Dirty South and I had almost finished our double egg and sauté potatoes at the Elephant and Castle’s Mamuśka! when Half-life appeared at our table holding his own brunch – a glass of neat Polish vodka.
‘Alright, blogtards?’ he said, nicking the last of my spuds. ‘I haven’t got all day, let’s get going, they’re open.’ He did have all day. He always has all day.
And so, slightly hurried, we set off on our adventure: A wander down the Old Kent Road, the most famous street in South London, part of the old Watling Street, the Roman road which ran from Dover to Wroxeter, wherever that is. (If there’s one thing you can criticise the Romans for it’s their choice of vital cities. I mean, Colchester? Really?)
Once a thriving, handsome Victorian boulevard, deprivation, bombing and planning catastrophes have conspired to reduce the Old Kent Road (OKR) to the status of urban highway, on which the car is king and the pedestrian an afterthought. Even when I arrived in London, many summers ago now, the OKR remained a renowned (if somewhat hairy) social destination, not something to be sped through to get into or out of town, to just get it over with. Was there enough left to entertain us, we wondered – three blokes with nothing to do and all afternoon to do it in?
‘Chaucer’s pilgrims came down this way,’ I said, as we made our way down New Kent Road to Bricklayers Arms, the roundabout named after an old coaching inn (and later a train station of the same name) which marks the northernmost point of the OKR. ‘And they stopped for one in the Thomas a Becket, so that’s our first proper stop.’
‘Good,’ said Dirty South. ‘We’ve been walking for ten minutes and I’m parched.’
But before that I wanted to find an oddity I recalled from decades ago. We walked a few metres up Mandela Way, not far from the Bricklayers Arms fly-over, and just as I was beginning to think I may have imagined the whole thing, from behind a screen of flowering buddleia a gun turret appeared. And then we saw it, standing proud on scrubland at the end of a terraced London street: A T-34 Soviet tank, painted in bright yellow and black stripes.
‘Shit the bed.’ said Dirty South. ‘How did that get there?’
‘I’m sure he’s going to tell us,’ said Half-life, not entirely enthusiastically. And so I did.
The story goes that in the ’90s, having had a planning application rejected by Southwark Council, local man Russell Gray made another simpler application, this time for ‘a tank’. The council assumed he meant a container of some sort and waved it through, at which point Gray purchased his tank (for £7000), parked it on his land and pointed the gun turret at the council offices.
Now a well-known local landmark, it doubles as a children’s climbing frame and even appears on Google Maps.
Back on the OKR, we passed a nondescript block of flats featuring a Domino’s pizza takeaway on the ground floor. An old sign affixed to what remained of the original facade read: ‘World Turned Upside Down Customers Do Not Park in Access Road’. Not only was this a reminder of happier times when folk could block side-roads willy-nilly without fear of recrimination, it also told us we were standing in front of what remained of the World Turned Upside Down pub.
The World Turned Upside Down, The Dun Cow, The Green Man, The Kentish Drovers, The Gin Palace, the Frog and Nightgown… The evocative list of lost pubs on the OKR is like a poem, a surreal song, the song of Kent Street. Today’s version might be more like:
Lidl and Asda, Aldi, B&Q Tesco and Staples, they fucked it up For you
There have been 39 pubs in all on the OKR, though not all of them contemporaneous. Now, sadly, we understood there were just two. Though more happily, we were off to one of them.
We paused at the ‘White House’ a vestige of the area’s glorious past and home of the Rolls family, who made a mint subleasing Crown land in the area, before feeling a bit guilty and giving something back in the form of leases for social buildings like the Wells Way Library, schools and social housing. The last male Rolls was a keen aviator and motor enthusiast who put together an engine with a certain Mr Royce.
Now the house is the ‘Church The Light Of The World’ or some such witchfuckery. We were to see a lot of modern-day churches on the OKR that afternoon, perhaps unsurprisingly, as they spawn to prey on the poor and the hopeless.
Heading southish, the next 300 metres or so functions as the area’s high street, with an abundance of small, cosmopolitan shops, cafes and restaurants. It’s a lively scene and one pretty much unsullied by poncification, unless you count the Eurotraveller hotel, which I don’t. Sure, we did spot a cafe called Le Panier a Brioche but the outside tables were nevertheless filled with be-tattooed brutes.
On the corner of Dunton Road we stopped to admire The Dun Cow building, now a doctor’s surgery, but still with parts of its pub signage in place.
‘And that was The Green Man,’ said Half-life looking across the road, ‘Where I saw my first sawn-off.’ And he didn’t mean jeans.
At the junction of Shorncliffe Road we passed over the old water crossing known as St Thomas a Watering, from which our first destination took its name, and over which there is now a monstrous Tesco’s. The building presaged a lot of what we saw was wrong with recent developments along the OKR – no accessible or useful street frontage, just car-parking and blind walls of brick.
But we weren’t disheartened. We were thinking of our pint. A pint in one of the last remaining historical boozers on the strip, a chance to step back in time, to revel in the past, to raise a glass to long-gone carousers in the one, the only, the Thomas a Becket –
‘It’s closed,’ said Dirty South, as we arrived.
‘What? It can’t be,’ I cried. ‘It says open noon till 5.30am.’
‘This place hasn’t been open for a while,’ said Half-life, peering through a window. ‘I can smell it.’
‘It’s shut,’ said a passer-by, helpfully. ‘You gonna buy it? I wouldn’t bother. You can’t sell drink in it no more.’
Dumbfounded, we adjourned to Burgess Park to regain our composure. In other circs I might have spent some time observing the urban miracle that is Burgess Park, but we were so stunned it was all we could do to skin up, to be honest. I shall save it for a future post.
It turns out that the Thomas a Beckett had its licence suspended in February 2015 after a near-fatal bottling in the bar after an altercation over a clue in The Guardian cryptic crossword (possibly). It had remained open for food and soft drinks for a few weeks until March when Southwark’s licensing sub-committee rejected the owners’ plans to focus on families and food (and away from late-night booze-a-thons) and decided the licence should be revoked permanently. And that was it. Pub shut.
The lease is up for sale at £55,000 a year, but without any guarantee that a new leaseholder would get a licence it may only be a matter of time before the freeholders consider other options.
Our plans were in disarray. We were to lunch in another OKR institution, Franks, a family-run restaurant that has been serving Italian food to locals for more than 40 years, but as all holidaymakers know, there is nothing more delightful than the pint before lunch and now this simple pleasure was under threat due to Southwark Council (and, to be fair, a bottle-wielding maniac).
Rejoining the OKR after the calming pastoral influence of Burgess Park, we were shocked by the noise and ferocity of the traffic.
‘Mind you, it’s been like this ever since I can remember,’ said Dirty South. ‘That’s why the UK’s first drive-through Kentucky Fried Chicken was built here. I remember being in a cab home with my ex-wife and her twin sister when it had just opened and they insisted on trying it out.’
‘Hang on, you married twins?’ said Half-life, perking up.
‘Strictly speaking, I only married one of them,’ said Dirty South. ‘That’s the law.’
‘Bloody law,’ I said.
‘Unfortunately,’ Dirty South went on, ‘The UK hadn’t quite grasped the concept of fast food and we were in the KFC queue for 45 fucking minutes, with the meter running. I had to stop the cab in New Cross in the end ’cause I ran out of money.’
‘What happened after that?’ asked Half-life.
‘We walked home, leaving a trail of chicken bones,’ said Dirty South.
‘No, I mean with the twins,’ said Half-life.
‘Guys, I don’t wish to interrupt the past,’ I said, ‘But what’s that ahead?’ Unless I was mistaken, it looked uncannily like a pub sign.
‘Thank the mighty booze lords,’ said Dirty South.
The pub in question turned out to be The Lord Nelson, which triggered vague memories but none of us could recall ever having been in it before. Its wonderful bar and ornate Victorian interior was only undermined by the lack of any decent beer. While Dirty South and I made do with some bottled Courage Light, like it was 1970, Half-life plumped for something called Strongbow Dark Fruit.
‘Would you like a straw with that?’ asked Dirty South.
‘Cheeky cunt,’ said Half-life. ‘I’m not going to tell you my story now.’
‘What story?’ we chorused, and Half-life settled into his bar-chair.
During one of his stays at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, Half-life told us, he befriended a lag known as Joe Slow, a brilliant accountant turned white collar criminal who’d landed himself inside after getting involved in a boiler room fraud.
Joe Slow was unpopular with the other inmates, who sensed, correctly, that he felt they were beneath him. Never one to follow the herd, Half-life got to know him and soon put Joe Slow to work using his numerical skills to offer an early version of what we now know as in-play ‘Cash Out’, a real time betting market that not only allowed inmates to gamble on live events (such as a game of pool or table football) but also to lock in profits or losses whenever they felt the time was right.
‘If he was so smart, why was he called Joe Slow?’ I asked.
‘Because his name was Joe Quigley,’ said Half-life.
‘Of course,’ I nodded.
For his part of the deal, Half-life, who stands 6’5” in his shaven feet, saved him from a number of hidings. Over time, discovering a shared appreciation of what literature, design and fine art they knew about, they became close and when the time came for Joe Slow to be moved to an open prison pending parole, he told Half-life that he would never forget his help and that when he too was released, he wouldn’t regret paying him a visit in his lodgings.
‘And where was that?’ I asked.
‘Two rooms above The Green Man,’ said Half-life, leaning in for effect. ‘On the Old Kent Road. Whose round is it?’
His glass replenished with more foul-tasting purple liquid, we waited for Half-life to go on with his tale. ‘Don’t move. Back in a sec,’ he said. ‘Dying for a wazz.’
‘You really need to work on your cliffhangers,’ said Dirty South.