Wednesday 1 July 2009

Last orders for the Scratters' Arms?

14st 12lb, zero units. I drove back to Chester feeling infinitely better for my time in Northumberland, which had been distinguished by unbroken sleep, abstinence and weight loss (which last two might, now I come to think of it, be in some way related). It turned out to be just as well that I was on a high, as I soon had to face some of the challenges presented by a city in the grip of a heatwave and a household troubled by a baby refusing to sleep with a stubbornness that he can only have inherited from his father.

There is a pub about two minutes’ walk from our house in Chester. Not at all a bad pub in theory, for a man of my tastes; it serves a very decent pint of real ale and keeps excellent pork scratchings, which I always consider the perfect accompaniment to beer. The only snag is that it is not exactly welcoming to those who are not already members of its little social circle. Eyebrows are raised if you sit down on one of the well-worn, padded benches, then someone comes across to have a “quiet word” that you are sitting in Emily’s place, and she always comes in around now. So you budge along, only to be told that that is where Emily’s dog always lies, a fact you should probably have worked out from the quantity of canine hair now adhering to your trousers. So you sigh and pointedly move several feet further away, only to be told that Emily’s dog always lies there, too. Apparently it is a very long dog.

So you then get up and sit cross-legged in the middle of the floor, defying someone to find a reason why that will not do; and they inevitably come and have a “quiet word” that that is precisely the spot where Old Ted has been parking his wheelchair every night for the last ten years. At which point you finally take the hint and f*** off.

It’s a shame, really. I love pubs, me. And it’s so convenient too. At our house in Northumberland, by contrast, the nearest pub is five miles away, rarely open when you might want it to be, and always full of all the people in the area you would rather not see when it is. It does a very decent pint, though, pork scratchings (albeit inferior to those in Chester) and perfectly good food. The only snag with eating and drinking there being that five mile journey home afterwards. I have always been too nervous to embrace the traditionally robust approach of the Northumberland country dweller to the drinking and driving laws. Perfectly illustrated for me by a now sadly deceased friend of my father called Basil Trail, who latterly lived in a small house in the fishing village of Craster, poetically named “Beggars’ Roost”, and was a regular at the Jolly Fisherman Inn. The distance between the two cannot have been more than 200 yards, yet Basil’s yellow 1970s Rolls Royce was a daily fixture in the pub car park. I once asked him why he did not enjoy the pleasant walk around the harbour instead, and he replied “Because I’ll be too pissed to walk back.”

Incidentally, the Rolls Royce bore the splendid number plate BT 1, which must have been worth many times the value of the car; and this mismatch must surely have increased still further in Basil’s final years, when the plate was transferred to a modest, grey (or perhaps silver) Rover Sterling.

While we are on the subject, for many years Basil used to take one of his ex-wives out to lunch on a Saturday, to the country pub nearest the cottage I called home in the mid-1980s, and which I regularly revisited for its exceptional food long after I had moved away. One day he arrived in a distinctly gloomy mood, because his doctor had told him to cut back on his alcohol intake, and suggested that he should be consuming no more than seven whiskies. After he had downed seven doubles with his lunch, Ray the landlord queried whether the doctor might conceivably have been referring to single measures, a notion which was quickly dismissed as being completely ludicrous. Ray then asked Basil how he intended to get through the evening, given that he had just demolished his entire ration. Basil blanched. “You don’t think he meant seven whiskies per day, do you? I assumed he meant per session.”

This was also the pub where a regular famously told a police officer in Alnwick, who queried whether he might have been every so slightly under the influence: “Divvent talk to me about drinking and driving, sonny. I’ve been drinking and driving since ye were in nappies!”

I would have given much to have heard that read out solemnly in court from a notebook when his case came up.

But I am thoroughly digressing from my story about the Chester pub, which we will call the Scratters’ Arms [not its real name]. Since the introduction of the brilliant smoking ban, most of its clientele (with the possible exception of Old Ted, Emily and her dog) have taken to congregating on the pavement outside, rather than in the lounge or bar. Particularly during periods of clement weather. It has never been a major issue for us, since we sleep at the back of the house. But now we have The Baby in a nursery at the front, with the window open because of the current heatwave. The Baby is having difficulty sleeping anyway because of the temperature; our marvellous new BT baby monitor went out of the window on the first night he was home because it kept giving us an all too audible warning that his room was too hot. Now, whenever Mrs H finally settles him down to sleep at night, one of the pub’s clientele produces a gale of laughter by telling the one about the gipsy and the donkey, or by letting off a particularly praiseworthy fart, and the noise wakes him up again. This goes on until well after midnight each evening.

As a result, Mrs H finally reached boiling point tonight and has resolved to compose a venomous letter to the council suggesting that the Scratters’ Arms must surely be in breach of the terms of its licence, and should be closed down forthwith. Strange to think that, if only they had been just a little more welcoming, I might have felt duty bound to say a word on two in their defence.

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