It’s pub o’clock! London boozers back in action

IN LINE with this column’s esprit communautaire, I sacrificed a lie-in to make an early start at the local pub and bring you news of today’s grand reopening of the London boozers.

If it hadn’t been for Prince Phil’s demise, it’s an event that would have been leading all the bulletins. Pubs are the essence of England, or so we’ve been told in a stream of commentaries from the Phil Spaces of the weekend press.

That raises the question why so many of them had shut down even before Covid struck. Almost 2,500 London pubs closed permanently between 2000 and 2016 and since then the trend has continued.

The Horseshoe, a regular hideaway near London Bridge, is one of the survivors. I’d been visualising a quiet pre-lunch pint in its usually empty back terrace.

Be careful what you wish for!

Who should already be esconced and holding court at a nearby table but right-wing radio shock-jockette harridan Julia Hartley-Brewer? I nearly choked on my Breakspear’s.

For those of you unfamiliar with la Brewer, she’s a professional anti-wokist who latches on to whatever is the reactionary talking point of the moment to stir up her daytime listeners.

That’s all well and good. But what’s she doing in MY pub?

It gets worse. Also in her adoring circle were fellow presenter Mike Graham, self-proclaimed “King of the UnWoke”, and fellow radio hack Kevin O’Sullivan, a Fulham fan!

Mercifully, I missed Toby Young, alt-right twat and General-Secretary of the so-called Free Speech Union. Apparently, Julia had been interviewing him on the upstairs terrace but he must have slithered out early to avoid his round.

Tobes and Jules are both lockdown skeptics, having harangued the rest of us throughout the lockdown as snivelling sheep in thrall to limp-wristed politicians and so-called experts.

Toby had used the Talk Radio slot to “encourage as many people as possible to get out there, go to the pub, go to restaurants, but it’s ridiculous that we still have to sit outside.” Why aren’t these people running the country? Or maybe they are.

A bit of classic Julia came just before Christmas, when she urged listeners to break the seasonal coronavirus rules after blaming Muslims who did the same at Eid for fuelling the pandemic.

As you can no doubt tell, they and their gang almost ruined my first pub pint of 2021. The yard was busier than usual. I’d overlooked the obvious – that D-Day was always likely to attract a lot of part-timers.

Things should have calmed down by the end of the week when the novelty will have worn off. Then I’ll have more tranquillity in which to reflect on the long-term future of the London pub.

I tell you what! I’ll just nip in tomorrow so I can bring you an update from the frontline.

Battersea: Welcome to Wuhan-on-Thames

THIS week Londoners marked the traditional Back on the Boat Day, the occasion on which they take to the river to celebrate the latest easing of the Covid lockdown before the inevitable setback that leads to its reimposition.

By established custom, this moveable feast is preceded by an announcement from Downing Street in which the prime minister of the day praises the “great spirit” of the nation and pledges that this time the restrictions are being lifted “once and for all”.

The festive period will be particularly welcomed by our old folk after a miserable winter in which they were stuck at home, reduced to playing endless online games of “have you had your second jab yet?”

For this year’s Boat Day I joined fellow revellers aboard one of the Thames Clippers, released this week from their latest pandemic purdah, on a journey west to Battersea. A foursome on the open afterdeck were celebrating with a bottle of Prosecco. Not bad for ten o’clock in the morning.

The half-hour trip from London Bridge Pier is highly recommended for its views of St Paul’s, The Globe, Parliament, Millbank and Lambeth Palace. Then, as you approach Nine Elms on the south bank, things take a turn for the worse.

In the space of a decade the developers have managed to turn a 560-acre former industrial site, stretching all the way from the characterless new US Embassy to the monumental Battersea Power Station, into the most arid and soulless stretch of the river in central London.

In 2012, with characteristic hyperbole, the then London mayor Boris Johnson described the regeneration project as “the greatest transformational story in the world’s greatest city” and the “final piece in the jigsaw” of central London.

What we got was a private equity free-for-all in which developers rushed to erect garish high-rise luxury blocks pitched at mainly overseas investors. Meanwhile, promises of so-called affordable housing went out the window.

The area feels half empty and that’s because most of the overpriced flats actually are, despite the invitations in the estate agents’ windows to join “our vibrant riverside community”. Even potential Chinese buyers have complained it’s more like Wuhan than London.

The magnificent power station, decommissioned by the early 1980s, is now hemmed in by clusters of multi-storey eyesores. I suppose we must just be grateful they didn’t also demolish the listed building to make way for yet more anonymous tat.

Now even that is being turned into flats, with the first residents due to move in this year to become part of what the developers call a neighbourhood “carefully curated to be a thriving quarter right on the River Thames. A place where technology giants mingle with local artisans”. (I’m glad to see that media communications course wasn’t wasted.)

Long-term locals might argue there already was a thriving quarter right on the Thames before the developers trashed it.

Battersea’s prime location was probably its downfall. That, combined with the right-to-buy scam that did away with cheap rented properties, turned this typical run-down but lively working class neighbourhood into a target of gentrifiers from the 1970s onwards.

Eager young Sloanes crossed the river to turn the elegant mansion flats along Prince of Wales Drive into a southern outpost of Chelsea. The avaricious Tory council in Wandsworth, which had absorbed the old Battersea council in this traditional Labour stronghold, rubbed its municipal hands.

The area’s saving grace is its park, a 300-acre refuge laid out in the mid-19th century on fields, behind the riverside wharves, that had once been a meeting place for duellists.

In 1951 it was the site of the Festival of Britain Pleasure Gardens, the fun bit of that five-month long, spendthrift, ration-book era attempt to cheer the country up after the war.

All the serious stuff that showcased a modern Britain thrusting foward into the second half of the 20th century was down the river at Waterloo near the newly constructed Festival Hall.

Battersea Park was where they put the funfair and the rides for the kids. I remember the toy train and the Guinness clock that included the brewer’s trademark toucan.

When I came across a plaque marking the Pleasure Gardens site, it suddenly struck me I hadn’t been there since the day, 70 years ago, that my grandfather took me for a salad lunch by the central pool and a whizz round the roundabout.

One night, aged 5, my parents took me on to the rickety tree walk, a meandering wooden causeway that let you wander through the branches of the tree tops. There were fairy lights and stars. One of my earliest memories. It’s all gone now. But while it lasted Battersea was magic.