Friday, 5 September 2014

Farewell to the Saxon Chief

Photograph: André Vocáse.

I started at Maidstone College of Art in September 1984, beginning a three year fine art course at the end of which I would, in theory, have letters after my name. I was eighteen years old, and it was the first time I'd lived away from home. On the Queen's Road at the back of the college was a pub called The Saxon Chief. I suspect it may have been one of the tutors from my course who first introduced me to the place, one lunchtime taking a few of us along so as to continue some rambling discussion about something or other. I'd only been drinking for about a year, having discovered the wonderfully redemptive effects of alcohol during my art foundation course back in Warwickshire, but now I began to appreciate booze in a new light. It wasn't just the drink, the mild euphoria, the feeling of finding oneself somehow living out the inner life of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting as the evening wore on; it was good conversation and company, the discussion of things which really seemed to matter at the time and then laughing until your guts hurt upon realising how idiotic you must sound. If not a way of life, it was at least as important as sleep and food, at least for the duration of those formative years. Happily, having a fairly low tolerance to alcohol, three pints was usually more than enough to see me staggering into oncoming traffic singing Sham 69's Who Gives A Damn...

Running for the bus in my flash blue suit,
Someone shouts out poof, so I put in the boot.
I don't wanna wear it, it's my boss that tells me to,
So when you laugh at me, you only laugh at you.
Anyway, who gives a damn,
I'm doing the best I can...

I would generally be sick halfway through the fourth pint, a sure sign of my being as refreshed as I was likely to get, and so thankfully I never evolved into one of those twelve-pints-a-night gentlemen, not least because I drank for pleasure more than habit, limiting my intake to maybe a couple of lunchtime sessions and weekends.

Naturally it was around this time that I also took up smoking. We were in the Ten Bells in Leeds, arguably my first true local. Jane Newland offered me a ciggie, not knowing me well enough to realise that I didn't smoke, and despite years of opposition to the habit, I immediately saw how a pint and a fag just seemed to go together.

Thirty years later, a friend from Maidstone posts a photograph of a
rubble filled hole in the ground on a popular social networking website. He asks his virtual audience to take a guess as to the name of the drinking establishment to which these bricks once belonged. It is of course The Saxon Chief.

I recall the extended lunchtimes there, even drinking with David Hall, the head of our department and himself a minor legend in the history of video art but crucially a little more jovial in such surroundings. I hadn't been able to recall the actual name of the pub until someone correctly identified the bricks in the photograph, and yet I can still remember the face of the landlord who laughed and joked and didn't really seem bothered by the eccentricities of his art college clientèle. One lunchtime, Martin de Sey, Paul Mercer, and myself went around the pub collecting empty glasses, piling them on our table so as give the appearance of having necked the lot between the three of us, then spent the next hour talking complete bollocks as Jane Hanley caught the performance on video. At the time I hadn't heard Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's scatological improvisations as Derek and Clive, but as soon as I did, I immediately recognised the parallels.

'You know, one time I was so drunk,' Paul explained with gruff conviction, 'that I was sick in my own eyes, and I couldn't see.'

Martin and myself nodded sagely to show for the benefit of the camera that we understood exactly where he was coming from, to show that we all knew the inconvenience of throwing up in one's own eyes after a night on the sauce. We were trying not to laugh, although Martin managed better than I did, maintaining an authoritative poker face with his sharp tie and sunglasses.

'So, Martin,' Paul opened, introducing a relatively fresh plot twist after the camera had been running for at least half an hour, 'what's it like being blind?'

'It's not so bad really.' Martin sipped thoughtfully at his lager. 'You're spared a lot of the troubles of the world because of course you can't see them.'

I don't recall whether we laughed so much as we thought we would when we played back the recording, but maybe it doesn't really matter. It was of the moment, and I have no means by which to view the VHS tape even if I felt inclined to do so, and our pub is now a hole in the ground. Similarly the art college, or at least our corner of the art college was absorbed into the Kent Institute of Art and Design not too long after I left in 1987, and now, more recently, it is to become a sports and leisure centre. My past has been paved over and put to better, or at least more politically progressive use.

The institution of the English pub has been dying for years, at least since the terminal kick in the economic nadgers delivered by the smoking ban of 2007 which made it illegal to smoke in any enclosed workplace. The smoking ban was pretty much what finished off my own relationship with the pub, given that I lived in London at the time and it was already sufficiently difficult finding a pub that wasn't horrible without being obliged to go and stand out in the shitty English weather whenever you fancied a ciggie. The Camberwell Grove Tavern, for one example, a previously popular and homely establishment with proper red flock wallpaper became some sort of brushed steel pizza bar with slogans projected on the newly whitewashed walls and gumball dispensers for a dwindling clientèle of fedora wearing tosspots in skinny jeans.

I mentioned to Larry at work that I'd heard of yet another recently closed pub on Lordship Lane being about to reopen. 'I don't know what the deal is,' I said. 'I don't know if it's going to be another wine bar or what the theme will be.'

'They should theme it as a fucking pub,' he suggested.

There didn't seem to be a lot of point smoking outside any of these newer drinking establishments when there was no good reason for anyone to go inside in the first place.

I gave up smoking a long time ago, although I've resisted the slide into evangelical campaigning against the habit to which so many reformed tobacco addicts seem prone. I gave up because it had begun to affect my health, and regardless of whether or not the anti-smoking crusaders may be justified, the general thrust of their chosen cause drives me up the wall. It's the assumption that smokers really need to be told that their habit is bad for them, as though this might be a new discovery, a best kept secret. It is the assumption that the only factor informing a person's failure to quit tobacco will be a simple lack of willpower; and such feckless pronouncements are particularly galling when delivered by a person who has never smoked.

It is 2008 and I am shaking my head in disgust at a television news item describing the electronic retouching of black and white films so as to present new non-smoking versions of Humphrey Bogart and others.

'What's wrong with that?' asks Dora the Explorer, as ever keen to side with the winning team.

'It's ridiculous,' I tell her. 'It's rewriting the past. I mean what's James Dean without a fag hanging out of his mouth?' As ever I have failed to foresee that she won't understand my point at all.

'I think it's good. He'll be much cooler for a start.'

'So James Dean will be cool because he just says no to drugs?'


I go outside for a smoke, standing in her doorway with light rain spitting against the right side of my face. There is nothing I can say to her. Somehow I am in a relationship with the head girl, an all-round jolly good egg; and standing outside in the rain is what makes it just about bearable.

Even now that I have given up, and now that I have given up without really suffering much in the way of cravings, I still miss those moments when all action stops and you take a break with a cigarette. The cigarette defines the moment as contemplative, like making up a rolly from the butts at six in the morning because you're all out of tobacco, and you've been up all night struggling with a painting or a piece of writing or whatever, and not even fifty cups of nocturnal coffee can disguise the foul ashtray bouquet of a mechanically reclaimed cigarette, a Frankenstein snout which nevertheless tastes amazing because it's the right moment; or when your boss has asked you to perform a task so unreasonable that the only proper response would be to punch him in the head, and so instead you step outside and really think about your life; or the cigarette that obliges you to stop and look at something instead of running past; or the cigarette that just about keeps you from whacking either yourself or that aforementioned boss or Dora the Explorer over the head with a length of lead pipe.

When you smoke a cigarette, you are momentarily in control of your own life, even if only in a very small way and for a short time, and for many people that's still better than nothing.

Dora the Explorer very much approves of the changes made to the pub at the end of her road. It was once called The Plough, and was notable for having stood on the corner of Barry Road for several hundred years during which time the highwayman Dick Turpin numbered amongst its clientèle. It was predominantly red inside, but it served beer thus providing all functions which might reasonably be expected of a pub. Every once in a while, delivering mail whilst somewhat inconvenienced by my having enjoyed a triumverate of cold, refreshing drinks the previous evening, I would stop in as The Plough opened for the day and I would have a Bloody Mary just to sort me out, which it always did.

Then one day something called the Just So Pub Company stepped in, transforming The Plough into something for all the family, rebranding the place with typically twee arrogance as The Goose & Granite, complete with a small plaque giving account of the history which had recently been bulldozed. Dora the Explorer considered the changes an improvement, explaining that the establishment as it was had not been women-friendly. However, having actually frequented the place prior to its transformation, I'd seen plenty of women, just none that belonged to an expressive dance workshop. What Dora the Explorer meant was that it had been a red, smoky hole full of working class people who read The Sun and probably used sexist language.


The hole in the ground that was once The Saxon Chief attracts comment though the social media channel upon which it is posted. We talk about the influence of the smoking ban on the decline of the English drinking establishment, and one particularly astute individual points out that the problem has been exacerbated by the unreasonable demands and costs brewery chains have imposed upon those who run their establishments. It was further suggested that the pub as an establishment needs to evolve, a sentiment which I have little doubt has informed those places now serving sausages with caramelised onion gravy or with their gumball machines newly installed next to the bogs. Personally I don't buy it, this supposed need to evolve, given that its results so closely resemble a need for pubs to appeal to people who never actually liked pubs in the first place, with changes implemented at the expense of the custom of those who did. It's empty management speak to which I object as a former employee of another business which worked just fine, but which needed to change with the times, and then ceased working just fine once it had done so.

There is hidden between the strata of upper and lower management across the broad span of commerce and industry an entire class of useless people who perform no actual function but to justify their own employment, and their rallying call is most often a call for change because this makes them appear progressive and forward thinking in the absence of their performing any task which actually means anything. It's like wearing an I Hate Bruce Springsteen T-shirt in the belief that it will make you appear critically sophisticated and therefore a person of discerning tastes, as opposed to merely weird and useless.

That said, pubs almost certainly need to evolve into places in which a pint doesn't cost so much as to drive all of their patrons off in the general direction of the nearest off license. A few stray housewives popping in for a bit of pie and a coffee aren't really going to solve this problem, and in any case might be better off sticking to their regular cafés and tea rooms. There needs to be an establishment in which we can drink so much that we can barely stand and still conclude the evening stood on top of a bus shelter wearing a traffic cone and swinging our trousers around our heads, because that's what you need to do when you're eighteen. There needs to be an establishment in which we can briefly drink away the crushing misery of forty years spent on the bins or sweeping the road. There needs to be an establishment in which we can drink without having to suffer the sight of the boss stuffing his face with artisan crisps at the next table. It's war on the working classes, just as it has always been - basic asset-stripping because the working classes are still an economic resource, and let's face it, they're not exactly generating much capitol sat at home watching Britain's Got Talent since the entirety of British industry was force-evolved into a single nineteen year old genius with a laptop.

It's the same basic process as that which has befallen the leisure centre formerly identified as Maidstone College of Art, a reduction of society to its most basic fat-free consumer functions, buy or die. I take a fairly dim view of the art establishment, and I have no means of gauging what my three years at art college have meant for me in the long term beyond that they meant something, and that my time in The Saxon Chief with two friends pretending to be significantly more drunk than we really were was undoubtedly better spent than it would have been in training to become an estate agent. I am not of the belief that everything in society must quantify its value or purpose in terms that can be understood by an economist, because a world in which everything must justify its function may as well be Stalinist Russia regardless of whether or not that function is justified by capitalist values. A world in which we can just try shit out for a while and not have to worry about picking up the tab will be a better, richer world than one without; which is why higher education is now reduced more or less to a means of generating debts which will keep our financial institutions running for years to come, because apparently we don't need thinkers, just people who will keep on buying stuff.

Every year that little group of refugees stood outside puffing away in the pouring rain gets smaller and smaller as they each decide they can no longer be bothered, and one day they will all be gone, and the wankers will have won.

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