For the last decade, certain pubs in South East London have been like mine shaft canaries, testing if an environment is safe for humankind to enter. Bravo to these intrepid institutions, opening their doors in hope, and tempting in the more timid souls for a lovely pint.
Unusually, food has been first to the frontier in Lewisham, with the Model Market and Sparrow providing Instagrammable cuisine in a good-pub-desert. But now, happily, the boozers have joined in and it all starts to make sense.
The Dirty South pub on Lee High Road had been closed since 2011, when it got trashed during the riots. It used to be a legendary music pub, having been the site of Kate Bush’s first gig and hosting Alabama 3, Babyshambles and Dodgy. It’s finally open again under the stewardship of Frank, a personable Dubliner, though not as a live music venue, sadly. Frank pours Villages and Hop Stuff along with a decent canned craft selection and lethal cocktails, while Other Side Fried provide good dirty food. Their Saturday funk and soul nights give Lewisham another late night option besides the Fox & Firkin, The Love Shack nightclub and a rare late-closing Spoons.
People often ask me if I took my nom de plume from the Dirty South pub. Actually I took it from the disregarded south of the city where I’ve spent most of my life and the southern US where I also spent a few years. That’s all fine, I hear you say, but how did I get my superpowers? Well, my sailor father and Irish mother have rendered me unable to say no to a pint, and given me the liver of a god.
Roxy was a no show at Dirty South. I found her holed up at her own namesake establishment, Rox Burger, nearby. There she was, hiding behind a menu, yet still unmistakable, tucking into a fine looking burger and a South of the River, an IPA brewed by Ignition Brewery. Ignition is a social enterprise whose beer is made by people with learning disabilities. It’s pricey here, but you’re glad to support it, as founder Nick O’Shea provides satisfying work, at London Living Wage, to a demographic suffering 94% unemployment. Hats absolutely off.
Roxy was looking around, nervously.
‘What is up with you?’ I asked.
‘I’m keeping a low profile. The press are everywhere.’
‘What in the name of fuck are you on about?’
‘This!’ she cried, throwing down a copy of the Mirror and in particular a story about a young woman getting into a pub brawl with a Tory MP.
‘Is this you?’
‘Am I the type of person that gets involved in bar brawls?’ she asked. ‘In this case, yes.’
Roxy, it appears, was seeing a friend off at St Stephen’s Tavern, the pub opposite the Houses of Parliament, when she got into conversation with a pissed up geezer who was there with his mates and who happened to be a right dishonorable member.
They soon discovered that they disagreed on virtually everything. He generally voted against equality and human rights. Nice guy. He thinks same-sex marriage is an ‘attack on religion’, whereas Roxy thinks religion is an attack on credibility. Nonetheless she found arguing with a professional debater frustrating.
For some reason, the MP began filming her on his phone. She asked him to stop. He didn’t. So she called him a ‘Tory cunt’ and tried to grab his phone.
‘Then he grabbed my phone. So I grabbed his face.’
Not trusting the tabloid press, she refused to tell them her side of the story despite several requests. She was fuming about one detail in the story however. It was reported that she’d called the MP a ‘Tory twat.’
‘As if,’ she spat. ‘I clearly, repeatedly and quite accurately called him a Tory cunt.’
We moved on to Suttons’ Radio, Antic’s new pub in Lewisham High Street, on the site of the long lost but unlamented Market Tavern. They’ve done a fine job of the pub’s interior, with its soft lighting, vintage knick knacks and antique radios nodding to the ghost sign they found that lends the pub its name.
Many have commented at how welcome it is having a nice pub at the clock tower end of the high street, near the shopping centre, after all this time.
‘What a lovely spot – makes a shopping trip to Lewisham much more appealing!’ tweeted Emma Brooker. Indeed it does, Emma. My shopping entailed a choice between Jaipur, Rodeo and Adnams Mosaic and that was before I got to the casks.
Barman Chris tells me the kitchen is close to opening and that there are plans to open the next floor and even the roof. The pub has already changed the temperature in a busy High Street. A rooftop bar, near Street Feast’s super funky Model Market, could change the entire perception of Lewisham.
And towards the station lies Sparrow, a distinguished but informal restaurant serving small plates from a variety of influences. Like the Model Market and Suttons’ Radio, it seem slightly incongruous with the offerings of its neighbours, but all together, they feel like the beginning of a new Lewisham.
Old Lewisham hasn’t gone anywhere, I’m pleased to say. It still has its £1-a-bowl fruit and veg market. It still has Poundland, Poundworld, the Tiger shop and Rolls and Rems, where grannies battle fashion students over buttons and fabrics. Its shopping centre limps on somewhere between old-fashioned and new-fangled, without ever seeming to be of the present. But man, it was in dire need of a decent High Street pub.
For the sake of completeness, we stopped by the Joiners Arms, the Irish pub in the High Street. Also because the clientele make me feel young.
As we tried to enter Roxy was accosted by an old flame, a handsome but straight-looking guy. Well, not so much a flame as a brief hook-up. It was Jake, with the extra leg, who she kicked out mid-breakfast over Brexit.
‘Roxy, it’s me.’
‘So it is. We were just going.’
‘You just got here.’
‘I left the iron on.’
‘You haven’t got an iron.’
‘The oven? The Corgi trouser press?’
‘Still cross, are we?’
‘No, no,’ said Roxy, tensing her little fists. ‘Lovely to see you, bye.’
‘We can agree to differ, can’t we?’ he said. ‘I say “Tomato…”’.
Roxy smiled and leaned towards him: “And I say, “Cunt!”’
Out she strode, flinging her scarf around her neck, before declaring, ‘I think I’m getting the hang of this debating lark.’
Back our book and become a part of boozy literary history.