With the exception of last Monday’s Anniversary Day I kept off the beer for Lent. Over the Easter weekend, while planning which pubs to visit on Easter Sunday, I asked the following question of various friends and family members: how can you tell, at a glance, whether or not a pub is rough? I appreciate that this is all relative. There are very few truly rough pubs in this corner of West London: I have been able to drink in all of them undisturbed. Even so, some of them are rougher than others. How can you tell, without making a value judgment about the people there, which of the three pubs in this postcode are the roughest? If my answer to the question is correct you can identify them even when they’re empty, without having to take a view on their clientele.
The title of this piece gives the answer away: pool tables. The three pubs round here that still have pool tables are the ones where you should be most attentive to what is going on around you. Pool tables, in my experience, attract trouble more consistently than any other form of pub entertainment. Fruit machines and dartboards do not lead to so many disagreements, nor did bar billiards or pinball machines, back in the days when you could find such things.
This was what we were discussing over lunch on Easter Sunday as I planned to take my 12-year-old son on a little pub crawl. (Regular readers will know how much he enjoys going to the pub, as recorded in this piece from Boxing Day.) Just before Lent began I added this postscript to my earlier musings about “Every pub in my postcode” and realized that since November my son had also been to every pub round here, with four exceptions. One of them had a pool table when we last went there in 2015; he had never been to any of the other three. The nearest one has a pool table, the other two are in the new development near Gunnersbury Station (Chiswick Park, or Chiswick Business Park, depending on your preference).
On Easter Sunday I took him to the nearest place, the one with a pool table, warily. Maybe it’s not rough at all, maybe it’s as safe as the gastropubs where Jocasta and Lysander can flick little bits of focaccia at each other without getting shouted at. But it’s better to be safe than sorry. It feels a lot rougher than the gastropubs and after a quick, symbolic drink we headed down to the High Road to meet his godfather who had sent a timely text just as I ordered my son’s glass of Coke and my solitary pint of Guinness near the pool table. We didn’t even stop for a packet of crisps.
The pub where we met my son’s godfather no longer has pool tables. 20 years ago it had three or four of them in the back room, and it was at least three or four times as rough back then as it is now. I was there in the autumn of 1997 with a couple of mates to see the 0-0 draw with Italy which guaranteed the England football team their place at the 1998 World Cup in France. The pool tables had been covered up and positioned against the walls to turn the place into a big screening room. At the end of the match the three of us sat at the small round table we had secured for the game while chaos reigned around us. Dozens of punters had gone mad at the final whistle, jumping up and down on the tables and smashing glasses, screaming “Let’s go fucking mental, let’s go fucking mental, la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la”. We were all ushered out a few minutes later by a team of policemen. A young woman had had a glass smashed in her face and there was blood and broken glass all over the floor. It was a rough place back then. In contrast, our Easter Sunday drinks, in the same, redesigned back room, passed without incident.
Afterwards my son and I headed down towards the river, to the pub that had a pool table when we last went there in 2015. The pool table was gone, replaced by a handful of dining tables and chairs. It was just after 6pm and one of the kitchen staff was sat at the bar having finished her afternoon shift.
“What happened to the pool table?” I asked her.
“We got rid of it,” she said, “We didn’t like the kind of people it attracted.”
Which rather proves my point.