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7 December 2022

The manager of my former favourite pub calls and the years slip away

“Hello!” he says. “You sound grumpy as ever!”

By Nicholas Lezard

There I am, lying in a fug of bedclothes doing my best to keep warm. Then Bring! Bring! goes the phone. I look at the screen. The caller ID says “Darren”.

I take a drag on my imaginary Lucky Strike, and swirl my imaginary rye whiskey in the glass. Off-screen, a saxophone begins its plaintive note. “Darren,” I say. “That’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.”

And I haven’t. And you won’t have, either.

For Darren was the manager of the Duke of Wellington on Crawford Street, Marylebone, my local when I lived in the Hovel (not to be confused with the Hove-l, where I live now). The Duke was owned and run by the Guvnor, a man who spoke softly but carried a big stick; a borderline gangster with a filthy sense of humour and a roll of twenties in his pocket the size of your fist. The pub itself had been, before his time, favoured by London’s criminal elite; their names were engraved on little brass plaques screwed to the tables. Barbara Windsor would drink there with them. Darren’s appointment mystified me slightly, for he would bring us a bottle and frown at the label and pronounce it “coats dew roans”. But he was affable and perfectly competent.

And then I left the Hovel under a cloud; and almost immediately afterwards, the Duke closed its doors. In fact everywhere selling alcohol in the immediate neighbourhood took a severe financial hit after I moved out: the local Majestic Wine became a ghost of itself; the corner shop over the road ceased trading. Darren kept in touch, though; he had restored and opened a pub in Southwark and invited me round, but by then I was homeless, and too broke to go to the pub, especially one south of the river. I asked what was going to happen to the Duke: it was going to be gutted, said Darren, and turned into flats (and they wouldn’t have been affordable flats). We, too, were gutted.

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And then a couple of years ago, the Estranged Wife, for whom Crawford Street is an essential part of her cycling route to work, sent me a photo one evening. “Guess what I saw!!” said the accompanying text: and the photo was of a very functioning Duke of Wellington, with punters sitting outside enjoying the balmy evening air. Once I had dismissed the possibility that her phone camera was hallucinating, or that she had suffered a time slip, as happened in 1957 to three Royal Navy cadets in the Suffolk village of Kersey (look it up), I thought: how nice. A London story that ends happily; you don’t get many of those these days.

Now back to Darren. I answer the phone.

“Hello!” he says. “You sound grumpy as ever!”

“I’m not f—ing grumpy,” I snarl. “Anyway, what can I do for you?”

And it turns out that he is the one who prised the Duke from the developers’ claws and turned it back into a faithful reincarnation of itself. This is, I told him, the best news I’d heard in years. Privately, I thought to myself: never underestimate Darren again. My French pronunciation is almost perfect, and look at all the good it’s done me. Rien.

[See also: The Chancellor takes me back to 2013, Watership Down and being in love]

It turns out that a customer at the Duke, who had been deeply moved by my first selection of these columns, Bitter Experience Has Taught Me, available from all good landfill sites, wanted to get in touch with me. For a “project”. My mind raced. This is my big break, I thought. A kindly billionaire is going to install me in his multinational empire in a vague but extremely well-paid sinecure as a creative consultant or some such. The businessman’s surname, though, was so improbable that I suspected a wind-up. But no; he exists; he’s on LinkedIn. (So am I, and I put “being a ****” as one of my qualifications, with an endorsement from my great friend Razors, who used to share the Hovel, and the Duke, with me.)

I got in touch with Mr Improbable; he professed himself a deep admirer of my work, and amused by my LinkedIn entry. The project he wanted me for was to help him write the eulogy for his cleaner, who had passed away after 20-odd years of service. And he needed it by Thursday morning. Here are some notes.

After a bit of work I realised that writing speeches for people I do not know, about people I know even less, might not be my preferred career plan; and actually his notes weren’t that bad, and no one at the funeral was going to be expecting Cicero. I gave him some suggestions the evening before the service. The fee was to be a fine lunch somewhere; I suggested Rules. I have yet to hear back from him.

Anyway, after the phone call I chatted to the Woman I Loved back in those days, and told her that I had heard from Darren.

“Wasn’t he the one who [several words redacted]?” she said.

“The very same,” I said. “But he was young, and it wasn’t as if it was illegal.”

As for the Duke, I shall go back one day, and experience my very own time slip.

[See also: Thanks to a kind reader, I now have an eggcup to keep my squalor at bay]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special