Meeting My Waterloo

Half-life was fuming. He’d just read an article claiming that the 1st Arrondissement in Paris was the best neighbourhood in the world, just ahead of Harajuku, Tokyo. He was so cross he ordered another pint before telling the barman:

‘I’m not paying for that.’

It was a classic Half-life manoeuvre when trying to ingratiate himself with nervous new staff.

“I-I’ll have to get the manager.’

‘Go get him. He should be grateful I drink in this shithole. Get the manager. Get the Feds. Get Linda fucking Lovelace for all I care, pal.’

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Our opener

Half-life was drinking with a seen-it-all, know-it-all regular, Fuckit McCabe, who he despised but tolerated when there was no one else to talk at. Fuckit had added to his ire by agreeing that the magazine was wrong, but contending that Shoreditch was the greatest neighbourhood in the world.

‘That’s it. Put it on this cunt’s tab,’ Half-life told the barman.

‘Fuck it,’ shrugged Fuckit.

Half-life knows Paris well. A girlfriend regularly transports him there so he can show Parisian waiters the true art of rudeness. He’s got love for Paris. But, he argues, the best neighbourhoods in the world are La Boca, in South-east Buenos Aires and Waterloo, in South-east London.

Waterloo is where Half-life first landed in London, making a clean break from prison, arriving with just the clothes on his back, a handgun, a brick of hash and a note from his doctor. He kindly agreed to show me his Waterloo, at my expense.

Half-life’s First XI

Half-life’s First XI were the first eleven pubs he visited on his first day in the Smoke. They all got the ‘I’m not paying for that,’ treatment and those that passed the test have benefitted from his custom ever since. He was barred from two of them within a week and remains on probation at the rest of them, most of the time.

Just as he had done that first day, we went in the Lord Nelson first. At a pub sitting at the bottom of a council estate, he figured he’d be able to buy and sell drugs and let the local faces know he was not be fucked with. What he got was one of London’s kookiest boozers, with great music, good food and people so nice he didn’t want to fall out with them or stab them. It became his local; the doorstep you don’t shit on.

The Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1
The lovely Old Vic

I remembered the Nelson for its response to the horse meat lasagna scandal. With meat from Borough Market, they served up Super-Injuction 8oz Horse Burgers, or as Half-life called them, ‘Taboo and chips’.

I’m somewhat drawn to estate pubs. There’s often some magic in the grimness, but The Nelson shows that estate pubs don’t have to be grim. They can be colourful and energetic.

From there we went to The Ring, on the corner of Blackfriars Bridge Road. ‘Ah. Famous for it’s rich fight history, of course,’ I said, dully.

‘I don’t know about rich, but it’s where I lamped Benny The Egg for taking libs with Kinky Rose,’ came the reply. Half-life, while he can be the bane of a barmaid, could also be their protector if someone, other than himself, is out of order.

We were still working on our appetite, so we agreed to come back to The Cut on Sunday for The Anchor & Hope’s legendary 7-hour lamb shoulder and press on to Pub No. 4. The Windmill is a relaxed but lively pre- and post-theatre boozer near the Young Vic that doubles as a sports pub. There we watched Australian wickets tumble like drunk skittles, while Half-life asked a big-boned nodding acquaintance how his latest fad diet was going.

‘Wide!’ Half-life then bellowed, around seven times an over.

Next, we had the pleasure of being served by actual antipodeans at the Stage Door, an unpretentious pub behind the Old Vic with a surprising roof terrace that also showed the continuing Ashes massacre. The staff were noticeably efficient and good humoured, even as Half-life told them:

‘Here, I know one Aussie who’s not out: Rolf Harris.’

Mind you, they were probably Kiwis.

Going slightly off the plan, we tried to check out The Pit Bar, the basement boozerie at the Old Vic, only to find it, not only closed, but likely to remain so for a few weeks. Shame, as it was going to be our after hours stop, now that Da Vinci’s, the ‘anything goes’ bar with the 23-hour licence, has been torn down, to be replaced by unlicensed flats and offices.

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The Duke of Sussex

It’s hard to imagine that the Old Vic, the theatre on The Cut that housed the greatest dramatic talent of the past century, was in danger of becoming a bingo hall or a themed pub in 1998. In 2004 Ben Whishaw followed Gielgud, Olivier, Burton, Guinness, Redgrave, O’Toole and Jacobi in playing Hamlet there. Half-life blagged a review ticket for the extraordinary performance.

‘Unforgettable, mate. I had the Circle Bar to myself for three hours, apart from half-time.’

They had no ale on at our next stop, the delightful step back in time that is the Duke Of Sussex. It’s had the same landlord for 31 years and hasn’t changed in that time. He’s either brilliant or bone idle. We made do with a very good Guinness in the sun trap tables outside, while Half-life congratulated himself for remembering to drink an iron supplement today.

‘It’s balls that,’ I told him. ‘You’d have to drink three pints of Guinness to get as much iron as there is in an egg.’

‘Maybe so, but who in their right mind would choose the egg?’ he replied.

It was about time we skinned up so we went to the Waterloo Millennium Green, the tiny adjacent park, where couples were already enjoying a spliff in the sun, as toddlers chased pigeons in a scene of urban serenity. The effect on visual perception was soon evident as Half-life stared back at the pub, over a tiny slope and through a few trees:

‘Where else can you gaze across a mountain and a forest and see a beautiful pub?’

No wonder he thinks Waterloo is a world beater.

Carsten Holler's Decision at the Hayward Gallery
Carsten Höller’s Decision at the Hayward Gallery

Half-life then got a business call that required him to make a delivery to North Lambeth. I went with him as far as Lower Marsh and popped into the Scooter Caffé for a reviving Sierra Nevada in the dark, dreamy downstairs room. On another table sat two stylish, attractive women in eye-catching retro clobber, who matched the decor and sounds. I made contact. I got a laugh. Then Half-life came down, spilling a Negroni, and walked into the toilet, without shutting the door or the curtain and proceeded to relieve himself while shouting above the music:

‘Here, do you reckon I can get penile reduction surgery on the NHS?’

We left.

Now we were in peak condition, it was time to go to the pub. And what a pub. The Kings Arms in Roupell Street is a dream of a boozer (as previously mentioned in Arts Holes) in a beautiful, unspoilt Georgian terraced street (see main pic). Originally worker’s cottages, built in the 1820s, 2-bedroom Roupell St houses are now worth seven figures. One went for £1.15million in 2014, five times what houses were worth there in 1998. Sod the property though, it’s the pub, its two bars and eight pumps that’s the draw. And it’s not this living film set that makes Waterloo what it is, it’s the abundant social housing that stop it filling up with twunts.

It’s always worth getting to the King’s Arms early as in summer it gets packed, and in winter you want the top table by the log fire. It’s a year-round friend.

To complement his iron intake at the Duke, Half-life drank two pints of Plum Porter, claiming it was the most delicious way to take vitamins since Chucklehead cider came in 4-pint cartons. But once the suits arrived and started spilling out all over the road, it was time to go to a less popular watering hole.

We liked the Rose & Crown for its garden, where you can smoke a doobie and play: ‘You’re Going To Marry The Next Girl Who Walks Past.’

Most people turned off the path before the pub, but occasionally they kept going and forced us into disastrous imaginary matrimony. As it started to rain, Half-life placed a jacket over a puddle for an unimpressed nurse. My jacket.

The weed had stolen Half-life’s hunger again, which was annoying because I was skungry for tapas at the excellent Meson Don Felipe, or nibbles in the eateries of Isabella Street. But Half-life is from the ‘eating is cheating’ school.

Gabriel's Wharf
Gabriel’s Wharf

We were due to visit the Prince Albert next but despite the landlord barring Half-life, it has not survived and is to be demolished and replaced by a hotel. One down out of eleven isn’t bad in this climate, though.

So we went to The White Hart for one, a funky little backstreet boozer on Cornwall Road, where I had to separate Half-life from somebody else’s girlfriend before the boyfriend figured out what ‘Me cago en tus muertos’ meant (I shit on your dead). We swiftly headed towards the Hole In The Wall by Waterloo Station. En route I spotted some lads disappearing into an arch.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘That’s Pleasuredrome. It’s one of them saunas. Licensed. Open 24/7, 365 days a year.’

‘Handy if you’re bored on Christmas Day,’ I offered.

‘Or would like to be.’

Onward we strode to our tailender then, Pub No. 11, The Hole In The Wall – a truly grubby pub in a railway arch by Waterloo Station, but one of my favourite grubby pubs. The front bar feels like a railway station waiting room, which in a way, it is. The back room is larger, has Sky Sports and leads to a ‘garden’ where you can watch analogue TV whilst having a smoke and meeting the happily transient.

It’s also a bit smelly and the toilets are pretty hideous. All in all, ten out of ten.

At this point, we were in a pretty shabby state ourselves, but you can’t do Waterloo without visiting one of the greatest centre of arts and culture in Europe: The South Bank.

The list of notables who have performed or shown work at the National Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Rooms, the Hayward Gallery and BFI is endless and even thinking about it makes me tired and humble. Thankfully, all of these venerable institutions have bars – and many of them, balconies. We’d missed the 2-for-1 happy hour (4-7pm) at Concrete by just four hours, so we headed the Baylis Terrace at the NT with some awfully cheap, awful wine, bought from the Market Express, a nearby convenience store with outside seating (the place to go if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have a date at a Costcutter).

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Splendid isolation

The changes on the Baylis Terrace blew Half-life’s tiny mind. Garden furniture and long grasses? Yes, it looked nice, but what’s wrong with barren Brutalism on an exposed, hard-to-find balcony in the drizzle? The old benches have been shoved round the corner, so they don’t get the river view, but they do get a bit of privacy, which, in the middle of London, is highly valued. Now they overlook the IMAX roundabout where, as the Dulwich Raider told us, you can watch ‘giant shit films.’

It wasn’t the same without gazing at water though, so with the tide out, we went to Gabriel’s Wharf, its wooden shacks now ghostly and its beach deserted, for one last blaze. The view of the city from the water level is special. Like you’re inside it, seeing London in its grundies.

By now we had run out of words and I was ravenously hungry. All the best restaurants were closed, but there was one more Waterloo delight: The Waterloo Grill, formerly Jimmy’s Tea Bar, and open 24/7. It’s near where Great Train Robber Buster Edwards had his flower stall. One night, the actor Dexter Fletcher nicked two bunches of nasturtiums from him and Edwards called the law, appalled by criminality as he was.

Next to the redoubtable Grill, a utility company’s metal cupboard accidentally provided the best table in town, tucked under the railway bridge. Desperately, I scoffed an egg burger, with ketchup, yoke and fat dribbling down my chins.

‘Heaven,’ I gasped.

‘Guinness dodger,’ chided Half-life, as he disappeared into the night.

Update, October 2016:

The Duke of Sussex has changed hands and entered the 21st century. It is now a gastropub with craft beer and everything but still with its cracking outside space.

Word reaches us that the Charles Dickens on Union St is to reopen under the stewarship of the team behind the Kings Arms in Roupell St, which can only be a very good thing.

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