Bermondsey’s unique and varied residents welcomed us with open arms for a thoroughly unpredictable evening of politics, rock music and cycling.
“I could have been the next Alan Shearer if I’d kept off the booze and drugs.” So claimed Sonny, a fast-talking rascal who accosted us with his own brand of non-stop banter the moment we entered The Gregorian. This pleasingly-named pub was Sonny’s stomping ground and he, along with his brother-in-arms Allie, said that if we encountered any trouble, just mention their names to gain carte blanche and immediate respect. The pair were already impressively mullered; it was 7pm.
Along with almost becoming the next Alan Shearer, Sonny informed us he was a former youth leader of EDL, he earned £2k a week working as a ‘trunker’, his father was top dog on one of London’s biggest estates and was a friend of diamond heist masterminds and taught Tommy Robinson all he knew, and – most poetically of all – if we ventured too far into Bermondsey we were likely “to get raped”. If ever an iota of silence should fall, he would respond in an almost Pavlovian manner with one of two stock phrases: “I coulda gone ta uni” or the inevitable “I ain’t racist, but…”.
Before any of this, he requested to message his girlfriend from my phone, from my own Facebook profile in fact. To prove he wouldn’t run off with the device, he emptied his pockets as a deposit, consisting of some loose change, chewing gum and a few pirate DVDs. I cautiously let him use the phone and later saw that he began his message with the charming salutation “hello you little slag”. She never replied.
Despite the unflattering (but accurate) picture I may be painting of Sonny, he did welcome us warmly into his corner of Bermondsey, and provided an unprecedented level of chat for so early in the evening, not to mention plenty of material for the blog. As we bade adieu to him and Allie it felt as if we’d peaked too soon. Surely the rest of Bermondsey would be beige in comparison to a start full of such local colour?
We were joined at this point by our friend Aniela and the three of us wandered on, a little shell shocked, and soon found the St James of Bermondsey, a bastion of calm after The Gregorian. It was full of quiet, friendly types, and a genial gesture soon bid us join a half-full table alongside the affable Dirk and his boyfriend, hailing from Germany and Italy respectively, but who’d been living in Bermondsey for several years. They were the antithesis of Sonny and Allie: modest, liberal, refined, professional. They represented another side of Bermondsey and warned us off several establishments, including the Blue Anchor, the Victoria and indeed the Gregorian. When we said we liked to experience the true nature of an area, and not cherry pick our pubs, they raised a doubtful eyebrow and wished us luck.
Back out into the night again, The Stanley Arms soon appeared, emblazoned with ‘Bermondsey’s premiere live music venue’ above the entrance. We entered to the quiet tones of nondescript 1950s jazz; both the music and décor seemed caught in a time warp, and the punters appeared not to have moved from their stools in several decades. Tonight’s DJ was Mike, we were informed; the regular DJ, Larry, was away. We nearly requested some Slayer or Cannibal Corpse but didn’t want to risk Mike’s chagrin. “Thanks, Larry”, I yelled on the way out, an accidental faux pas guaranteed to turn Mike a deeper shade of puce as he lined up yet another faded hit of yesteryear to regale the wallpaper with.
As we entered The Blue Anchor a band by name of TNT were setting up. Would this rival The Stanley Arms’ legendary status as Bermondsey’s premiere live music venue? The answer was immediate and explosive. Over the next hour, TNT treated us to a plethora of rock classics, from Thin Lizzie to Led Zeppelin, as the three of us almost set fire to the dance floor. The guitarist played one solo with his pint glass and we were smitten. Most of the other punters continued their sad but steady guzzling of booze, hanging onto the bar for dear life, with one notable exception. A few songs in we were joined by the quirkily named Cookie, a sharp dressed fellow who memorably stated “I’m 44 and I’ve loved music since before I were born”. He swayed in and out of the pub, joining us for a few photos, group hugs and indistinct mumblings. We didn’t want to leave but felt the spirit of the crawl urging us on.
We had been utterly spoiled by the calibre of the evening thus far and the subsequent two pubs (The Old Bank and The Hand and Marigold) were, almost inevitably, somewhat vanilla in comparison. They had no Sonny and Allie, no Dirk, no Mike the stand-in DJ, no rock gods TNT and no music-loving Cookie. However, Bermondsey had not quite run out of fun yet. Aniela brought some fashion to the evening by modelling an item of industrial millinery left languishing on the roadside. Milan, take note.
Andy then struck on the intensely foolish idea of cycling back to Waterloo on Boris bikes. Which of course we all embraced wholeheartedly. There isn’t room here to describe our obscure route or embarrassing average speed. Only to mention that one of us took regular, sudden, spread-eagled breaks. I won’t reveal her name.
I must, however, end on a special mention of the wonderful Aniela, who has left on a Colombian adventure that makes our London ramblings seem like child’s play. And so: bon voyage! Travel safe! And teach those Colombians how to party Bermondsey style (if not to cycle). If you get into any trouble, just say you’re mates with Sonny and Allie.
Next stop: BETHNAL GREEN