A London pub that doesn’t sell pints of beer might sound like some flight of fancy, but if you open your mind to a different drinking culture entirely, then a whole new world can be found awaiting at the French House pub in Soho.
At 11:19am on a pleasant Friday morning, I attempted to make my passage through the pub’s sturdy entrance door, instead finding it to be quite locked. Cupping hands around my face like wrinkled racehorse blinkers, I peered through the white-frosted windows, but these offered forth no glimpse within. Finding a second door locked also, I then noted an opening hours sign that indicated that the doors would open this day and every other at 12 noon. I had to laugh. This was to be my first encounter with the ways of an exotic, foreign drinking house.
Upon entering the premises at the appropriate time, I was immediately taken by the very small surroundings, cluttered as they were by all manner of photographs, paintings and illustrations that framed every inch of wall space. Enquiring as to the costs of hiring an audio guide, in English, in order to aid my studied browsing of the artworks upon the walls, the barman lifted his hands before him in an easily understandable gesture of incomprehension. I laughed, only too aware of the cultural divide that separated us. But this chasm deepened when he informed me that the pub only served beers in half-pint glasses. GOOD GOD! BUT…! Obviously familiar with the naÔve likes of me, he slowly repeated this charming local tradition, and shaking my head, I dispensed with some coinage of his fair currency, and left the servery with 300mls of ale.
My early arrival had been rewarded however, with a prime corner bench seat in a cul-de-sac to the rear of the bar, and I made claim to this position by arranging the contents of my pockets in neat, horizontal piles across the table, like the contents of a small nation’s time capsule. The half pint of ale I had purchased was, of course, now empty, and as the bar man again filled my small glass, he reminded me of a petrol station attendant refuelling a vehicle that has just left the station, driven once around the block, and immediately returned with an empty tank.
A large black and white photograph featured a character that looked like an oriental Winston Churchill. I stared at him from my seat, thinking how eerily quiet the pub was without music, TV, or annoying gaming machines. Despite the clink of glasses, and coins being fingered within the pockets of the cash register tray, the only noise of note was the constant hum from a vent in the wall above me. Ghosts speak through radio static, and I was listening out for them in the fan when my mobile phone suddenly rung loudly with its distinctive Easy Lover ring-tone, a track first brought to life in 1984 by English musician Phil Collins and his American counterpart Phil Bailey [must buy Bailey’s Chinese Wall album]. I let it ring for sometime, worried at first that I would have to pay overseas charges if I answered it, but just then the barman stuck his head around my back corner of the bar and loudly exclaimed, ‘No mobile phones in the bar! Thank you!’ An accusing silence sounded like a pane of glass that had been kicked in by a yellow boot roller skate. No mobile phones? I was astounded. What queer custom was this?
Back at the bar, having just broken the rules and traditions of the local ways, I attempted to play my appeasement card by requesting a bottle of fine French wine and uno glass. The barman smiled slightly, as if in pain, and he fetched a bottle and set about uncorking it. Once seated again, I began writing myself a postcard on a piece of scrap paper:
Hello! I’m at the French House pub in Soho. Drinking French wine. Here’s to you! Am fully absorbed in the culture having spoken often to a local man who knows me well. My table is clean. They only serve half pints! Mobiles are barred! And they don’t open until midday! How are things south of the river? For God’s sake, don’t open the door for anyone and never answer the phone.
All the best!
Just then, the barman placed a simple glass bowl before me, filled with fresh olives. Smiling, he said, ‘Enjoy!’ I was taken aback. As he disappeared again, tears began welling in my eyes until a sharp voice nearby said, “Pull yourself together, you big sook.” I glanced around, fearing that it was the voice of a French ghost speaking through the soft baritone hum of the extractor fan. “You stupid man with no taste.” The words seemed to come from beneath my very nose, and as I looked down, I saw the open end of an olive move to perfectly form the shape of the word ‘Loser.’ More olives began piping up with insults out of fish-like mouths. It was extraordinary! Talking olives! In perfect English! The next thing I knew, the entire chorus had begun loudly humming the Easy Lover tune of my mobile phone ring-tone. I was mesmerised. They were very good and they swayed slightly like a church choir. I began swaying too, and the barman looked quite angry when he suddenly appeared again, making it clear in no uncertain terms that mobile phones were not welcome in the French House.
I had an olive squeezed into each eye socket when I returned to the bar, because they told me they wanted to order the wine. But the barman showed me the door instead, and I wish I’d left some more room on my postcard to mention the really early closing hours.
Paul Ewen © 2006.
Paul Ewen was born and raised in New Zealand. After spending six years living and working in Asia,including four years in Vietnam, he moved to London in 2002. His short stories have appeared on 3AM magazine, in Tank magazine and in the Times Higher Education Supplement, and in 2005 he was featured in the British Council's New Writing 13 anthology edited by Ali Smith and Toby Litt. 'London Pub Reviews', his collection of stories based in real London pubs, will be published this year. Paul Ewen can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org