"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.