partial recovery, but as a successful “gastro-pub.”
It no longer fulfils the role of a permanent town meeting, a center for the venting of gossip and serious information, a club for all classes, a reading room… Despite that, I still pop in occasionally, and have a pint with my neighbor Arnie, who remains loyal to The Thatched as though Beddy were still there.
I am one of a larger group who defected to The Andover Arms, which is a four-minute walk. There, Tom and Maura Mahedy serve a superb pint of Fuller’s.
Arnie often knocks on my door with items of news. The other day he came by to say that Beddy, who had been widowed for some years and in ill-health, had ascended to the great saloon in the sky.
Largely on the strength of his soccer career, and especially as he had played for his England, I emailed The Independent, a national newspaper to which I sometimes contribute, and suggested they assign a sportswriter to produce an obituary. I indicated that I would be pleased to add a few paragraphs on Beddy’s subsequent career. The obituaries editor of The Independent thought this was a good idea, and acted upon it. No other newspaper followed suit.
There were in that week obituaries for pundits, politicians, planners, psychologists, and policemen. What about publicans? In serving the sinners among us, they teach us to love our neighbor.
Michael Jackson is an internationally acclaimed author and expert on drinks and fine food.