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14 June 2016

Freud said there’s no such thing as accidents. So why did I miss the closing night of the Duke?

It is shut. I can see this from some way off. The familiar lights are dark, the outside tables no longer there. I press my nose against the window.

By Nicholas Lezard

Tuesday evening: 31 May, to be precise.

It’s been a melancholy bank holiday weekend, as they all are when you have no one to share them with. I’d bought a duck with the head still on and proudly gutted it myself and was going to cook it for a friend but she blew me out at the last minute, and so I find myself dining, once again, alone. (It was delicious. You missed out, big time.)

At about 10pm I look up from the ancient episode of Danger Man I’ve been watching on YouTube (a very good show indeed, precursor to The Prisoner; imagine James Bond rewritten by Harold Pinter) and I try to locate the source of the nagging feeling that’s come upon me.

Of course – it’s the Duke’s last night. The Duke of Wellington, to be precise: my local. (“Your local what?” asks a friend from Canada who has been living here for years. Oh dear me.) I have written about this place many times, in the early life of this column. In the days when Razors still lived here it was our second living room, and when the weather was nice we would sit outside until closing time, seeing how many drinks we could ponce off the Guvnor, a bull walrus of a man with questionable associates and a nice line in grossly offensive innuendo. We loved him.

He’d been gone for a couple of years now, and so I didn’t go there that often. Economics was partly to blame, for a decent bottle from Majestic doesn’t cost too much more than a pint in London these days; and anyway, the pub was getting to be more restaurant than pub, but at least Darren, and Josh the Guvnor’s son, seemed to be doing a good job of running the place, which was always full, or nearly so, whenever I passed, or stuck my nose in the door for a quick one. But it was an important place for me: when I got thrown out of the marital home, being accepted by it was one of  the things that I can say, without exaggeration, saved my life. It was a place to go when I felt lonely, which was often, and I would emerge from it less so. I’ve made many friends there.

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So I put myself into some order and, although not feeling very pubbable this evening, head down the street. I’m not going to miss the last night of the Duke for the world, however lousy I’m feeling.

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It is shut. I can see this from some way off. The familiar lights are dark, the outside tables no longer there. I press my nose against the window. All furniture gone. The beautiful Victorian bar stands alone. Only now do I appreciate the way it curves around the room.

To miss something like this is to experience the very ground giving way beneath your feet, as if a sinkhole had suddenly opened up. I curse first myself, for getting the date wrong, and then the world, for wiping out 150 years of history, and nearly nine years of mine, in a blink. The rumour is that it is going to be reborn as a Tesco Metro. Expect a long campaign of violence and petty vandalism from this grief-stricken resident.

Grief-stricken? Anyone who says “it’s only a pub” had better get his hat and leave now. A pub, like a good second-hand bookshop, is one of those buildings that is actually alive. I couldn’t stop comparing this disaster with the last bereavement I felt: that of my father. I missed his very last moments, too, barrelling up to East Finchley in a taxi stymied, as if we were in a bad dream, by traffic and various road blockages; but at least I’d spoken to him the previous night and, earlier than that, told him he was loved. Also we’d had time to prepare for this. His journey was one-way only, like all of ours, and we could all, himself included, see the approaching end. Here, I thought I had an actual date: but I missed it. A Freudian would say that there are no mistakes and I got it wrong deliberately. Not in this case.

Eighty-three is a good age for a person, though. It’s nothing for a pub. A pub can go on, in theory, for as long as there are human beings to drink in it. The oldest pub in the country dates – there is some dispute about this, understandably – from over 1,500 years ago. As more of them get closed down, so this country dies.

Every pub has some good in it. Even the terrifying flat-roofed pub that boasts a murder every other week carries, in its heart, the memory of an oak-beamed idyll. They can be as difficult to improve as people, but it can be done, with patience and love. But when one dies, it dies for ever.


This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe