Constructed between 1921 and 1935 as the largest public housing estate in the world, Becontree hugs Dagenham from the west like a drunken uncle. And, like a drunken uncle, it made us feel uncomfortable, weary and occasionally amused.
The Roundhouse was cataclysmically empty. Its vastness had been curtailed to the merest sliver of open bar space; a ghostly barmaid floated in and out of the lonely scene as Andy and I quaffed our solemn beers. We had no inkling that The Roundhouse, previously known as the “Village Blues Club”, used to be East London’s foremost rock music venue, hosting such luminaries as Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd. It seemed we’d arrived forty years too late.
Moving on from this faded edifice to rock’s heady heyday, we discovered that drinking establishments aren’t exactly two-a-penny in Becontree. Between pubs, our peregrinations covered distances that Ranulph Fiennes would balk at. After our first such route march we found The Cherry Tree, home to the saddest dogs in the world, Ennui and Malaise (or so I christened them). They were so bored with life that they didn’t even raise their doleful eyes to greet the two unlikely visitors from the West who had dared to penetrate their bastion of liverish East London suburbia. Poor pups.
Our beers were near-empty when conversation began to trickle between us and Joan, a Cherry Tree regular. She took an interest in our adventures and soon offered us a lift to the next pub. We disregarded the advice of parents everywhere and took a ride with a stranger. Slightly disappointingly she didn’t take us back to her flat/den/dungeon for biscuits/crack/S&M. She was a woman of her word and, after a drive of several hours, deposited us at The Three Travellers, leaving us with the nostalgic sounds of Heart FM still ringing through our ears and souls.
We expected another dreary coffin of a pub but a bombastic high-five upon entry was the first sign of some much-needed horseplay. The bestower of the palm bruising salutation was Carlos, a gregarious fellow from Portugal with the sort of oversized cartoonish guffaw that is a refreshing joy for thirty seconds and the very chortle of Beelzebub thereafter. His English was patchy but his determination to socialise admirable. After twenty minutes of chitchat punctuated, nay, punctured, by his Luciferian laugh we attempted to sneak off. But Carlos, ever the charmer, announced that he would be accompanying us on our journey. And so he did.
On the way, I asked him what he does for a living, to which he replied with an emphatic, if syntactically incorrect, “No.”
“Do you plan to work in the future?”, I enquired.
He, straight-faced for the first time in hours, announced that he was going to “fuck for life” and that he had “a good tool for the work.” Cue more tooth-rattling laughter from our Portuguese pal as he, bleating like a bandsaw, led us – stupefied – into The Beacon Tree.
Here sat tables of men – young men, old men, fat men, not-quite-so-fat men – but not a woman to speak of. Staring into their pints, faces pickled by booze and boredom, they were tragically reminiscent of our canine acquaintances from The Cherry Tree. But where were their wives and partners? At home with the children? We had the unsettling feeling that gender equality had bypassed some corners of Becontree. The only woman in sight was the young barmaid who Carlos, in his clearest English, decided to harass with a coarse sexual joke. We berated him, apologised on his behalf, and left him with the other cheerless wretches, his laugh sounding quieter now, more forced, as we trudged into the unquestioning night.
Several marathons later we had left Becontree far behind and found ourselves in Chadwell Heath. Our exertion was rewarded with The Eva Hart and The Coopers Arms, the former pleasantly full and the latter depressingly, if predictably, empty. Later research revealed Eva Hart to be one of the longest living survivors of the Titanic disaster, and a resident of Chadwell Heath until her death in 1996 aged 91. How apt that her namesake pub was the liveliest one of the evening.
As the last tube home neared we reflected on Becontree’s apparent backwardness and stagnancy. So many pubs were full of vacant men wedged in sticky chairs. There were exceptions of course: our erstwhile taxi driver Joan and the Portuguese man o’ war Carlos (if only he could censor his sexist jokes and that laugh). Perhaps with more dynamic figures like Joan, Carlos, and indeed Eva Hart, Becontree could begin to raise itself out of a faded past.
Next stop: BELSIZE PARK