Saturday, May 1, 2010

A tale of two pubs

In the southwest London neighbourhood of Pimlico you'll find two pubs that are geographically not more than a short walk apart, but occupy different social worlds.

The picture-perfect White Swan is found on the Vauxhall Bridge Road, a few steps from the Tate Britain Gallery and the River Thames, and six or seven minute walk from Parliament. At 6pm on the last Friday of April, a pay day for many and the start of a long weekend for most, the White Swan was mobbed. The majority of the patrons were under 35, well dressed in office attire, single, and well-educated. Many no doubt work for parliamentary offices or the law courts or other promising careers in public administration. There were a few tables of older men in suits sharing pints, but these were outnumbered by tables of young women having after-work cocktails and glasses of wine. The conversations were loud and boisterous, and all seemed to be having great fun.

The barmen at the White Swan are young, handsome men, wearing tasteful open-neck shirts. On the bar gleams tap after brass tap of stouts and lagers, and the back wall is cluttered with many bottles of alcohol. On the wall is a sign advertising the night’s meat pie specials: Steak & Stilton cheese and Chicken & chorizo sausage on this night. A long queue of people awaited service, most paying with plastic cards. I stood in the middle of it all for several minutes, taking it in, deciding whether to order a pie and a pint at the bar and then try to find a place to sit. No one paid me any heed, pushing past me. I might have stood there for longer if I liked, but decided it was too noisy for me, and went for a walk.

I passed through a nearby public housing estate, its residents a miscellany of recent migrants from the four corners of the Earth. An odd place to find social housing, I thought, wedged between the lovely and dear brick flats east of Vauxhall and the ornately columned rowhouses lining Belgrave Road. But there it was, children bicycling in the street, yelling at one another, laundry hanging outside, people yelling over at the neighbours in Spanish and Bengali. At the far side of the estate I found another pub, the Pride of Pimlico, and made my way inside.

Unlike the estate's residents, all the patrons were white, as they were for the most part at the White Swan, but that was about all the two pubs had in common. The Pride was reasonably busy, but I was still able to quickly find a stool at the bar, taking care to ask those in the immediate vicinity if I was taking someone else’s spot. The lone barman, a fellow in his twenties with a soft rural accent (from Wales maybe?) was soon over to pour me a bitter, cracking a mild joke to put me at ease as I tried to identify the right coins with which to pay him. As a stranger, I was immediately aware that most in the pub had taken a short, discrete look at me when I came in before returning to their own affairs.

The clientele at the Pride was a mixture of ages. At my side of the bar sat a number of married couples in their fifties, who all knew one another. As the women chatted, one fellow read the paper while another went back and forth to fill in race sheets. Another man joined them and his wife gave him forty pounds from her wallet, likely his pocket money for the weekend. A group of younger, single men and women were at the back of the pub shooting pool, while at booths along the far wall sat smaller groups of women, some middle aged and older, some younger. All in the bar were dressed in casual clothes, and paid cash to our barman, who sported a golf shirt and jeans.

Behind the bar all is orderly and spartan as compared with the Swan. The Guinness tap takes front and centre, flanked by a single bitter tap, a single lager tap, and so forth. The number of bottles of alcohol to the rear of the bar is also modest. Below these sit plastic bottles of mix, one of the younger patrons requesting a splash of Schweppes lemonade in her lager. Above the bottles, not far from a letter from a local charity thanking the patrons of the pub for raising 84 pounds on its behalf, is a row of souvenir buttons bearing the names of the counties in the Republic of Ireland. Seeing these I realized the origins of the odd name, The Pride of Pimlico. It is an Irish pub. By this I do not mean the phony replicas of Irish pubs you’ll find in every city on every continent, from Hong Kong to Ottawa. When this pub had been established decades previously, the residents of the public housing estate had been Irish migrants, and the Pride had been their meeting place.

While pondering the types of jobs the Irish labourers would have performed (delivering coal to Parliament? Unloading boats on the Thames?), two women in their twenties came in from outside and stood next to me at the bar to order their drinks. Both were thin, and while neatly dressed, their clothes were considerably less expensive than those worn by the women their age at the Swan. The barman recognized them, and made no attempt as he greeted them to hide his fondness for the brown-haired woman. If she shared his feelings, she did not let on. She ordered a bottle of Beck’s for herself and a glass of white wine for a friend who would be joining them shortly. Her blonde-haired companion ordered a Corona with lime, hesitantly. When the barman told them the price, I learned why she hesitated. In a quiet voice equal parts embarrassment and sadness, she said she was a little short, aware that others, including me, the stranger, could hear. Her friend gave her the extra twenty pence needed, and they took themselves off to a booth in the corner to wait for their friend. I finished my pint, and retraced my steps to my hotel, happy shouts and laughs serenading me as I passed the White Swan.

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