Public opinions


London pubs just can't get it right. I refuse to go in those nasty, grimy, black-windowed places with mil- dewed carpets that stink of fags, tables to which you adhere if you so much as rest an elbow on them and, of course, nothing remotely decent to drink unless you want watery ale, which neither I - nor virtually anyone else - ever do.

Instead I veer towards the gentrified pretend-pubs that tend to be able to make a decent gin and tonic and sometimes have a good wine list and proper beer. I love them - that is, until they do something to remind me that I'm not in a delightful country village being served by kind, warm-hearted folk. By which I mean that they don't have lock-ins and won't knock you up a sandwich if you arrive starving and exhausted just as they're closing the kitchen.

It is a curious fact that although all urban pubs boast an impressive display of spirits and fruit cordials, not one would be capable of making a decent cocktail even if you threatened to cut their hands off and force-feed them on lemonade Hooch. In fact, one Coventry pub I recently had the misfortune to visit actually seemed to be labouring under the mistaken impression that Hooch was a good thing. They had a whole board of Hooch cocktails with names like Baboon's Arse, Horny Devil and Batman's Leggings. I was going to try one just to see how bad they were, but I'd already struggled through something called a Blue Monday. I got blue curacao, vodka and lemonade. It was neon blue and pretty awful so, in complete despair, I moved on to the Britvic.

My local in west London is a gentrified city pub that takes pride in closing its kitchen at precisely one minute before whenever I happen to arrive. However, it's clean, air- conditioned and has decent wine so you don't even have to sear your taste buds on miserable house plonk.

I skip round for a quick drink before last orders are called. My latest love is not there yet so, out of habit, I order my special pub drink which solves the summer pub drink problem. It's all down to Raymond Chandler, whose macho detective Marlowe drinks gin gimlets and is almost as particular about the way they're made as Sally was about her salads when she met Harry. And the great thing is that even the most dim-witted barman can get a gin gimlet right. Everyone knows that barmen in pubs can't make dry martinis and that you'd be foolish even to try re-educating them. But with the gin gimlet you can completely fox him. Basically, he will have no idea what you're talking about and therefore has no option but carefully to follow your every instruction.

Tell him to take a large glass and fill it with ice cubes. Yes, fill it. Then add one measure of gin and one measure of neat lime cordial. Marlowe very sensibly insisted on Rose's. Don't add any soda. (Don't actually say this to the bloke behind the bar unless you can see him heading towards the soda; otherwise he will register only the word "soda" and in it will go.) And that's it. Marlowe went for a dash of Angostura bitters, too, but actually it's perfectly refreshing as it is - fearsomely cold, and the gin tastes deliciously sharp and strong through the bittersweet lime.

My latest love arrives at my local just in time to get in a pint of Pedigree before last orders are called. What bliss this wonderful country-like pub is. There's even a balmy breeze from the open door. But he has barely taken the first sip when someone starts flicking a dishcloth around our table and bangs heavy chairs on to its top. It is five past 11, there are 15 minutes of drinking-up time to go and we are being so harassed we can barely concentrate on imbibing. Oh, for a grimy pub that will unashamedly lock its doors and hide behind blackened windows.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes