“You’re A Very Rude Man”. It’s a peculiarly English thing to say, in several ways. Firstly, people use it as a last gasp insult in an argument but it’s not abusive or threatening; it’s almost from a bygone age, when four letter words were only heard in the docks or the public bar. Secondly, it shows the enormous importance that the English, for whom sorry seems to be the easiest word, put on politeness. Thirdly, it reeks of the class system “I am telling you/complaining about/dictating/demanding something and instead of grovelling, you are daring to answer me back”.
It’s true that dealing with the general public on a daily basis does bring out the Basil Fawlty in us all. On 10th February 1355, John Barford, the aptly named landlord of the Swindlestock Tavern (now Santander Bank of course) in Oxford, forded the bar and used “stubborn and saucie language” to a group of students who had complained about the quality of his beer. One of the students threw a tankard at his head (little changes) and in the resultant riot ,93 people died (30 town, 63 gown for those of you who like to keep score). Even then, the king ruled that it was all the landlords fault.
Landlords are very used to being told they are very rude men. It doesn’t matter what people have done (vomiting on the furniture, calling you a c***), if you refuse to serve someone, someone sober in their party will tell you that you are a very rude man. I’ve only been called it a handful of times and I’ve got to admit that on at least three occasions it was justified:
“We’ve been waiting twenty minutes to get served”
“Well, we’re not exactly sitting on our arses, are we?”
Hands up, that was a bit rude but it was a sunny, short-staffed Bank Holiday and the garden was heaving with BHBs (Bank Holiday Bastards, a rare species fortunately only seen on religious holidays and rare sunny summer Mondays).
“We’ve been waiting forty minutes for our food. When’s it coming?”
“Well, I can send it out now if you want to eat it raw”.
One of the bar staff visibly winced at that one.
“I was first. You should have served me before him”.
“Well nobody fucking died, did they?”
Although I’m pretty on it behind a bar, no-one has ever invited me to train their staff (for some misguided reason).
I was however, a placid, enlightened figure compared to my predecessors in the pub, for whom “Fuck off” was a regular greeting, especially to strangers, not to mention strangers with children. Back in the 60s and 70s, a landlord often built his reputation on how rude he was. Refusing to allow you to add lemonade to his beer or demanding that you pay for a pint that tasted like Sarson’s Malt Vinegar made him a ‘character’. People would travel miles to be insulted by a ‘character’ (who often had a handlebar moustache and a nose like a road map) and sat at the end of the bar with a Skol ashtray in front of him, performing no visible work. When the celling once fell on me in a urinal and I emerged covered in dust, the landlord refuted my complaint by saying that it was probably my fault as I “must have been shouting or messing about”. There was a lot to be said for it compared to the bland, pimply uniformed youth that staff many chain pubs today.
Walkers are a particular target of landlords. Yes, most of us welcome the winter mid-week lunchtime trade of 30 social misfits with Tesco bags on their boots but why do you have to be so tight? Just one of you buying another a drink would speed the process, instead of counting out your pennies one drink at a time. And it’s only going to be lime and soda for Christ’s sake. One bowl of soup and two spoons? You have to be kidding me. And that’s just the ones who buy something. As one landlord once wrote after an extraordinarily stressful lunchtime, “The only Walkers I will serve in future are the cheese and onion variety”. The landlord of the William IV in Little London (also called Albury Heath) had a classic way of dealing with those who ate their sandwiches at his outside tables without asking:
- Where do you come from then?
- Oh yeah, Kingston, I know Kingston. What road?
- Clifton Terrace
- Oh yeah, blimey yeah, Clifton Terrace. Stone me. What number?
- No 32. Do you know it?
- No but next time I’m in Kingston, I’ll come and eat my lunch in your fucking garden.
Incidentally, why are so many places called Little London when they resemble bits of heath and why do most of them have other names? The answer is that they were First World War troop camps and went from being rural backwaters to being like a “little London”, full of people and traffic. I digress (not unusual).
Testicle Ted (his nickname allegedly came from his habit of bending down to stoke the fire wearing baggy shorts and no underpants) arrived at the Welldigger’s Arms near Petworth in Sussex in 1948, when his father was demobbed from the RAF. He stayed there until he left in a box, in the early 2000s. “What else would I do?” he once asked me rhetorically, “You don’t go from doing this to sitting in a room”, a point I very much understood. Ted’s rudeness was more mischief than anything else – a regular habit was to pull up a chair at your table, sit down with a T-bone and ask. “Mind if I join you?” Nobody ever did because he had fifty-plus years of pub anecdotes. You just had to understand that he would always put his steak on your bill.
My favourite Ted story involves two models and a photographer who turned up to a packed house for lunch and asked for a table. Ted had an eye for the ladies and said although he was full, he could find a table in exchange for a quick boob-flash. The models, being models, swiftly obliged and Ted disappeared to return with a small round table which he placed in a corner. “Have you got some chairs?” the photographer asked. “Chairs?” replied Ted, “You didn’t say anything about chairs.”
I have spoken about Norman Balon (that’s him above) before. Norman is a sort of guru of rude publicans, anointing himself “London’s rudest landlord”. Norman’s father took the lease of the Coach & Horses in Soho in 1943 when Norman was 16 and he immediately left school to help out. The cellar was a makeshift bomb shelter – it shows a degree of optimism to sign a pub lease in wartime London. At one point he worked from 8am to midnight every day and went seven years without a holiday. He always opened 365 days a year. No wonder he was grumpy. After his divorce, he spent days scratching his wife’s name off the pub’s printed matches. He finally retired, aged 79, after telling hundreds of bemused American tourists asking about sandwiches to “get out and never come back”. The cartoonist Michael Heath, a Coach regular says that he doesn’t remember Norman being rude but adds a caveat, “in fact, I don’t remember anything from those years”. Norman’s leaving party included no free drinks and all three ales were off. When the customers paused their consumption to sing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow”, Norman sat unmoved and at the end said, “Just spend some more fucking money”. Here are a few of Normans’ oft-repeated lines:
“Here’s your money. Now fuck off.”
“The beer is meant to be cloudy. I suggest you go elsewhere”.
“You’re barred. You’re too boring to be in my pub”.
“Spoof is not a game of skill eligible to be played in a pub and if you don’t like it, you can piss off”.
“I don’t care whether you’re a man or a woman, you can get out”.
“You’re so ugly you’re upsetting the other customers”.
“I am not obliged to give a reason. I don’t want you in my pub”.
“Out! Out! Out! You’re barred. And don’t ever come back”.
“You stupid cow, you can’t even speak English” (this was reserved for the long-suffering and loyal barmaids, all of whom turned up for his leaving do. One made a speech that ended “…and I never want to see you again.” So this English idea of convivial rudeness seems to have rubbed off).
They flocked in. Except the American tourists. An American regular we had would often sit open-mouthed as the regulars and I tore another regular apart for his choice of tie or favourite band. After he left, she would announce, “Jeez, this is a brutal place”. She never quite got that that was the reason some people came in. Perhaps it’s peculiarly English to really like being with A Very Rude Man.