Unaccompanied drinking – tales from old Brixton

We had a deal, my father and me. And the deal was that we wouldn’t drink in each others’ pubs unless invited. As it happened I doubt if he would have drunk in any of my pubs, even if had asked him to either of my locals, the Pied Bull in Streatham or the pub known as the Pig and Whistle on Belmont Road, Clapham. But it did mean that I didn’t go the Duke of Edinburgh in Ferndale Road in Brixton, even when I lived about half a mile away.

He first took me to the Duke sometime in the fag end of the fifties. It was, and is, a handsome redbrick 1930s pub set by the railway line which runs high above the garden. Then I walked under the bar to get to the back (out of hours of course) to see the animals that the landlord my ‘uncle’ Vic Bailey kept there. In one corner was a dovecote full of fantail pigeons which were his joy. I was fascinated by them.

One morning Vic was out in Brixton market when he came across a goat. It was tethered to a stall manned by a black guy. In the late 50s the new immigrant community was settling into SW2 and setting down their roots in Somerleighton and Atlantic Road, the area which 40 years on would come to be known as the front line. Vic was astonished to see the goat and the stall holder, encouraged by his interests pointed out what a good stew the animal would make. Vic did not hesitate. He bought the creature and led it back to the pub. It was a rather malevolent animal with a lank grey coat and although I cannot be certain, I think it had dark glittery eyes. Vic called it Nanny and he fenced off a part of the garden for it.

A couple of weeks later he came across a little white goat, also in the market and it joined Nanny at the Duke. With customary imagination, Vic called it Billy. Once when I was about a small child about 3 feet tall, I leant against the wire of the goat run and suddenly was hit by something firm and dense which knocked me over. The evil Nanny had butted me – a small child for heaven’s sake, probably dressed in knee socks and a little kilt with my hair held back by a slide. Frankly Vic should have let them curry the beast I thought then and now.

The pub had several bars. My father and his cronies would hang about in the private bar between the public bar and a large room which I think was called the saloon. Vic would join them. Many of the cronies were fellow golfers, members of the Vaudeville Golfing Society which was for stage and theatre folk and of which my father was the Honorary Medical Officer. Max Seymour who’d been the manager at the Crazy Horse in Paris and then ran a night club in Balham and Leslie Saroney, once hugely famous as one of the Two Leslies were his particular chums. And from time to time there’d be live music in the saloon. My father played the clarinet and saxophone and I went once or twice to sit in the room clouded with cigarette smoke and alive with music and talk. The wonderful, legendry George Melly sometimes played there too – he mentions it as a “transpontine” destination in his book “Owning Up”.

In the early 70s, when I was a student nurse and living in Brixton my father would take me out and ask where I wanted to go. And I would always say to the Duke which pleased him. His friends would tell me jokes and Vic would wax slightly sentimental and keep serving me dry martini vermouth which I drank at the time thinking it was rather cool. And we would spend the whole afternoon like this.

In 1974 I was made senior staff nurse on a ward at Kings College Hospital – frontline hospital where my father trained. My ward was next to Todd Ward where I had been born but which had become a specialist unit in the interim. And where I last saw Vic who was suffering from the disease that killed him a week afterwards. He was weak and jaundiced but he made a sterling effort to show that he was glad to see me. I was glad to see him.

And now my friend Daphna is going to be doing a standup there under her stage name of Miss D. If I can get there, I will but I’m acutely aware that if I do, it will be the first time I will have been there without my father. I’m sorry I won’t be able to introduce them.

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