London Life: Return of the Speakeasy (1)

Soul City Wanderer is enticed to a unique lockdown experience, an illicit drink at a south London ‘speakeasy’, where he encounters a modern secret society. This is part 1 of 3.

A few weeks ago, in my lockdown boredom, I read Empire of Booze by Henry Jeffreys (Unbound Press, 2016). See review below. It’s a good book, but it is strictly about booze. It does not cover the indispensable ingredient that goes with it: company. And I’m not talking about a glass of wine with the missus here. If boozing is not about conviviality with your mates, what is it about? Granted, there are plenty who are quite happy with just a bottle for comfort, but apart from them, and Greta Garbo, who wants to be alone?

Despite other severe restrictions during the past few months under lockdown, boozing has not been made illegal in the UK. There are plenty of supermarkets to buy from, and off-licences have been marked by the government as an ‘essential’ service. However, under current regulations, enjoying booze with others in licensed premises is illegal.

So, it was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation from a friend to go along for a secret drinking session in what he termed was ‘a speakeasy’.

Those with even a basic grasp of modern history, should know what a speakeasy is. They were set up in prohibition-era America to counter the illegality of alcohol. For those in the know, a nod and a wink could gain you entry into a place where you would be able to join others secretly enjoying booze supplied by the bootlegging industry. Speakeasies gave rise to quasi-mythical criminals such as Bugsy Malone and Al Capone. In turn, these gangsters inspired a cultural genre, as books and films told their story.

Speakeasies also boosted the whisky industry in Scotland. It is claimed that crates of the stuff were hidden in torpedoes and ‘fired’ inland to be collected by the bootleggers. A number of brands still speak with some pride today that it was their blend that was sought after.

Winston Churchill was obsessed by the speakeasy. Or at least, by the idea of them. He visited America in the early 1930s. When he returned, he enjoyed being photographed in Capone-style garb complete with mobster machine gun. Naturally it wasn’t difficult for the Goebbels propaganda machine to later portray Churchill as ‘the gangster of Europe’.

The obvious difference between the speakeasies of thirties America and the one that I am visiting in south London, is that, as I have already stated, actual booze isn’t illegal in the UK today. The other difference is that the speakeasy I am visiting is not in some dingy cellar, or hidden behind a warehouse facade. No. This speakeasy is hidden in plain sight – in a real pub!

The pub is on a side street, just off this suburb’s main drag. But the entrance is not through the main door. It’s via the gate to the pub garden which is halfway up a back alleyway. From the outside, the pub-garden fence is high enough to mask any connection to the pub itself. On the other side of the alleyway is the high brick wall of a factory, one that has been closed since lockdown began.

I am informed that the entry rules are simple. First, one entrant at a time, with any accomplice at least two minutes behind. Secondly, if two people are approaching at the same time from different directions, the first one goes straight in, while the other one walks past and around the block (a two-minute walk). Thirdly, as you approach the alleyway entrance, you stop briefly outside (perhaps as if to do up your shoelaces), just to give you a time for a quick ‘shifty’. It’s all very furtive, but somehow fun.

Once in the alleyway, you put your hand through a gap in the gate to unhook the latch. The garden is a building site. Quite literally. There are breeze blocks scattered on pallets, bits of scaffolding and a skip, and all to give the deceptive appearance that ongoing work is being done to the building’s exterior, and maybe an excuse for the comings and goings.

Then, to the back door of the pub. There’s no secret knock, just a covered buzzer. A camera above reveals the person standing outside to the guv’nor via a close circuit tv. If they are not recognized, there’s no entry. Full stop.

My ‘guide’ is already inside the pub waiting for me to buzz so that he can vouch for me. I follow all the rules I have been given for entry. Once inside, I’m given a quick once-over by the guv’nor. I’m in.

Part 2 of ‘Return of the Speakeasy’ will be published tomorrow, with part 3 the following day.

Henry Jeffreys’ Empire of Booze is essentially the story of how the British Empire played such a huge role in the expansion and distribution of alcoholic drinks.

Most of the chapters are partly derived from articles written previously by the author for the Spectator and Guardian. The first nine chapters include the story of cider, port, sherry and rum. But my favourite chapter was about the now almost defunct Marsala wine industry in Sicily, a place close to the Soul City Wanderer’s heart. The final nine chapters of Empire of Booze covers champagne, beer, brandy, gin, whisk(e)y (Irish and Scotch), and wine, which is clearly the author’s passion.

The chapter on gin was my favourite. I knew about the drink’s dark, desperate history in the UK, but it’s a story worth retelling just for its shock value. It makes the current gin craze all the more surprising. Talking of which, I am reminded of my personal gin anecdote. About a couple of years ago, I went with a friend to try out a new bar which had opened locally. He ordered a Hendricks gin and asked the barmaid if she had any sliced cucumber to go with it. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘but we have some pickled gherkins.’

Empire of Booze also explains the techniques for creating the drinks, the fascinating history of their popularity, and their culture attachments. At the end of each chapter, recommended brands are helpfully listed and reviewed by the author. I have just one thing to say to him, ‘Cheers!’

Empire of Booze by Henry Jeffreys. Unbound. 2016.

The Londonist website have published a new book called “Drinks, a Spirited Guide to London Libations. Click here for more details.

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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