The notional centre of London, Charing Cross is not short of pubs, nor – as we discovered – of licentious Norwegians.
“I own around 50 motors. I have a nice home.”
Such is the language of the modest folk one is likely to meet around Charing Cross, that most central of London districts from which all distances to the capital are measured. We met John, the humble speaker of the above phrases, in our sixth pub of the night, The Nell Gwynne. By this point we were in an expansive mood, seeking interaction with persons hitherto unknown. We were a group of four, Andy and I being joined by pub crawl stalwart Oli (his fourth outing with us) and eager new initiate Helen. We formed a formidably jovial quartet, sharing anecdotes with warm competitiveness. Before we met man-of-the-people John in the Nell Gywnne, we spent happy hours in The Harp, The Marquis, and The Lemon Tree, all traditional-style pubs fitted out with wood panelling and framed portraits. We discussed our favourite palindromes (Madam in Eden, I’m Adam) and dabbled in other conversational topics befitting the hip young Londoners that we are.
Pub number four, the cavernous Porterhouse, was our one let-down of the evening. Its titanic size was exciting for all of two minutes but its lack of character soon became abundantly clear. For oversized things to be a success, their spirit also needs to be larger-than-life: see Brian Blessed. The Porterhouse failed this simple litmus test, yet somehow it was heaving. They provided live music to try to mask the inherent inadequacies of the venue, but even the band were devastatingly lacklustre. They were here purely to get paid, that was obvious. The music elicited no fun for them; their passion for performing had dried up long ago. It was depressing to watch. Oli described them aptly as “the Kronenbourg of pub bands”. I need say no more.
After the elephantine disappointment of The Porterhouse we came across the smaller, chicer Mabel’s where we were seated in front of a large gilt mirror, giving us ample chance for some light narcissism. After a round of Vedet our convivial mood – momentarily subdued by those vapid musicians – returned stronger than ever.
We could barely contain our merrymaking. As we wandered out of Mabel’s we made a pact to each make a new friend in the next pub. The Nell Gywnne was that hallowed place. It is here that salt-of-the-earth John re-enters our story, befriended by the intrepid Oli. Helen meanwhile had met John’s partner, Vicky, a lady of modest means who owns a small portfolio of 43 properties. These properties are in Nottingham, mind you, not London – a source of eternal chagrin to the landlady herself. She nearly snapped one up in Ealing recently, but it got away. Poor woman.
I knew none of this at the time of course because I was locked in discussion with Del, a middle-aged man who has the distinction of being so dull I immediately forgot everything he told me about himself the very moment it left his lips. He had a warm and friendly demeanour but his conversation was as hard to catch hold of as a greased eel. I think it was his tone of voice – a monotonous dirge, low and soft, hesitant yet with the uncanny impression it could, and maybe will, go on forever. His voice felt somehow part of the pub’s furnishings. Something that you’re aware is there but that holds no focus for you whatsoever. I’m astounded I can recall even the three letters of his name.
Andy meanwhile was having a rather different experience with his new companions. Christine and Tuva were from Norway, visiting London in order to “go shopping and have sex with English men”. They were both in their mid-50s and Christine had a fiancé back home. “He’s a Viking!” she said proudly. “What do you mean, a Viking?” asked Andy. “A Viking! You know – big arms, big cock!”
It was hard to say goodbye to our diverse new friends: humble John and Vicky with their 50 cars and 43 properties, utterly unmemorable Del and the salacious Norwegians, but the call of the crawl sang beckoningly in the night air. We just made it in time for last orders at The Coal Hole, and what a last order it was. They were selling off bottles of Prosecco at bargain prices – how could we possible say no? The bottle had to be finished quite rapidly but we rose to the occasion. Spurred on by the emboldening fizz, we just had time to grace the dance floor at the Charing Cross Theatre Players Bar before the last train.
And so – thanks Helen, thanks Oli, thanks John, Vicky, Del and Tuva. But most of all, thanks Christine for further defining my mental image of a Viking.
Next stop: CHESHAM