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Multicultural Man: On pub culture

Will Self on the sobering experience of his brother-in-law's wake in the Hand in Hand on Brixton hill

A customer at the Waverley, Edinburgh, enjoys a drink at the bar. Alcohol can now be served inside pubs and restaurants, which are allowed to stay open until 22.30, as Scotland moves to Level 2 restrictions to ease out of lockdown. Credit: Jane Barlow/PA Wire/PA Images

To the Hand in Hand pub on Brixton Hill for my late brother-in-law David Orr’s wake: he died in February, but for obvious reasons, the event was postponed. It was the first indoor gathering of any size MM had been to since the pandemic began in March of last year, and it was an experience at once intoxicating and… sobering. David, a native of the rust belt town of Motherwell, 20 miles outside Glasgow, spoke in a thick brogue to the end of his days, but he’d been a Londoner since the mid-1990s and there was a good crowd there to celebrate his life.

A life – it has to be said – that was lived in pubs quite as much as anywhere else. Dave was a talented draughtsman and a guitarist with a fine singing voice, but despite doing a graphic design degree at Camberwell Art College, he never really found his feet professionally in London, and ended up working mostly as a driver and an internet cable-fitter. The lung cancer that killed him was discovered when it was found to’ve already metastasised to the site of a shoulder injury he’d suffered after a predictable work accident: falling off a roof.

David was 54 when he died, and if you don’t think modern Britons expire – at least in part – because of industrial accidents, then think again. Anyway, when he wasn’t balancing on your eaves so you’re able to loll mindlessly in front of Sky Sports or Netflix (which to be fair, he quite enjoyed doing himself), Dave was down the pub, either playing with one or other of the pub bands he belonged to over the years, or watching sports. And of course, drinking – the drinking, to be frank, could be prodigious. As was the smoking – tobacco and weed. The latter Dave very much blamed for his cancer, which is getting it arsy-versy so far as the scientific research is concerned, marijuana not being at all carcinogenic, whereas the fags most definitely are. But that was a cultural prejudice on Dave’s part, I think: he always felt the illegal drugs were that bit naughtier and hence unhealthier. His other cultural prejudice was against overly yuppified ‘gastro’ style pubs.

For years his local was the Prince Regent opposite Brockwell Park, which had a vibe at once spit-and sawdust and a little raffish; but eventually the gaff was refurbed, the pool table got rid off and the clientele started to be rather more Boden than Bohemian.

Dave wanted to move, but his close mate – who we’ll call X, to save his blushes – wouldn’t, on the basis that the Regent continued to serve real ale. As Dave told it, this passion for cast-conditioned bitter kept them suffering there for years, until one day he and X happened to be in another pub in Brixton that didn’t serve Old Futtock’s or similar, whereupon X happily ordered a pint of… cider.

“Why didnae tell me youse drank cider?!” Dave snarled – or so he told me, years later –and with no more ado, he cut off ties with X and moved to the Hand in Hand, which is only a few yards’ stagger from where Dave lived. It has this virtue – and many others that were on display last Saturday evening: separate areas for quiet talking, loud music and sports television; friendly and efficient staff; and an equally welcoming clientele: “Blimey! You got a bush on your nut, my son!” cried out one of them as my 19-year-old and I entered. And it’s true: he does have a great mop of blond pre-Raphaelite curls. I joshed back: “Feeling a little jealous, are you…” for the man was a full-Statham, and he grinned obligingly, so we had a little chat about how both of us were once abundantly hairy.

Clad in Fred Perry shirt, fiercely washed-out blue jeans and trainers so immaculately white he was instantly identifiable as someone who, if he hadn’t done time himself, fraternised with those who had (the virginal white trainer being de rigueur in the Immaculate nick), this gent represented one element of a clientele that was notably diverse. African-Caribbean and Black British of all classes, and white British the same – with doubtless still a few remaining East Europeans. If I were a lazy, cliché-mongering estate agent I might say the atmosphere was ‘vibrant’, but being me I’ll simply note that people were talking, shouting, singing and playing some pretty loud music.

I’d like to say ‘it’s what Dave would’ve wanted’, but as anyone who’s been bereaved knows, such counterfactuals only underscore the loss rather than making it any easier to bear: No, it was what Dave’s friends and family wanted, and that made it a good celebration of his life, because he was, above all things, gregarious. Gregarious enough, that even at the height of the pandemic and dying himself, he still made such an impression on the security guard at Guy’s cancer unit for the fellow to ask after him months later. At the wake, Dave’s Hand in Hand friends mostly kept to one side of the bar, while his old gang from the Regent took the other. That the former moiety was largely black and the latter white wasn’t a function of ethnicity, but their respective pub cultures.

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