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The Last Piss-Up at One of London's Doomed Local Pubs

The regulars at The Admiral Mann aren't going down without a pint.

by Clive Martin, Photos: Tom Johnson
22 August 2014, 6:00am

London is a city defined by its boozers. More than just places to get pissed in, more than places to stay out of the cold, they’re living pieces of history; stately homes with fruit machines, Cockney chateaux with West Ham graffiti in the lavs. You've only got to visit one of those tourist trap pubs – The Sherlock Holmes in Westminster, or the brilliantly named London Pub off Russell Square – to realise that boozers are a large part of why outsiders come to London; the same kind of draw as Parisian cafe culture or the street markets of Marrakech. And for London's residents, they've provided a much-needed sense of sanctuary in a city that doesn't often stop to think what its grand plans mean for the people who actually have to live there.

The majority of London's most famous residents have had their own local – Dickens, De Gaulle, Dr Johnson, "Mad" Frankie Fraser, Suggs: they've all got an outstanding tab somewhere. The best provide London – or any community, for that matter – with a sense of continuity. The prices go up but the decor stays the same. The ghostly barflies, photos of better times and hard-as-fuck landladies become constants in our lives. London pubs may often be dank, overpriced, piss-sprayed hovels that veer constantly between states of catatonia and extreme violence, yet even the worst are imbued with a sense of escapism that the sober world, with all its "realities" and "facts", just can't provide.

But in recent years, the pubs of London have found themselves stranded before the smoking barrels of the city's nu-capitalist overlords. The fact is that most pubs are big properties on main roads that don't make nearly enough money to compete with London's runaway market economy. Developers look at them in the same way undertakers look at everyone: as cash yet to be made. The unfashionable ones, without their "sliders" and obscure Pilsners, sit at the fringes of the London experience, their presence untenable amid the forces of real money, waiting to be ripped apart and turned into some kind of tech-yuppie hive-nest.

One of the most notable of this year's casualties was The Grosvenor in Stockwell, which was turned into flats. (East London's famous George Tavern is currently threatened with the same fate.) The previous few saw The Intrepid Fox shafted by Crossrail and Islington's The Wenlock Arms only narrowly avoid closure. The UK seems to be turning into a graveyard for pubs – nationwide, the number closing each week is estimated to be 26. No doubt London alone makes up a decent chunk of that.

And for the locals? Tough cheese; no hard feelings; learn to like Peroni or fuck off to Margate. Little consideration is given to the people who've lived and loved in these places; just another reminder of what the will of the people means in Britain today.

The latest victim of this miserably, typically Borisian trend is The Admiral Mann, a small family pub tucked away somewhere between Kentish Town and Holloway. The pub has been standing in its current location since 1881, becoming part of the McMullen's family brewery in 1923, where it's stayed ever since. Since the pub was founded, the neighbourhood's been a stomping ground for people like Joe Meek and Michael X, Amy Winehouse and the Camden Ripper, N-Dubz and Idi Amin's dickhead gangster son. Granted, they probably didn't all drink there – definitely not all at the same time – but it gives you a feel for the area.

The pub itself withstood the Zeppelin airship attacks of World War I and the onslaught of the Blitz, which wrought havoc locally. In the time The Admiral Mann has been there, the neighbourhood's gone from suburbia, to ghetto, to bohemia. Jack Hawkins, the Zulu and Ben Hur actor, used to drink here. As did Charlie George, the Arsenal legend whose signed shirt hangs proudly in the pub.

But now, it faces a sad, sudden, whimpering death, as McMullen's have opted to sell the property to developers looking to build – you guessed it – private flats. In protest, a group of locals and regulars have started a campaign to save The Admiral Mann, and last Sunday a small party was organised to gather support, and commemorate its place in the lives of its regulars.

Making my way down the Brecknock Road, one of those grand old roads that cuts across North London, lined with white Victorian houses, red brick estates, no-frills pizza shops, workers' cafes and branches of Costcutter, I was reminded that despite its proximity to Camden Town, this is still a resolutely "local" part of town. Many of the businesses have been here for years; you suspect many families have, too, resisting the forces that have turned Kentish Town into little-Highgate and Camden into Blade Runner with a Pret.

It's an area that manages to be both traditional and diverse. Unlike other parts of London, these residential North London neighbourhoods – a multitude of mini-suburbs crammed into the gridlines of the city – are still demographically unclassifiable, and the essence of the area is perhaps more psychological or sociological than racial or religious. 

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News of the plan to shut the pub has filtered through in the last few weeks. When the campaign to save it kicked into action, the brewery kindly responded by moving the closure date forward from mid-November, to last Sunday, the 17th of August. Presumably this was to stall the campaign's momentum, and to make sure there wasn't enough time to lobby for the pub to be registered as an asset of community value, which might have saved it.

With the property rumoured to be worth something in the region of £4 million, it seems clear that the small Hertfordshire brewery (who claim their company motto is "respect") want to sell up as quickly, and with as little fuss, as possible. The astonishingly short notice means that many of the pub's longest serving regulars won't get to give their local a proper send off. So far, all the brewery have offered by way of explanation is a muttered something about the government and taxation.

Shortly after Sunday's party was announced, another week's extension was granted to the landlords, which – while being good news – left the place in a strange state of existential limbo. At the time of publishing, the last day of trading is officially this Sunday, the 24th of August, but that could well change, either for the sooner or the later.

With this sense of terminal uncertainty hanging in the air, a decision was made to go ahead with the party anyway. A number of locals from across the generations came along, as well as non-regulars who just wanted to rail against another community pub closure. The Pearly King and Prince of Finsbury were there, too. It made for a peculiarly elegiac Sunday piss-up.

It's not easy to explain who the Pearlies are, or what they do. I remember asking my dad when I was a kid and he couldn't really offer much of an explanation beyond "they just sort of go to things", but perhaps the best way of describing them would be as mascots for Cockney culture; community activists, fundraisers, cheerleaders and spokespeople for a London almost lost. Amnesty International for people who pronounce the word "fuck" with an "A" in it.

Stepping inside for a pint of Kronenbourg (£3.10, btw) the mood seemed chipper, defiant but also somewhat nostalgic. There was a sense of people trying to remember the good times, to say a kind of preliminary goodbye to a place that has served many as a second living room for decades. They gathered at the bar, the different crews ordering their usuals, talking about pub legends like Pete Stanley, the famous bluegrass banjo player who drinks red wine there most weeks. 

John Walters (no, not that one), AKA the Pearly King of Finsbury, AKA the man with the biggest hands I'd ever seen, had appointed himself the evening's chief entertainer in the grand tradition of his forefathers, singing the songs of old (along to a mix CD).

His set started with "I'm Henry the XIII I Am", a Cockney classic about the crisis of masculinity suffered by a man who marries a widow, only to find out she's had seven other husbands, all called Henry. It ended with Dame Vera Lynn's proto-slow jam "We'll Meet Again", which is basically "Birthday Sex" for the Blitz generation.

John wasn't Luther Vandross. He sung loud, flat, but proud, and as he serenaded this girl with his show-stopping finale, I remembered my Nan singing "Knees Up Mother Brown" around her flat; the strange lyrics, full of slang and puns and quadruple entendre, and never quite understanding what these songs were or who they were for. Here, the penny finally dropped that they are essentially folkloric, a way of passing on stories and eulogising your own culture.

Whether under attack from poverty, cholera, Hitler, slumlords or political apathy, London's working class have pretty much always been having a shitty time of it, and these songs, sung in pubs like The Admiral Mann, have been there to help steer them through. If no one else is going to create a legend for the way you live, then you do it yourself. As this guy dabbed at his eyes with his handkerchief, I wondered if it would be possible for the regulars to do that over the sound of a ukelele orchestra, or some Brick Lane support slot dickhead's godawful deep house SoundCloud mix.

At the bar I met Bob, who runs the greengrocers on Brecknock Road and has lived in the area for most of his life. "I've been to a few pubs, and nothing comes close to this one," he told me. "Now it's gone I don't know where I'm going to go; the closest thing we've got to this is one up in Holloway, but it's not the same.

"I'm in here every day. I get up about 3AM to get to the market, finish up at the shop in the afternoon, have a drink and a chat here, and then back home for dinner and bed again. This place is my life, basically."

I asked him if he thought the pub had any chance of surviving. "Well, they managed to save the Wenlock off City Road after a campaign, and maybe we can do the same. That's our hope."

Dave, another long-time regular, who for years has been bringing his guitar into the pub to entertain the faces, seemed particularly angry about the plans. "Greed, nothing but absolute greed, the lot of 'em," he kept saying. "We all get on so well here, and there's never any trouble. We book holidays, coach trips, that kind of thing. They've got no interest in maintaining this community."

It's not just the older folk who are conscious of this erosion of community. Outside the front, these two asked why we were taking pictures. I explained that the pub was being closed, and that some people had gathered to try to save it.

"Why are they doing that?" they replied. "I've lived on the estate my whole life, this pub's always been here."

Others told me that they'd become regulars at the Admiral after their previous locals had already closed down or lost all sense of being a pub, rather than a burger restaurant with draft beers.

The Unicorn – a pub at the end of the road that caters mainly to the Camden rock and metal community, with bands playing six nights a week – didn't seem to cut the mustard for most of them. They came to the Admiral to talk to their mates and watch Arsenal and Tottenham games, not to watch shit bands covering 'Smoke On the Water".

I'm a firm believer that you can't resist change forever; keeping London stuck in the past isn't good for anyone. Cities need to stay modern, otherwise they'd all end up like Paris. Demographics change, and pubs do fail, but The Admiral Mann is still a profitable, vital pub. One customer – and this is the kind of pub where the customers would be privy to this kind of information – tells me they were never doing less than ten grand a month here, even with the relatively cheap bar prices. The pub still serves a wide demographic of people, many of them the kind of age that most pubs see as their core customer base.

But the fact is that some pubs in Camden will do ten grand in one good night, the kind of places where you can't even get a seat on a Tuesday evening, and in the face of that The Admiral Mann's locals were always going to lose out. Where they'll go next is a matter of debate, but the fact everyone's saying different things is further proof that this North London micro-community has been smashed by the city's out-of-control housing market.

What I'm talking about here isn't just the demise of one pub, it's a vivid example of modern-day gentrification in action. All realised at a speed that never gave anyone a chance.

This grand plan to raze London and rebuild it in the image of the rich spells disaster for the minutiae of people's lives. Take The Admiral Mann's darts pedigree, for instance, which stretches back to the pub's earliest days. Simply put, the new London has no room and no time to allow something like that to exist. But for London darts people, the Admiral – with its rarely seen, East End-style "Fives" board, its A, B, youth and all-conquering ladies teams, its array of trophies – is sacred ground.

The argument in support of this kind of thing is often that London is full of pubs. But all pubs are different; they have different attributes, different communities, different darts, even. London's "pop-up, fuck off" Illuminati are the enemies of that difference.

The reason people come to London and buy flats like the ones that are going to replace the Admiral, is to experience that lurid mess of cultures which defines modern London. Yet all those different communities are facing the sharp end of Boris's capitalist vision, and in the process London is losing everything about itself, becoming a sterile zone of Tesco Expresses and stone-baked Pizza Pubs stretching out towards the Thames Barrier.

For all the gloomy talk of closure, people were still defiant. The extra week had given them hope, but while everyone was no doubt passionately in favour of saving the place, and willing to do whatever they could to make that happen, there was an air of crushing inevitability about the proceedings.

It was in essence, a goodbye. John the Pearly King had semi-jokingly suggested some kind of sit-down protest in the road, but for all the success with the fight to save the Wenlock, the sheer amount of shuttered up pubs across London acts as a bleak prognosis on the pub's future.

As darkness fell, the guard began to change, as if the punters were working some kind of shift rota. Those who'd worked early on the markets were heading home in the cooling North London twilight, a new late crowd replacing them.

The thing that unites almost all newer, hipper or more commercial drinking dens, from Wetherspoons to the latest snide 'tache Clapton cocktail joint, is that primarily, people are there to get pissed up. As pissed as possible, in the place with the clientele they stand the most chance of having sex with. But pubs like the Admiral serve a different purpose. Of course, people are getting pissed, maybe some are having sex. But without wanting to sound like some sentimental Trade Unionist, these places are about community, integration, reflection – family, even. 

They aren't just places to get wrecked on Disarrono and Cokes, they're places where you're meant to feel at home, and for a lot of those people who live in the uncertainty of social housing (many in the estate directly behind), the Admiral is surely a place that will feel more part of them than the places the council have begrudgingly given them to live in.

Richard Lewis, a younger regular who's acting as the chairman of the campaign committee, summed it up pretty well. "To me the pub represents a kind of quintessential London, which is usually neglected and overlooked. I think it represents the very best aspects of our culture and community. It's a traditional pub but it's warm-hearted and welcoming.

"Community spaces in the capital are decreasing, and those that use The Admiral Mann will be hit hard by its closure. People of all ages, regulars and newcomers, all find genuine warmth and friendship in this increasingly alienating city. With the pub being a viable and profitable business, it's my hope that it continues to be so. I ask the current or future owners of the property to consider keeping this pub open."

Looking at the photos that lined the corkboards in the lounge, I thought about the roles that pubs play in our lives. For many of us they're where some of our fondest, funniest and lowest moments have occurred. Places not just for inebriation, but for ceremony, sorrow and contemplation. From first dates to Champions League away wins, to birthday parties, break-up pints, weddings and wakes, they're the theatres in which we play out some of the most important moments of our lives.

Think of the most important things that've happened in your life. How many of them happened in your living room, and how many happened among others, in public, amid all the noise and confusion?

With every pub gone, London becomes a more insular, lonelier city.

What are all those memories worth? A few more ludicrously expensive flats built for people who have no interest in this city, people who live here because that £50k salary demands it. People who are looking for an investment rather than a love affair; a place in Zone 1 they can whack on Airbnb when they're off to NYC on business trips. People who are here for the sliders.

London is now a city built for these dullards, and not for the people of The Admiral Mann. Not for anyone whose idea of existence doesn't hinge around a lust for competition and ripping off the guy next to you, while looking as cool as possible doing so. "If anyone's a bit short on cash, it's no problem here," one local tells me. "If anyone needs to borrow a score, we'll chip in. It's a family."

Not something you'd hear at The Advisory, or the "Bump Cave" in South London where they serve fake cocaine with cocktails, I'm sure. Maybe the Admiral Mann could've done more to attract the Evening Standard crowd than it has, but perhaps putting on fussball and Jaegerbombs would kill everything that made it what it is.

All in all, the closure of The Admiral Mann is indicative of not just everything that's wrong with Boris' London, but of our culture as a whole. A lack of interest in the things that define it, and a fetishisation of the things that will come to destroy it. A bullshit economy based on ripping each other off rather than building for the better that's come to ruin so much for so many people. 

It isn't just the Admiral, other old boozers, or pie "n" mash shops that are under threat, it's everything that isn't obsessed with making as much money as possible. Everything that isn't run by a total bastard, basically.

First to go will be the old pubs, then the Turkish social clubs, the Polish shops, the West African community centres, the churches, whatever. We'll be left with absolutely none of the variety that keeps this city alive. The whole place will look like Stratford Westfield. And then it won't be London any more, just everywhere else in Britain, a whole country precision-designed for maximum profit and minimum character, contactless payment and joyless pursuits. 

Places like The Admiral Mann represent the best not just of Cockney culture, but all culture. And whether you drink, or whether you like football, or even pubs doesn't really matter. The Admiral Mann is Britain without the bastards, and we should do everything we can to save it, because those flats sure as fuck aren't for you. 

Sign the petition here.

See more of Tom's photography here.

@thugclive

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