“Many select such a dwelling place because they are already debased below the point of enmity to filth.” – Charles Dickens (1857)
With Canary Wharf fresh in our minds, we were looking forward to exploring the nearby district of Canning Town which sadly, according to Wikipedia, is “among the 5 per cent most deprived areas of the UK.” Grandeur has always existed in startling proximity to poverty, and London is no exception to this unfortunate truth. But Canning Town is on the rise. A huge regeneration scheme to the tune of £3.7 billion is underway, and the myriad cranes crisscrossing the skyline are a conspicuous testament to the area’s impending metamorphosis.
Dickens, describing Canning Town in the 1850s, wrote that “a fetid mist covers the ground.” Thankfully we saw no evidence of this miasma, strolling out on a clear summer’s evening to track down our first pub. Filled with an inflated sense of derring-do we opted to explore a dusty side road – more of a cart-track really – home to some dilapidated sheds and industrial relics. Initially our tenacity proved foolish, but just as we were about to admit defeat we discovered the Durham Arms, the last bastion of booze in this grubby hinterland. The pub seemed frozen in time, decade after decade having passed with indifference. Its patrons were of such close ilk that they seemed almost of one homogenous life-form, like a vast human fungus sprouting here and there from the ale-soaked carpet. They barely seemed to notice the intrusion of two new individuals in their midst. Indeed, weeks went by before we got served. We used this time to get acquainted with the resident parrot, who sat morosely in its gilt prison behind the bar, subsisting on M&Ms which the landlady doled out in diabetic quantities. Eventually we were granted service and sat drinking in comfortable anonymity, watching the locals reenact their nightly rituals for the ten-thousandth time. But something seemed amiss, something strange or uncanny which we couldn’t quite put our finger on. It wasn’t the parrot. It wasn’t the table of sandwiches that was gradually being set up in the corner (had they been warned of our arrival?). Finally the fog of ignorance cleared: everyone was smoking. Openly smoking, not vaping or simply pre-rolling but drawing deeply on cigarettes, dropping ash nonchalantly in and around countless ashtrays. Dickens’ “fetid mist” was still here after all, alive and well in the Durham Arms. Although we’re both non-smokers, it was strangely uplifting to see a pub flouting the law in so flagrant a fashion; perhaps news of the ban had simply yet to reach them? With a catch in our throats and tears starting to form in our stinging eyes we bid the Durham Arms adieu.
Heading back to Canning Town’s main thoroughfare, we had a quick drink in the Princess Alexandra, where a group of cynical Cockneys were watching Britain’s Got Talent, augmenting Ant and Dec’s commentary with their own adroit analysis. Next came Charlie’s, a more modern establishment with a dapper crowd swaying suavely to dance music. Once again, something seemed amiss. The fog of ignorance cleared faster this time, Andy quickly pointing out the rising spirals of smoke throughout the venue, like so many middle fingers raised to the 2007 smoking ban. Who’d have thought Canning Town would turn out to be an outlaw state, a place where laws were ignored and the populace embraced Aleister Crowley’s self-serving dictum “do what thou wilt”? The air thick with danger – and smoke – we continued deeper into this rebel-held land.
Bronze, an African/Caribbean Bar & Restaurant, was our next stop and surprisingly smoke-free. Perusing the sizeable beer fridge, Andy selected a bottle of “rich and satisfying” Hero, whereas I opted for the “ultimate beer” otherwise known as Gulder. At first this place seemed suspiciously law-abiding, but the astronomical price we were charged for these two drinks (which, for the record, were neither rich, satisfying, or ultimate) proved that a certain criminality was no doubt at play here too. Nevertheless, Andy and I chatted away happily enough, mulling over what would happen if the loyal patrons of the four previous pubs were forced to explore each other’s boozers. We simply couldn’t imagine it happening, which suggests either a failure of imagination on our part, or the strength of territorial loyalties – or abject inertia – on theirs.
The evening changed tack as we entered the Red House. Andy seemed different all of a sudden. His eyes lit up and he seemed to grow a few inches in height – a sure sign that a pool table was nearby. He eagerly scribed his name onto the list of upcoming players and waited impatiently to have his go with the pointy wooden stick and the large coloured marbles. I indulged his love for this ‘sport’ – he is actually rather good at it – and watched him bash the marbles into the small goals for a while. After several minutes I needed a rest from this gratuitous athleticism and settled into conversation with John, a middle-aged ex-Navy man with an almost impenetrable Glaswegian accent. By some miracle I managed to perceive the overriding narrative of his mumblings. He had lived quite a life by all accounts, travelling the world extensively during his naval days.
“What did you do for your 18th birthday?” he asked in an out-of-character burst of intelligibility.
“I think I went to a gig and had drinks with friends.” I replied.
“Well, I spent the day in a Bolivian brothel.” said John, former man of the seas and now it seemed, insatiable lover.
“The day?” I retorted.
“Ay, it opened at 8am.”
Images of an 18-year-old John placating a harem of Bolivian harlots swam in hideous clarity before my eyes, the dull sounds of colliding marbles my only link to reality. Eventually Andy let the marbles rest (he’d won four games on the trot and the locals were starting to get restless) and we departed hastily, leaving John staring vacantly – but I like to think happily – into the middle distance.
It was nearing 11pm and last orders were looming. The Abbey Arms came and went in an oppressive cloud of cheerless masculinity. Ever the optimist, I calculated that we had time for one more drink, if we were willing to jog almost a mile to the Black Lion. Andy, buoyant from his sporting dominance at the Red House, sprinted into the night and it was all I could do to keep pace. As we crossed our last threshold of the evening, slices of birthday cake were thrust into our hands; it was Norman’s 80th! After a brief moment of indecision we plunged into the orgy of senescence and soon found ourselves in the capable arthritic hands of Sonia and Veronica. A doddering singer-pianist crooned out Neil Diamond with the vim and vigour of a mere 70-year-old. Before long Andy was being eyed up by the sprightly and only slightly varicose Mary, and within seconds she was throwing him around the dance floor like a rag doll. Andy was besotted but I sternly (and somewhat enviously) reminded him of the impending last tube, and so we departed Norman’s 80th with Sweet Caroline ringing in our ears and the tantalising tang of elderly urine in our nostrils. This blog’s for you, Norman.
Next stop: CANNON STREET