"The world has gone f***king mad!"
This is one of Tony's favourite expressions, and as our favourite pub becomes less recognisable as every day passes, I can't help but think that my fat friend may well be right.
When we first arrived in London four years ago, our priorities were finding somewhere to live, getting a job and finding a decent pub, where after a hard day's work we could reward ourselves with a well-deserved drink, share some light-hearted banter with the pub's other regular customers and enjoy some time in what is a favourite retreat for millions of men like us.
There are literally hundreds of pubs in the south-east of London, and as can only be expected, some of those pubs are less desirable than others. Fatal stabbings, violent outbursts and frequent police raids don't do much to create a warm and friendly drinking environment, and if Tony may seem like a football hooligan, with his bald head, fat stomach and constant use of expletives, even he steers clear of such establishments, saying that he didn't come to London looking for trouble. What he wants, like me, is a quiet, backstreet pub, where the beer is good, the conversation is interesting and the risk of being stabbed is zero.
Fortunately, we didn't have to look too far to find a pub where we felt safe to drink, without the need to be constantly looking over our shoulders, hoping that we'd see it through the evening without getting murdered. In fact, the pub is just at the bottom of our road, which means that our second home is only a few minutes away, and that we don't have to rely on public transport to get us there.
We've been going to the same pub since we arrived in London, and although it's hardly going to make it into The Good Pub Guide, it may well be a contender for The Nearly Good Pub Guide. Still, as Tony says, all we're interested in is decent beer, and somewhere warm to go in winter, because it's cheaper to spend a few hours in the pub, drinking, than it is to heat our damp flat with our highly inefficient electric heater, which consumes enough electricity to probably light a whole town, yet generates very little heat. Of course, being so fat, people often tell Tony that the layers of blubber that cover his upper torso provide him with ample protection against the cold winters, but whilst his obesity may be a barrier against the cold weather, it isn't a perfect defence.
Sid, the landlord of our favourite pub, has been running pubs for the last thirty years, and whilst he manages to earn a steady income from doing what he does best, he says that a landlord's life is not as good as it used to be, and that running a pub has lost all of its appeal, as the country moves steadily along in the twenty-first century. Tony and me just laugh whenever Sid starts to reminisce about the good old days, because as Sid was born and raised in south-east London, and has spent all of his adult life here, Tony and me often ask if south-east London has ever had any good old days. After all, having spent the last four years of our lives here, we both think that with very little employment in the area, kids running wild in the streets and dog shit lining the pavements, in our own time here, we've hardly seen anything that makes us think that south-east London is THE place to be. And if our four years here have given us an insight into how depressing life can be, you've only got to surf the web to see just what this part of the world was like in the eighties and nineties. It was, as it is now, utter crap.
But if Sid is happy to think about how great life was before, and bore his customers with uninteresting anecdotes about his life behind bars (the pub variety), most of the people who go into his pub do so to enjoy a quiet drink, and not take a trip down Memory Lane. We, like a lot of people, use the pub as a shelter against the pressures of modern life, because within its four walls we are relaxed, as we drink our beer, and eat our peanuts, in a stress-free environment. All we want is a place to go for some peace and quiet, and not to be surrounded by annoying office workers, spotty youths talking utter drivel and worst of all, foreign tourists who can't speak a word of English, but who insist on bothering us with their stupid questions and peculiar habits. That's not the sort of pub we want to be drinking in, and whilst Sid may be a nostalgia freak, he has always managed to run a pub that meets our requirements, by concentrating on doing what he does best – selling reasonably good beer, and making sure that his customers get to drink their beer in peace and quiet.
Well, that's how it used to be – but not anymore. The big-screen television was one of his better ideas, meaning that football freaks like Tony and me can watch our favourite sport on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon, whilst sitting at the bar, getting merrily drunk. Showing live football matches now means that weekends during the football season must be spent in the pub, with all of the other regulars who have appeared on the scene, since Sid decided that whilst quiet conversation may be what some of his customers want, live football is so much better. And with the pub bursting at the seams on Saturdays and Sundays, Sid has noticed a huge growth in takings, which in turn has managed to bring a smile to his otherwise cheerless face.
Tony thinks that watching football and drinking beer were made for one another, and even if he has come close to laying into a couple of customers, because they didn't share his point of view about why his team (Arsenal) are in a class of their own, most match-days are friendly affairs, with very few punches being exchanged and very few beatings being given. There was once a stabbing incident, but that had nothing to do with the outcome of a match, but instead a jealous husband who had finally caught up with his wife's lover. However, after the police had made one of their very rare visits to the pub, the culprit was taken away, whilst the victim was attended to by a paramedic, who happened to be watching a match at the time. Of course, football isn't played all year long, so when the season comes to an end in May, the television shows other sports such as cycling, cricket and golf, although there are fewer people in the pub at weekends, than there would be during the football season, because watching cyclists going around a track very fast isn't as enthralling as watching your favourite team giving the team you hate the most a good thrashing. But overall, Sid's television has been a real boost for the pub, and although we seem to spend more time there than before, it doesn't really matter, because apart from drinking, we don't have much else to do in life. Sadly, after the big-screen television made an appearance, Sid's next idea to reel the customers in wasn't so great, and has left Tony and me wondering if Friday nights will ever be the same again.
Sid reckons that love is what makes the world goes round, and thanks to his foresight and vision (they're his own words), romance is alive and kicking in south-east London, because Friday night is "romance night," where single men can meet single women, and what's more, those single men and single women can enjoy half-priced drinks all evening, in a warm and friendly atmosphere (they're also Sid's own words).
Personally, the idea of using pubs to bring men and women together has never really appealed to me, although the sight of seeing grown men trying to snare their prey with cheap alcohol can be more amusing than some of the crap that appears on television. However, Tony is all for using the pub as a mating ground, and he has been known, whenever he's desperate for sex – with no strings attached – to woo some of the dogs, of the two-legged variety, who have now started to regularly appear on a Friday night.
Tony's latest catch was Debbie, twenty-seven, from just a few streets away, who is the mother of four children, all of whom have different fathers. Debbie, like Tony and me, and indeed like most of the pub's customers, is long-term unemployed, and has very little going for her in life. She is so ugly that if you passed her in the street you would carry on walking past her, thinking to yourself that it would be difficult to come across a woman even uglier than her. But for Tony, and hundreds of other men before him, Debbie is there to fill a void on a Friday night, when there's nothing much of interest on the television and you just want some rough sex, with no questions asked.
Luke Ryman is the author of "The Londoners" trilogy and other ebooks.
|Swindon: It's hell on earth.|
It's three weeks since you entered the phone-in competition on your local radio station, and although you desperately wanted to win the first prize - a brand new Ford Mondeo with all of the options - the polite girl from the publicity office tells you that you've missed out on the car of your dreams, but have instead won second prize.
You excitedly jump up and down, slightly downhearted, but happy in the knowledge that this is the first time in your life when you have actually won something.
And what is the second prize?
A ROMANTIC WEEKEND FOR TWO PEOPLE IN SWINDON.
You ask the girl if she said SWEDEN, but no - she definitely said SWINDON.
You slam down the receiver and want to cry. And you have every reason to feel like this, because forty-eight hours spent in Swindon, you know, will probably be the death of you.
Some places in England are bad, but here it is REALLY bad.
Dangerous council estates, dodgy nightclubs, ugly girls, foul-mouthed boys, violent pubs and a crap football team is Swindon in a nutshell. And then there's the Magic Roundabout - see above photo - with it's numerous mini roundabouts all joined together to form one huge roundabout. Negotiating this requires nerves of steel, and death by flogging would be too good for the evil-minded bastard who invented it.
This, you say to yourself, is the last time you enter a competition.
"I think you should have gone south," says your other half, as she realises that she's told you to go the wrong way on the motorway. You smile and laugh, telling her that you'll do a u-turn a little further up the road, and you'll be back on the road to Brighton in no time.
It sounds an easy solution to a minor problem, but sadly, and as you soon discover, the buffoons who dreamt up this particular stretch of motorway made sure that the earliest opportunity to do a u-turn is a hundred miles further up the motorway.
You feel ill as you are forced to head further away from Brighton, because after making another series of wrong turns, in the vain hope of getting on the right road, you find yourself heading towards Bradford.
Your wife laughs, and as she chews on a toffee, she jokingly says that she's never been to Bradford before.
You look at the love of your life and want to kill her, because you know that Bradford has all the charms of a mining town in deepest Siberia.
|Sealink: Sadly missed on the Dover to Calais route|
One of the finest pleasures in life must come from living by the sea, as opposed to living in a landlocked city, miles inland and far away from even a simple stream or brook. What joy it is to stroll along a seafront, breathing in the wonderful salty air, and taking in the aroma of fish and chips. And then, if this isn't enough to get one's juices boiling, how about a day trip to France?
The Channel port of Dover is only a few miles from where I was born and raised, so therefore the opportunity to get away from it all - if only for a few hours, and by going nowhere further than Calais -was always available to me. So whenever the urge took me by the throat, out came my passport, into the car I got and off to Dover I set, dreaming of another Saturday to be spent bobbing up and down in a floating rust bucket, whilst learning my French and drinking my lager.
And this was a time when day trips to France were fun, and enjoyed by millions of people every year. For this was a time when smoking was permitted inside of the ferry, duty free was just THAT, and a decent English breakfast could be had, whilst being tossed about on the open sea, for just a few pounds.
Arrive at Dover at eight o'clock in the morning. Board the ferry at nine o'clock and wave goodbye to England at half-past nine. Get to the bar, and see before you hundreds of fat Northerners guzzling lager whilst talking loudly. It was impossible to get to the bar, because waiting to be served were fifteen coach-loads of tattooed men from Leeds, desperate to get as much English beer down their throats, before being forced to drink the foreign crap which they feared so much, and which would be waiting for them on the other side of the Channel. So, thirsty, and with not even the chance to get a cup of coffee, a trip to the duty free shop was the only way to kill the time.
But shit! Here we go again, because another fifteen coach-loads of Northerners are busy buying all of the cigarettes and every can of Fosters lager. The sweat is rolling down my cheeks and I start to feel very ill. I've been bobbing up and down for at least an hour, and I haven't had anything to drink. And the English breakfast I promised myself? Well - you guessed it. The self service cafeteria is bursting at the seems with Northern beasts in search of bacon, sausage and eggs.
I go back to the bar and find a quiet corner to rest my weary body. I look out of the huge window, and smile as I see the French coastline coming into view. I plan to find a restaurant, in some quiet corner of Calais, and enjoy a fine French lunch and a decent glass of wine, away from the forty-five coach loads of Northerners I've sailed across the Channel with.
When I get to Calais it's raining hard, and what is already an extremely depressing town takes on an even darker image. I think about the time when I once spent a Friday night in Herne Bay, and as I try and find a quiet bistro, I wish that I was somewhere else - except Herne Bay.
Quiet bistros are thin on the ground in Calais, and as my tummy rumbles and the effects of lager deprivation start to kick in, I walk into a grotty restaurant, in the middle of town. I just want something to eat, but more importantly, I need something to drink.
I look at the tatty menu and choose something quintessentially French - a four seasons pizza with extra pineapple topping. I tell the garcon that I'm more thirsty than hungry, and that I would like a large beer straight away, and half a bottle of red wine with my meal. The spotty bugger notes my order and leaves me, returning a few seconds later with a foaming glass of French beer. I light a cigarette and all is well in the world.
Outside, in the heavy rain, a coach pulls up beside the restaurant, and as I drain the last of my beer, and light another cigarette, I'm disappointed to see a coach-load of tourists making a beeline for the restaurant. I look at the side of the coach and sigh. J. M. ARKWRIGHT CONTINENTAL COACH TRAVEL. LEEDS. SOUTH YORKS.
And then THEY come tumbling into the restaurant, in search of anything served with chips and pints and pints of beer. They can't help but shout when they talk, and their bastard children complain that they don't understand the menu. I finish my pizza, pay my bill and run as fast as I can, away from the day-trippers from hell.
Back on the ferry I manage to get served by a very irate barman, who seems to have had his fill of our Northern friends. I enjoy my pint of lager, and as I smoke my cigarette, I remind myself that in a little under two hours I will be back at home, in front of the television, where I will enjoy the wine and cheese I bought at the hypermarket. I then decide that I want a second pint of lager, and as I look around me, at the forty-five coach-loads of day-trippers from hell, I hope that whilst I will be enjoying my supper, those bastards will be stuck in a sixty-mile tailback, on the M25, and that they won't be home until midnight.
Luke Ryman is an author of books about nasty men and harmless people. The last time he sailed across the Channel he was sad to see how times have changed. Gone are the Northerners, gone are the cheap cigarettes and gone is the pleasure of it all.
|Deal Seafront: Very nice, but what lies behind all of this?|
Nice isn't a word I often like to use, but Deal seafront on a summer's day, or even in the midst of a harsh winter, is just that - nice. And I should know, for having spent all of my childhood and early adult years in this seaside town, I feel that I am qualified to highlight the town's good and bad points.
The seafront IS what makes Deal worth a visit, with its ageing pier, its stony beach and its charming facade. Then there are the various seafront pubs offering local ale and fine lagers, all to be enjoyed on a Saturday night whilst listening to live music and the cries of agony, as two drunken, teenage girls decide to fight to the death for the boy of their dreams, as the boy in question laughs about it all, and gets merrily drunk on strong lager.
But move behind the seafront and you'll find another side of Deal. And it's here, in the High Street, where you'll be reaching for the Prozac, because things aren't like they once were.
This is a High Street which desperately needs a kiss of life, before it's too late. This is a High Street which is grey and cold, when before it was worth a visit on a Saturday afternoon, with mother, when father would be back at home, glued to the racing from Kempton Park. This is a High Street which had toy shops, record shops, greengrocers, ironmongers and Woolworths. But now, what have we got?
Well, Woolworths is dead. It has gone to the Maker of all shops in the sky, who doesn't care about history or tradition, because the Maker will pull the plug on any of his babies, if he feels that the time is right. But Woolworths IS missed, because it was only at Woolworths one could find the latest Dire Straits album, pic-n-mix sweets, Lego, a new frying pan and a watering can. And what have we got now instead of our departed friend? We have a shop which sells everything for a pound. Books which no-one wants to read, scented bits of cardboard to make your car smell of Norwegian pine forests, candles which sing Happy Birthday and plastic boxes in which to store your cornflakes.
Further along the High Street there is a charity shop, selling second-hand clothes and china plates. Then, next door, there is another charity shop and another and another. Then, there is one of what seems like seventy-five estate agents and a shop selling wooden furniture.
And if you're hungry, you're in luck, because nestled between these wonderful shops you'll find someone selling French-style bread and pastries. Yes - you're rolling your eyes up to the sky, because we all know that it's only the bloody French who can do bread and pastries.
The good High Street pubs have all gone - as have the book shops, the toy shops and the record shops. But all is not lost, because there is a Costa-lot coffee shop selling expensive coffee and disgusting muffins.
Mercifully, the Maker of all shops in the sky hasn't completely pulled the plug on the High Street, as Marks and Spencer is still there. But even here, a name which once promised quality is playing with fire. My last visit to its store in Deal left me feeling sad and irritated, for it now resembles a junk shop selling poor-quality goods at inflated prices.
I wish Deal well for the future, and hope that it can resist the power of the out-of-town shopping centres and the allure of Internet shopping. It is true that things aren't like they once were, but it would be a shame if this town died, because it is a town with history, and it is a town with potential.
Luke Ryman is an author of ebooks. Seaside towns, just like Deal, appear in "The Londoners" trilogy and "Dave Cooper Is Unemployed."
|British Rail: Sorely missed, even if it was a bloody joke.|
Call me a sentimental fool, who doesn't know a good thing when he sees it, but travelling by train today seems to have lost a certain element of glamour and charm.
Okay, so the modern trains of today are fast, sleek and comfortable, and far removed from their predecessors in the 1980's, when back then, in the halcyon days of British Rail, travelling by train was about as enjoyable as suffering an attack of diarrhoea, whilst being sat in a dentist's chair.
Sleek and comfortable may be good, but it's hardly the sort of thing that journeys are made of, is it?
No, what I'm talking about is something completely different.
Back then, if you were lucky enough to get a seat on the Dover Priory to Charing Cross service, you could be fairly certain that some evil bastard would have left a saliva-coated lump of chewing gum on the worn and tatty seat covering, and that the headrest would have been covered in a fine coating of grease, with the occasional hair protruding from it. Then there were the empty beer cans rolling merrily around on the floor, and the liberal sprinkling of newspapers - abandoned gaily on the floor and seats. The windows were covered in grime and graffiti, and the toilet...well - let's not go THERE!
Then, for the arduous journey from Dover to London, what better way to blow one's life-savings than by buying a warm sandwich and a can of even warmer beer from the refreshment trolley. If you wanted two cans of beer and two warm sandwiches, a mortgage would have been necessary to pay for your meal. Then came the ticket inspector - with his green teeth and dandruff - clicking away merrily at the expensive tickets, whilst moaning about life in general.
In summer, the heating was always on at full blast, and in winter the temperature inside the carriage was just above freezing. Then there was the jerking movement of the train, its inability to go very fast for very long, and the constant problem with the brakes. Occasionally, trains would remain static for long periods of time, as British Rail's antiquated signalling system tried desperately to manage numerous trains on the same line, at the same time.
And what about Dover Priory station? Well, it wasn't hell on earth, but having spent many a winter's evening in one of its unheated waiting rooms, hoping that my train would make an appearance, the bowels of Siberia were probably hotter and more inviting.
Just how many times have I paced the length of the depressingly grey platforms, praying to the Creator of all to send down the line one of British Rail's finest trains - see the above photograph, and marvel at the number 50 service coming into none other than Dover Priory - to deliver me from what must have been one of the worst stations in the south-east of England.
In a time before Costa-lot Coffee and Mister McMuffin invaded us with their crap coffee and even worse blackberry muffins, the station café was there to provide weary passengers with tea - at a temperature guaranteed to burn away the interior of one's mouth - and stale apple pie. Then there were the warm sandwiches, the overpriced cans of lager and the other unappetising refreshments, in a time before toasted sandwiches and baguettes with a choice of fillings arrived on the scene.
In summer the stationed was adorned with colourful hanging baskets, which drunken yobbos took great delight in punching, whilst waiting for the last train to London to arrive. The platform hooligans could always be relied upon to make a show just before the arrival of the final train of the day, having filled their bellies with beer in the pub opposite the station. Then, once aboard the train, those same yobbos would merrily empty their bladders over the floor, whilst screaming obscenities at anyone who even dared to give them a dirty look.
Yes, train travel back then was a pleasure, and a pleasure which has been sadly removed by today's train operators. Getting from Dover to London WAS fun, if you didn't mind the stinking carriages, the chewing gum and the miserable ticket inspectors. And who needed fast trains to spoil the ride? After all, what else can beat rolling past the junkyards of south-east London at almost walking pace?
Luke Ryman in the author of "The Londoners" trilogy, in which Cooper and Joy like nothing better than to travel by train.
|Goodbye England - We'll Be Back.|
Clare admired the barman as he served her drinks. He was tall, muscular and seemed to be free of dandruff and bad skin. She watched his hands as he poured her glass of wine. He was probably kind to his girlfriend, and as she thanked the barman for the drinks, Clare wondered what the hell she was doing with a mean bastard like Deano. It wasn’t even for the sex, she thought, as she carefully made her way back to their table, because their last sexual experience had been some time ago. And for all his promises of gifts and good times, all she had ever received from Deano was some tacky lingerie and the latest Adele CD. Perhaps, she thought, she should try Sarah’s approach, and swap her body for the handbag which had taken her fancy.
Welcome To France!
Extract taken from "But Bloody France!" - Part 1 of an amusing series of ebooks about a holiday from hell in Normandy.