It was the old dog who noticed it first. About thirty years ago, Sunday-walking round Lambley I passed four pubs. As we approached each one the dog speeded up, waiting at the pub door, but I carried on. After a moment he would follow., looking confused. When I passed the fourth and last pub he shook his head sorrowfully. Something had changed. No drink for me, no crisps for him. No shared cheese and onion sandwich. I was no longer somebody who customarily went into pubs. Pubs after meetings and events, pubs for meetings, pubs for a quiet read, pubs for a social evening out – all gone or in decline. The dog was not happy.
In John Lucas’ excellent memoir of Beeston’s Royal Oak he describes the glory days and the decline and fall of his, and by extension the local. The Royal Oak would be packed at weekends, the Ladies’ Darts Team would travel to their away matches with a busload of supporters, on Saturdays people would dress up for a night out in their pub, sitting at the same tables with the same people. Suits and ties, dresses, the women maybe wearing a nosegay. The men would be on pints of “mix” – that Nottingham working-class favourite of half mild, half bitter – the women on gin. The Oak, however, was a pub where women felt comfortable going in on their own or in pairs, knowing that the landlord/landlady would not stand for any nonsense. Indeed, Lucas remarks that a openly gay couple of friends were just as welcome as others there (at a time when it was rare for that to happen). He doesn’t give their names, but it must have been Mick and Simon, Beeston stalwarts of the era.
This was a community pub – you could buy your week’s fruit and veg there from the local allotmenteers, and sometimes a pair of socks from someone doing the rounds of pubs with a suitcase. There were pub singers; the men who came round selling whelks; the moment when the trays of pork pie slices and sandwhiches would be passed round by the landlady. The Jug and Bottle room where locals would turn up with enamel jugs for a pint of two to take home for “t’maister”. The games of cards, the pub league football team. Lucas’ description of one particular match will live long in the memory. 6-2 to the Royal Oak, the two goals against being scored by the Oak players too, one being a backpass to the goalkeeper who was temporarily otherwise engaged off the field sharing a joint with his girlfriend. This was a pub where you might expect to find someone to do a couple of hours cash in hand labour. A Shippos pub selling “honest piss” – check the anagram. Most pubs in Beeston were Shipstones, one of several Notts brewers – the main rival being Home Ales, the scorned Mansfield, and there was Kimberley Brewery whose spectacularly beautiful building out there is under the sledgehammer now.
And yet, side by side with this idyllic picture were the solitary men, drinking night after night on their own before walking home to God-knows-what. Lucas describes several of them, warmly, sympatheic to their quiet desperation. Sheffield Tommy, an ex-soldier, who would put by six or seven pints. Big Bob, a wiseacre. Or Ian, not so solitary, the genuine pub intellectual, another where drink got to him in the end. Reading some of these passages I recalled Dave Bishop’s Nottingham short story which goes, in its entirety “Shippos, mild; Home, bitter.”
The Royal Oak faded. The big lace factories in Beeston closed, as did Beeston Boilers. The workers who would come down after their shift were dispersed, redundant. Lucas blames Thatcher, rightly, for the the damage done. He also goes through the changes in local shopping; you could see Beeston turning into Anytown with the resulting decline in community. At the same time money was a problem. John – enough of the Lucas, he is a good friend – mentions moving to Beeston in the early 60s where he bought a three floor semi on twice his junior lecturer salary, just round the corner from the Royal Oak. Such a house might as well be on Millionaire’s Row now for many people, including lecturers – junior or otherwise. How, now, do you buy a round let alone spend the whole evening in a pub without mortgaging your future?
The brewers too, can be blamed. Landlords were squeezed, bled dry while locals became sports bars, “vertical drinking establishments” over one floor with no nooks and crannies to tuck yourself away from the loud music.
Writing this reminded me of a particular local in Forest Fields, the Carlton, in which one particular bar was the watering hole of the Nottingham left. The anarchists, Trotskyists and mainstream Labour, if I remember right, all sat at different tables but always had a -more-or-less friendly smile for the others. I’ll raise a glass to that memory and, maybe, after pubs open, nip over to the Gladstone in Carrington or to a micro-pub, just to see. Just to see.
Closing Time at the Royal Oak is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/closing-time-at-the-royal-oak/