Friday, January 05, 2007

Above the pub

I’ve been reading a couple of books recently which have led me to ponder the importance of that great institution – the room above the pub (or sometimes the room behind the pub).

Firstly in a Peckham charity shop I came across 'At the Dog in Dulwich: recollections of a Poet', an autobiography of Patricia Doubell edited by Clive Murphy (London, Secker & Warburg, 1986). This describes the activities of the Dulwich Group of poets who met at the Crown & Greyhound (the ‘Dog’) in the 1960s and 1970s – where indeed poetry meetings had been held since the 1940s. Among those who gave readings there were poets Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Stevie Smith and Ivor Cutler.

Then in George Melly’s 'Owning Up' he talks about rehearsing in the 1950s in 'the upper rooms of various pubs. I suppose that most of early British revivalist jazz emerged from the same womb. Rehearsal rooms existed, of course, but we never thought of hiring one at that time. They were part of the professional world of which we knew nothing.. Many of these pub rooms were temples of 'The Ancient Order of Buffaloes', that mysterious proletarian version of the 'Freemasons', and it was under dusty horns and framed nineteenth-century characters that we struggled through 'Sunset Cafe Stomp' or 'Miss Henny's Ball'.

I had a number of 'upstairs' experiences myself only last month, DJing upstairs at the Birdcage in Stoke Newington at my friends’ Jon & Lorna’s party, and singing upstairs at the Royal George in Tanners Hill at the South East London Folklore Society Yule Night. Over the years I have taken part in numerous political meetings, music sessions and other events in similar settings. Most memorably for a while in the 1990s I regularly spent Sunday lunchtimes above the now-demolished George pub next to St George's Cathedral on Lambeth Road, learning Irish tunes with some other beginners before getting the confidence to move downstairs and play sessions in the public bar.

People have experimented with various autonomous education projects over the years, such as the London Free School and the Copenhagen Free University, but it seems to me that free discussion, learning and culture can be found on a regular basis by circulating through the various upstairs rooms of pubs across this town and many other. The question is will they survive? As old pubs close, new places such as bars and cafes emerge but usually without any spare room for anything interesting to happen. Space tends to be planned and utilized to the nth degree with nothing so ‘uneconomic’ as a room upstairs to be used a couple of nights a week by passing radicals, freethinkers and balladeers.

So lets make the most of those upstairs rooms and hold on to them wherever we can.. As an example of the multiple treasures to be found there, I note that next Monday 8 January 2007, starting at 8.00pm, The Horseshoe Pub, 24 Clerkenwell Close, EC1 is the temporary home of a Greek music session hosted by the very fine Institute of Rebetology.

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