On a recent trip to Valletta, I found myself inexorably drawn to a place known only as The Pub.
The walls of this cosy little boozer in Malta’s fair capital are bedecked with numerous pictures of Oliver Reed, the actor who died in this very bar after taking on the Royal Navy at drinking, during a break from filming Gladiator. The Pub plies a morbid trade in t-shirts commemorating his death. On the front it says ‘Ollie’s Last Bar’ and on the back, ‘Eight Pints of Lager, Twelve Double Rums, Fourteen Whiskeys – Legend’.
Yes, it really fucking does.
I was called a legend by a colleague once and all I’d done was make her a cup of tea. This incident and the aforementioned shirt got me thinking about how we confer legendary status on mere mortals such as Ollie and myself. And, as Reed had a little South London in him, it made sense – sort of – to carry out this thinking in the six remaining pubs on the ‘Wimbledon Run’ – the crawl devised by the man being applauded for drinking himself to death.
Half-life came along as my wingman to make sure I didn’t do anything silly, ‘Like shandy’.
The Rose & Crown
Like much of Wimbledon Village, the Rose & Crown is smart, old and handsome. A hotel pub, with a stone floor, decent beer and an inviting ambience, it’s a fine start. This was where the Run began, where the competitors would gather.
Yes, competitors, because it was a sort of race. The gang would meet here and have a pint in each of the then eight pubs (the King of Denmark and the Brewery Tap have gone) and return to the Rose. Whoever was last had to get the next round, which could be pretty hefty, despite losing a few runners and riders along the way.
Why make drinking a competition, I wondered? Why sully one of life’s great and simple pleasures with the stink of rivalry, opposition, victory and defeat?
‘Well, it’s obvious, Dirts,’ said Half-life. ‘Free ninth pint, innit? That’s just maths.’
The Dog & Fox
The Dog was previously featured on the Raider’s Tramlink Trail, not that Half-life remembered it. But it clearly should have featured in our Top Ten Pubs on a Roundabout, superior as it is to about half of them. However, South West London had not yet been discovered at the time of writing.
From here you can see all the Union Jacks that adorn the shops and cafes of the village, like we’re in Jubileeland. Half-life curled his lip at the sight, but it is a beautiful flag and we might not have it much longer once we get our country back and see it sliced into pieces of irony.
Luckily, for crawl purposes, the Dog & Fox is only a two-minute walk, or run if you’re doing it properly. Running was the least of it with Reed. He’d often challenge people to fist fights, or arm wrestling, or order everyone to march around a lake then swim across it, in tedious shows of machismo.
‘Fucking ‘ell, Ollie,’ said Half-life. ‘What’s wrong with just drinking?’
He did more than enough of that though, going on extraordinary benders, notoriously drinking 100 pints in 24 hours. ‘The thing is,’ said Half-life, ‘Once you get past 20, you’re not even enjoying it.’
He was also fond of childish pranks, throwing chairs and smashing up bars, but not at the Dog and Fox, where the landlady, Joyce, simply wouldn’t up with his bullshit.
Fire Stables (née The Castle)
Strong women were not a type that Reed favoured. He and South London’s Glenda Jackson – an actor and former MP who could and would hate to be called a legend – found themselves mutually repellent. There can’t be any doubt that he was an unbearable misogynist, spouting tripe on the subject of women on an intellectual par with the fifth form japes he enjoyed. A handsome and charismatic fucker though, he was dearly loved by those who could put up with him.
Fire Stables is also only a couple of minutes from the last pub and is a bit more gastro and a bit less pub. The third Young’s pub in a row, thankfully they all seem to serve ale from the Wimbledon Brewery too.
‘I don’t mind Young’s,’ said Half-life. ‘I mean, if you can’t have variety at least have lots of it.’
I was quite glad of a 10 minute walk after the third pint but defintely wasn’t going to break out into a trot. Some think it’s sad that Reed is remembered more for his drunken escapades than his work as an actor. Maybe, but whose fucking fault is that?
To be fair, there’s something to be admired in being remembered for play rather than work.
He was however, a quite brilliant film actor, who, despite being untrained, brought something special to the screen in Women in Love, The Devils, Oliver! and Gladiator among many others. He was always the consummate pro on set, even if kick off was at 7am and he was out till 6. Perhaps it was this that gave rise to the theory that he only ever played the drunk. In which, case he deserves another Oscar (he won one posthumously for Gladiator).
The Swan was the third nice, but not tremendously characterful pub in a row. They were all slightly different, but the people seemed from the same crowd: Rugger boys and Pilates girls. We had a nice pint of Common before heading to the Common where our last two pubs waited for us, like loved ones.
Hand in Hand
‘I’ve been here,’ said Half-life. ‘They do the best barmaids in Wimbledon.’
‘Not now, Ollie,’ I replied.
Just when I was starting to lose a little enthusiasm, the Hand in Hand lit up the afternoon. A cosy, charming, even quaint little pub with a nice outside space, it had the best kept beer, with the most variety, plus you can take drinks out onto the green opposite.
In the olden days when pubs closed after lunch, Reed and his pals would get some bottles and go on a ‘pissnic’ on the Common till they opened again. It was a bit like our ‘beer picnic’, except with the addition of food (ruddy lightweights).
By all accounts Ollie was a gentle, sensitive and even shy man when sober. Then, between pints one and eight he could be fun: Loquacious, funny and gregarious. After that – and there would still be a long, long time to go – he would become an utter arsehole, a bully and a bore.
Half-life had some sympathy here. ‘I’m very shy in the morning,’ he claimed.
‘More like shy of the morning,’ I said.
The Crooked Billet
Not more than 50 yards away was the final pub of the tour, another cracker that overlooks the green. Indeed the Crooked Billet provides deckchairs for customers to sit out and sup in. A brief walk along the south side of the Common would take you directly back to the Rose & Crown. I had to admire the genius of the Wimbledon Run, even if I prefer to stroll the course and try to enjoy it.
As his film career faded, Reed became notorious for his talk show appearances, where he would show up drunk, rambling and incoherent in an early example of car crash TV.
‘I met him once,’ said Half-life, surprising me, seeing as we’d been talking about him all day. ‘Can’t remember much about it though.’
Despite shambolic appearances on Aspel, The Word and Late Night with David Letterman he was invited to appear on After Dark, Channel 4’s high-brow live talk show that saw thinkers, politicians and interesting characters from the fringes of the arts discuss thorny subjects. Reed was due to appear to talk about men and violence.
‘The producer knew me from the poetry circuit and was worried Ollie would turn up too fucked to go on, so he called me to play back up. I left early and all to make sure I didn’t mess up me big chance. Unfortunately I had a few liveners on the way. When the police dropped me off at the studio they decided Ollie was the safe bet.’
As we sat in the Billet, under Reed’s giant shadow, it was easy to recall his extravagant talent and constitution; to remember he was dearly loved by many in these parts, especially for his generosity. But I couldn’t escape the thought though that he was also a bit of a tit.
I suppose my rival t-shirt: ‘8 pints, 12 rums, 14 whiskies – Bit of a Tit’ wouldn’t have sold as many units as the ‘Legend’ one, but that only serves to illustrate that capitalism has no respect for truth.
‘To be fair, he does make me feel better about my drinking,’ said Half-life with a belch. ‘Legend.’
More on Ollie Reed and the Wimbledon Run in our podcast: