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Walking Tour of London's Literary PubsAugust 7, 2012
The Guardian, August 7, 2012
Neither was a famous drinker, but it was in the company of Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf that the capital's first literary pub crawl set out from the Writers and Artists Bar in the basement of the Fitzroy Tavern (16 Charlotte Street, W1), in central London on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
The two ghosts, played by actors, kicked things off with that classic beer drinker's team-building exercise – a pub quiz. Luckily for my team-mate, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" was in my tiny repertoire of famous first lines (Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities) and we won. Then off we went, up the stairs past photos of George Orwell and Dylan Thomas, who drank here when they worked nearby at the BBC, and into the bustle of Charlotte Street, the thoroughfare of the neighbourhood known as Fitzrovia, that lies immediately to the west of Bloomsbury and north of Oxford Street.
I couldn't help thinking that it would take even a biographical scholar many months to try and work out what Dickens and Woolf might have made of each other, had they met in the afterlife or a Tom Stoppard play. Here Woolf, who had lived a stone's throw away in Gordon Square, was played with prim hauteur, while Dickens, who used to walk daily from lodgings in Gower Street to visit his parents in Marshalsea prison, was a genial, tail-coated raconteur.
Their banter will surely warm up as they get used to the roles (our outing was a trial run) but the thespian flavour was fitting since the tour is the brainchild of another actor, Nick Hennegan, the artistic director of the Maverick Theatre company. He noticed a gap in the London walks market, which is dominated by hauntings and Jack the Ripper, and has spent the last few months working on a route and script.
Back in the day, the whole area was famous for "prose, poetry, prostitutes and petty crime" – Seven Dials in Covent Garden acting as a kind of hub for villainy – but the gangsters that the writer Anthony Burgess and his wife Lynne encountered at our next stop, the Duke of York pub (47 Rathbone Street), were scarier than that. Over a pint one evening they had watched a local crime family smash up the place. Might this have inspired the violence in A Clockwork Orange?
Still on Rathbone Street, just a few doors down, the Newman Arms (23 Rathbone Street) was the only family-run freehouse on the route. This was the model for the prole, underclass pub in Orwell's dystopian classic 1984, and it looked the part. An unofficial blue plaque celebrates the memory of the former landlord: "Joe Jenkins, ex-proprietor, poet, bon viveur and Old Git, regularly swore at everybody on these premises," it reads.
There was once a brothel here. Now there is an image of an old-fashioned prostitute painted on a bricked-over upstairs window, and this is exactly the kind of detail walking tours are best at: fragments of social history in the fabric of the buildings, usually above the eye line or tucked down an alleyway, so that you would probably never notice them if somebody didn't tell you where to look.
The poet TS Eliot is associated with the Marquis of Granby, a large pub on the corner of Rathbone and Percy Street. Here, the actress playing Woolf, who had been a sort-of friend of Eliot's (this didn't stop her writing mean things about him in her diary), read aloud his famous poem "The Naming of Cats", which was fun, and reminded us of his hugely successful commercial association with the West End through Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats.
Around the bend on Rathbone Place was the Wheatsheaf (25 Rathbone Place) whose heyday was in the 40s and 50s, when everyone who was anyone drank here, and a poignant pause opposite what was, until last month, The Black Horse (6 Rathbone Place) where Karl Marx once made a speech, but which is now an upscale hamburger joint, Byron. Happily this establishment has had the sense to keep the old pub sign and styles itself Byron at The Black Horse.
After that we crossed Oxford Street and it all got a bit less literary as we entered Soho. I didn't think the famous masochist Sebastian Horsley, who lived on Meard Street and was once voluntarily crucified, belonged on the same itinerary as Orwell and Dickens.
There were anecdotes about King Charles II's collection of illegitimate children, and old-time celebrity hangout the Colony Room. The tour brought out all sorts of associations, mostly obscure, in a city that unlike Dublin has not tended to make much of the connections between its writers and its boozers.
Of course not all these associations are happy ones: Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan, who both featured, ended their lives as alcoholics. Perhaps this helps explain why, although we looked at and learned about nearly 10 pubs (ending up at the famous Coach and Horses, 29 Greek Street), we didn't drink in any.
I had wondered if I would be up for a pint at 5pm, with children to put to bed later, but never dreamed that I could get through what was billed as a pub crawl without going inside one. Yet that's what happened. The only time we went indoors was at the Soho Theatre, where I listened rapt, over a glass of fruit juice, to the theatre-land tales of another woman on the tour, who works as an usher, and told us that she still jumped at the scary bit in The Woman in Black, at the Fortune Theatre in Covent Garden.
Beer enthusiasts take note: this highly enjoyable, off-the-beaten-track pub tour is not designed for drinkers, who will need to retrace their steps afterwards to have a pint or two – perhaps of one of the fine British beers currently not on offer in London's Olympic park due to sponsorship restrictions.
• The next London literary pub crawl is on 25 August at 4pm, then every Thursday at 6.30pm and Saturday at 4pm after that. Group tours can be booked by arrangement. Tickets £15. Tour lasts two and a half hours. londonliterarypubcrawl.com.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk