My Uncle Jimmy has been on my mind recently. I mentioned him in this piece about “The Gambler”. He died nearly 11 years ago, early in 2007. He was my mother’s brother, four years older than her, and had joined the Merchant Navy here in the UK after leaving Dublin. Our relationship was different from my relationships with my parents’ other siblings for a very simple reason: I hardly saw him when I was a child, even though he and his family also lived in England. They were in Southampton, 90 minutes away by car. We rarely travelled down there, and he hated London (“The Smoke” as he called it), so he only visited us once or twice.
We took long holidays to Ireland during my childhood to see the rest of the family but I don’t recall visiting Southampton until I was 20, for the funeral of Jimmy’s eldest son Shaun. The first time I spent an afternoon with my uncle was a Saturday in August some years before that, just after I had received my O-Level results. I was still 15 and had spent the summer in London. For the first time in my life I had not left London all year, not even for a day-trip.
Jimmy came up at lunch-time, was delighted to hear that the exams had gone well and suggested going for a few beers to celebrate. It’s quite probable that if I’d done badly he would still have suggested going for a few beers but we went down the road with something to cheer. That summer I had been a regular visitor to pub venues around London, especially The Red Cow on Hammersmith Road, which closed down at the end of the month. Among other things I saw John Otway on four of the seven nights that he performed. That’s how I remember it anyway. I don’t have a pocket diary for that year to confirm the dates. I had also been to pubs where there was no live music, places where my school-friends and I could be served without much trouble. The George IV and the Windmill, on opposite sides of the High Road, were the main ones.
The nearest pub to us was The Emperor but I had never set foot in it. It had a reputation as the roughest pub around. The small front bar had a pool table in it, which you could see from the street. You couldn’t see the larger, and much more dingy, back bar from outside. We steered clear of the place. Even my brother, three years older than me, had never been inside it.
Heading down to the High Road with my uncle that bright August afternoon I expected to walk the extra few minutes to the George but he headed straight for the Emperor, said something like “This place looks okay” and went into the front bar. I followed, with hesitation, but we had the bar to ourselves so it felt safe enough. He ordered a couple of pints and gave me 5p to put in the fruit machine. I won 50p on that one spin, more than enough for a pint in those days. The machine paid out in tokens rather than regular coins. We stayed till closing time. It’s easy to forget that all pubs in the UK closed for at least two hours in the afternoon back then. In our part of West London they closed at 3pm and re-opened at 5.30pm. Sunday hours were even shorter, with all pubs closed between 2pm and 7pm. (Those Sunday hours still applied in the 1990s. When Sky Sports started showing live football games at 4pm on a Sunday, from the autumn of 1992, you couldn’t watch them in a pub, and that was still the case a few years later.)
Sometime after 3pm we headed home, the 50p in fruit machine tokens still taking up space in my pockets. My uncle had not let me spend them, had suggested we might go back there that evening and use them then.
And that’s what we did. My dad worked on Saturday mornings, and wasn’t home when Jimmy and I headed out for our lunch-time drink. After dinner, sometime around 8pm, the three of us went back to the Emperor and sat in the dingy back bar. It was quiet for a Saturday night. I was the youngest person in the place by at least 30 years. My dad told a story about a previous evening there. Some old fella had staggered up to the bar, unzipped, had a piss, and then sat down again. Nobody batted an eyelid. It was that kind of place.
We didn’t stay till closing time. I wanted to get back in time for “Revolver”, a music show on ITV, and was prepared to head home on my own. The three of us walked together, dad telling stories about his time working on the buses. The afternoon and the evening had passed without my uncle telling any stories about my childhood, good or bad. There was nothing to tell. I liked it that way.
By 1990 The Emperor was closed and had been converted into a branch of the Nationwide Building Society. You can read about it, and about other dead local pubs, here.