Back in the ’80s, I was an aspiring recording engineer, constantly trawling for customers. One afternoon in The Castle on Crystal Palace Road, SE22, I observed a young man park his sax at the bar and spotted a business opportunity. Kismet. Irish Paul Murphy, the landlord’s son. He wanted to be recorded and I wanted to record him. I’ve been a regular in the place ever since.
As we all know, the Irish can often play and Paul was no exception. Father to son, nimble fingers and quick fists; Paul was a wild man on a sax and his dad was nifty with the accordion. They were both equally handy in a fight.
I was there one night with some clients, a folk group, when a brawl broke out. An abiding image is of the old man holding four of the miscreants in a bear hug of death while his boy Paul clubbed another with a bar stool. Don’t mess with the Murphys. The folk group was very impressed and, probably, wrote a song about it.
The family also ran the Atlantic (now the Dogstar) in Brixton, which Sonny, a one-time brass player with the Manfred Mann band, used to look after for them. The back bar was a dark no-go area given over to dealers and pimps while bands used to set up in the front and Courtney Pine would occasionally drop in for a session. Outside the cops constantly hovered.
It was a black pub, run by Irish – an odd combination at the time, or any time. And it was popular. When the 1981 riots broke out the Atlantic was one of the few buildings on the Railton Road – the Front Line – that wasn’t trashed, doggedly remaining open for business while the rest of SW9 burned. Sonny was fully occupied serving pints to the over-heated journalists, when he wasn’t charging them five quid a time to use the pay phone.
Back in Dulwich, The Castle locals were ever interesting. A visiting friend of mine compared it to the bar in Shameless. Nick played bass for Sniff and the Tears, Mary the pot lady would strong-arm customers into donating to Guide Dogs for the Blind with her fixture fag and long ash drooping from her lips, Martin the barman’s speciality was ‘acquiring’ televisions and Dick the Brick slashed his own throat with a Stanley knife. I remember Declan telling me how his chickens would climb the tree in his garden and that the only way to get them down was to shoot them.
One afternoon Ken the Quantity Surveyor was playing pool. Kids stood blocking the door, watching.
‘Shit shot,’ said one of them.
‘Bugger off you lot,’ said Ken and played another ball.
‘You’re crap, mate,’ said another. Ken turned to Paul behind the bar.
‘Can’t you do something about these kids, Paul?’
I would do,’ he said. ‘But they’re your kids.’
When the place started to actually fall down, even the old man resigned himself to redecoration. I remember one day standing just inside the public bar front door, wiping my boots on the mat.
‘I wouldn’t stand there if I was you,’ advised Paul.
‘Why’s that?’ I asked.
‘Because the ceiling’s about to fall in.’ And sure enough, as I moved off the mat, down crashed a great slab of plaster that might have killed me.
‘The usual?’ said Paul.
There used to be toilets at the back of the pub that were sealed off when they put a stage in. Paul claimed that a couple of drinkers who had been having a long sit down at the time had been bricked in. Not so long ago the stage was removed and the old toilets revealed, but if there were any skeletons found in there with a fag on and their trousers round their ankles, they hushed it up very well.
The important thing is that both The Castle and Mary are still standing. The long overdue latest refit is a good one and the pub looks smart but familiar in its current livery. If you want to see the match it’s the place to be. (Conversely, if you don’t, don’t go there.) It’s one of the last real boozers left in Dulwich and it serves the finest Guinness in town.
The Castle, 280 Crystal Palace Rd, London SE22 9JJ
Steve Overbury writes a blog here
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