London Life: Return of the Speakeasy (3)

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 3 of 3.

Inside a clandesdine ‘speakeasy’ held in a south London pub, I am intrigued with the secret society I have encountered. My guide is happy to supply more inside information.

Like any society, there is a hierarchy. Here, it is built on respect for what one does. Eminent among them (as elsewhere) are those that have made their money. There are a couple of real millionaires in this mob. But few would be crass enough to ask where their money came from. They made it. That’s it. What is important, is that they aren’t flash with it. Wear a handsome watch? Nice. Drive a smart car? Cool. Buy the whole pub a drink? Get lost!

But it’s not necessarily about wealth. The scaffolders are high up, too, for example. Scaffolders can appear surly if you don’t know them, and sometimes operate as a mob within a mob. In normal times, they still get paid cash in this pub on a Saturday afternoon, after working the morning. Old school, yes, but with brutal old-school employment rules: don’t show up for work? Sacked! Bus late? Sacked! Dental appointment in the afternoon? Sacked!

Talking quietly into his beer, and with an almost imperceptible upward jerk of his head, my co-conspirator indicates some of the different characters in the room.

Fella in the white shirt? Chartered accountant. Did two years for fraud. His services have never been in so much demand. Bloke in the blue top? Runs an import-export operation. Remember the ‘flossie’ craze a few years back? Those pastel-coloured plimsolls that some women went mad for? He made a fortune out of that. Black guy in the flight jacket? Manages the local doormen. Him in the linen suit? Professional card player. Invited to the world’s top poker tournaments. Tall geezer at the bar? Used to earn over 50 grand a year as a part-time bingo-caller in the Costa Del Sol! Not sure what he’s up to now. Those two are roofers. He’s a sparky and he’s a chippy. That one with the ‘tache? Owns most of the stalls in the local street market. This is late session for him. He’s up at three every morning running around wholesalers. The one in the corner? Scrap metal. Enough said. Chap wearing glasses? Lawyer. He’ll get you out of any scrapes. Man in the green jumper? Rents out cabs. Makes a mint.” And so on, and so on. A small guy with a grey baker-boy hat darts past us into the toilets. “What about him”, I nod. “Hmm”, says my guide, “No-one really knows the score with that dude. But they call him Squirrel”.

I ask my guide about this mob’s relationship with the world outside. Again, I summarise his answer:

In terms of the Remain/Brexit divide (which is how the UK seems to define itself these days), this lot fall into neither camp. They join over 13 million (28%), of the electorate that ‘Did Not Vote’. And quite proudly too. The attitude seems to be either “more important things to worry about”, “what difference does it make?” Or “politics is for saps”. There doesn’t appear to be any particular anti-European feeling. So, make of it what you will.

On social media: discussions regarding Facebook, Twitter or Instagram are definitely out. That is a remote world. Here, it is strictly face-to-face dealings. Even if someone phones you on your mobile, you are expected to move away to take the call.  

Finally, as regards the class divide, there is an awareness, but not in the way you might expect. Upper classes are respected. Middle classes, the ‘twitterati’, or what have you, are generally ignored. The contempt is reserved for ‘those below’ who rely on handouts. And ‘those below’ is a multi-layered cake. It’s subtle, and you have to have an eye for it. But take this as an example: I am told that on a normal Sunday afternoon, many of the ‘speakeasy mob’ come in for their main weekly session. At about seven o’clock a karaoke system is set up. The karaoke session usually attracts people from a local estate, and is a signal for the ‘speakeasy mob’ to clear out. It’s not for them. Then, about nine o’clock, a group ‘even lower down the social scale’ (according to my guide), appear, collectively known as the ‘druggies’. They know that the estate crowd are inside, so it’s all about custom and supply. However, this is not: “‘Here you go, mate, genuine Lacoste shirt. Fell off the back of a lorry. A tenner.” This is “What will you give me for this pack of cheap bacon I just shoplifted?” Do you see the difference? And if you don’t, god help you if you ever fall on hard times.

All this social study gleaned from uncovering a secret place to get a drink!

The speakeasy 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 chosen to ignore it.

I quietly ask my friend how he thinks the speakeasy mob feel about lockdown responsibility, selflessness, putting pressure on the NHS, putting lives at risk, etc. He ponders for a moment, then replies in an almost philosophical manner: “The speakeasy acts as a kind of public service. This lot are used to operating in pubs as a way of life. Most would been stuck at home during lockdown for almost three months. They would have got cabin fever. They need a pressure outlet. Think of the wives and children.

I’m not totally convinced. ‘This lot’ will never apologise for their actions. The way they see it, their speakeasy is not even illegal, just a business solution: they have to keep the economy going. Their economy.

And if it’s going on here, it must be going on in other towns, too. What a thought!

I finish my fourth chilled beer and leave the way I came in.

I leave the virtue signalling to you.

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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