Death of a Good Pub.
Some of my juvenilia, from when I lived south of the Thames. I wrote this in 2005 for the much-missed marvel that was Smoke, A London Peculiar, and I was inspired to dig it up by reading this post on Transpontine, the compendium of south-east London life. It’s an elegy on my favourite ex-pub in London, which I still miss. Now only the Montague Arms keeps a remnant of the dream alive.
Number one on absolutely no one else’s list of Good London Pubs is the sadly defunct Goldsmiths Tavern. When I lived in New Cross as a student I didn’t go near this place for months – it was open past 2am but was extremely dodgy in look and reputation, you heard various stories about plans hatched and deals done that would’ve made Guy Ritchie come on the spot.
My first Tavern experience came, like so many others, at the end of a very good night up and down New Cross Road when all other pubs had decisively shut up shop. So in we went, and yes, it was as skanky as it looked. You stuck to the floor. The gig/dance floor/backroom bit was too dark to see anyone who engaged you in conversation. The other backroom was reached by a system of connecting doors that led you through the women’s toilets. The pool table never had all the requisite balls.
And yet. Good music and good people make for a good pub. The jukebox at one point seemed to have every single Clash album on it – even Sandinista. Hell, even Cut the Crap. And the jukebox was free. And there were random ska nights and punk nights and fetish nights and open-mic nights all over the shop.
In terms of clientele, the Tavern felt a bit like a scuzzier version of the canteen in Star Wars. I had some of the most interesting, strangest, scariest and most amusing conversions of my life in there. Everyone was a refusenik of some sort: students who hated students, local petty criminals who wished they ran a bookshop in the West Country, struggling artists who really should’ve been civil servants (and vice versa). And you know what? No one even pretended they were minor celebrities of any description. That wasn’t the point of the place. The most famous regulars I encountered were Eastenders’ Joe Absalom, the unnameable Only Fools and Horses actor who played Mickey Pearce, and someone who claimed to be the Super Furry Animals’ sound engineer, but probably wasn’t. There were even moments when you and your companions would feel like the most celebrated people in there. It was gloriously unpretentious and accepting. If you wanted to pose, you could bugger off to East London.
I must admit that the Tavern appeared to degenerate in its final months. More than once I’d walk up New Cross Road and have to keep on walking, seeing its corner cordoned off in black-and-yellow tape and, once, a pool of blood outside the entrance. Finally there came the Tavern’s Last Stand, when a probably justified but somewhat gratuitous looking police raid shut it down during the early hours of an otherwise nondescript night in the spring of 2003. The street filled up with ejected punters and bemused onlookers. Rumours persisted after the event that a couple of die-hard regulars had linked arms and attempted to form a protective cordon across the entrance, to no avail. A now highly-respected figure in the anti-fascist wing of student politics was said to have climbed up the drainpipe of the squat across the road, whose Trustafarian occupants resolutely refused to send reinforcements, shouting rebukes along the lines of ‘Call yourselves fecking bohemians?’ All it needed was Bogart standing on the stairs while we all sang La Marseillaise.
So that was that. And they could have left the shell of the Tavern alone, but to add insult to injury, if you’re ever down SE14 way these days, you’ll see it’s become one of several creepingly gentrified salsa-class-and-tapas bars, plastic, sterile and catering for townies downing overpriced beer before staggering off to the Venue, and for students who know no better. And they call it the Goldsmiths Tavern, still, but it’s not and never will be.
By the way, it has changed again and is now called the New Cross House.