London Life: Return of the Speakeasy (2)

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 2 of 3.

So, I have managed to gain entry into a clandesdine ‘speakeasy’ which is being held in a south London pub. A friend in the know acts as my guide.

I would like to say that it is a typical London brewery pub. Except that it isn’t. Indeed, it’s something of a rarity. A proper blast-from-the-past boozer. Heavily-scratched dark-wood bar lined with beer pumps, old tankards as ceiling décor and a stage in the corner for the Friday night singer. A ropey-carpeted floor, torn anaglypta wallpaper and spartan toilets. There’s also a fruit machine, a jukebox, tv, darts and pool. However, none of these seductions are in action on my visit. There aren’t even any lights on. Just a lamp behind the bar. The windows are boarded up, but only up to the three-quarter level, so there is enough summer evening light coming through the top for the punters to see.

There are no beers on tap either, only bottles. There are also some spirits. No food apart from bar snacks. I have a lager. It’s very chilled and costs £4. Not a bad price. Only cash is accepted.

The place is surprisingly busy. I would say about 40 in total. It must have taken them all afternoon to get in! But it’s a big pub, so there’s plenty of room. The session is held every Tuesday, and lasts from 2pm to about 8pm. Then, one by one, they disappear into the night. And yet my guide tells me nobody on the outside seems to have sussed out what’s going on. Or perhaps some have, and have simply ignored it.

Except for the guv’nor’s wife, there are no women. And no-one seems to be under the age of 30. Apart from the middle-aged maleness, there’s something else about this mob. They seem a strange kind of brew. Some stand in huddles, others sit at tables, yet all are in deep low-toned conversations. A speakeasy indeed.

So, what kind of individuals are attracted here? My guide says it is difficult to explain precisely, but he does his best, which I have summarised below.

Unofficially, they are the movers and shakers at a certain level within this town. They act as a kind of a social circle, but not revolving around anyone or anything in particular. They operate outside the normal spheres of life, inhabiting a different world. Here, the talk is mainly business or trade. Everybody’s wheeling. Everybody’s dealing. Think of the Cantina scene in Star Wars, but without the band. Get the picture?

Not a single one is known by their real name. Only nicknames are used. They don’t necessarily all get along with one another, but there is a definite sense of belonging. My guide suggests the three main criteria are:

1: Generally working-class backgrounds. These were the kids in school that did not go onto higher study or university but were clever enough to have done so. And by working class, he means they all work. Not perhaps the ‘monthly payslip’ sort, but certainly no-one on the dole. Taxpayers? Hmm. Just enough to keep them on the right side of the law. The spirit of ‘Del-Boy’ survives. Lots of ducking and diving, mostly to supplement other incomes. A few have no permanent residence, but they would never sleep on the street, or even rely on someone’s spare room. Some rent rooms above pubs, or hire caravans in pub car-parks. My guide signals towards one guy who apparently does this while owning and letting several residential properties! So, independence is key, which brings me onto…

2: Self-reliance. Most work for themselves or are self-employed in some capacity. In their parlance, ‘they answer to no-one’. If you happen to work in an office-type environment, you are nothing among these people. Just a ‘suit’, a word that makes you practically invisible. Irrelevant.

3: Finally, respect. Belonging to this mob is greatly down to self-respect, and respecting others (provided they’re also part of the mob, I guess). It’s not about being ‘hard’, or being a heavy-drinker. But you should be able to handle yourself, and the drink (and boy, can some of these guys put it away). No poncing: either stand your round or stay on your own. A stable temper, generally, with a sense of humour. No known troublemakers allowed in, as it upsets what my guide calls the ‘equilibrium’.

I am intrigued. It’s like the freemasons but without the silliness. My guide is happy to supply more detailed inside information about this ‘secret society’, which will all be revealed in the final installation.

Part 3 of ‘Return of the Speakeasy’ will be published tomorrow.

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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