Went to the Marlborough Arms up on Torrington Place (near Goodge street) yesterday. Bank holiday afternoon, hardly anyone around. Music burbling non-intrusively in the background. Might have been hanging out twenty years ago, back when the Arms was my local and I lived in a squat across the street.
Back in the day, we used the Arms so much we called it the living room. Our squat in the red-stone building across the street had no heat, and you could hang around the Arms all afternoon nursing a pint and reading the papers left around on the tables. They had big couches and you could lie back on, and even fall asleep if the bartender was feeling indulgent. The place hadn’t been renovated in years and the couches, chairs and even the couch had huge bald patches in them, as if they’d attacked by mange, but the decay was part of the attraction – like it was in so many places in London in those days.
It had a reputation as an old lefty icon, and I’d heard some of the people who went to lead liberation movements in Africa and Asia used to drink there – I guess they’d been students at the University of London. I never found out any names, or if this was even true, but I did meet an old Stalinist at the bar once. He was from Glasgow originally and had been hounded out of Scotland because of his activities with the party. I fancied myself an anarcho-syndicalist at the time, but I wore a hammer and sickle earring in one ear as a sort of joke and one night at the bar he pointed at it and started yelling at me: “That’s the symbol of the worker’s and peasant’s party . . . ”
Commie or not, he was a good old guy. He worked as an accountant and lived in a basement flat in the apartment house across the street, the twin to the one where we had our squat. He usually came in early in the evenings and stayed until closing, drinking at the bar and talking to whoever came along and playing the fruit machines. When I asked him what the Party thought of him playing fruit machines, he glanced at me wryly, “they don’t approve, I’m afraid.” Glasnost was still all over the news and he thought Gorbachev was ‘interesting’ and hoped he could rejuvenate Communism, but he could be testy about old Joe. He figured Sholzenytsin was a religious nut, his accounts of the Gulag not to be trusted . . . but he had to admit that Stalin had done ‘questionable things’ that perhaps he’d even betrayed the Revolution.
They ended up renovating the pub, getting rid of the old couches, putting in new carpet, and clearing out the old men. I can’t remember how it happened but my communist friend ended up getting in a fight with one of the barmen and was thrown out. I think he even tried to attack the guy across the bar – he was a tough old bastard. I didn’t see him until a few weeks later. He was leaving his flat. I was across the street and he called out: “Hello, my young anarcho-syndicalist friend!” as cheery as ever.