This is partly an attempt to create some sort of little electronic imprint on an obscure piece of social history. A Google search for Becky’s Dive Bar produces only one direct hit – a piece of doggerel by beer writer Maximus Bibendus. His profile shows that he is a member of the Guild of Beer Writers. I was once invited to the annual dinner of the Guild of Beer Writers. I was shown a menu, which looked less like a menu than an alcoholic endurance course: eight courses each cooked in beer with accompanying beer for each course. Being a lightweight I passed. But I digress.
What was Becky’s Dive Bar? Well, it was a splendidly squalid below street level bar on Southwark Street, near London Bridge station. You entered it carefully from street level down a series of stairs, which were carpeted after a fashion, but the carpet was detached from the stairs at various places, thus constituting a tripping hazard. A former girlfriend once reached the bottom of the stairs in a rather undignified manner, with one less heel than she had at the top. There were two bars, a public and a saloon. In a reverse of the usual arrangement, the public was rather upmarket as against the saloon. The public bar actually had seats. In the saloon you sat on barrels. There was a gents. It had the most pungent catch you in the back of the throat smell of ammonia I have ever smelled. I have come across one worse gents in my life but that was in Beirut and is another story.
Despite – or perhaps at least partly because of – the squalor, it was a magical place. It served wonderful things then hardly available generally. There were no beer pumps. The beer barrels were simply put on frames on the bar, a tap knocked into the spile holes and the beer poured. The main stock in trade was Ruddles County, a beer now available in bottles in Sainsburys but then hardly known outside Rutland (for overseas readers, the smallest English county and slightly larger than a postage stamp but the location of the brewery for this now famous beer). There were also behind the bar bottles of every beer you have ever heard of, and some hardly anyone ever has to this day, plus a range of spirits. The bar was the haunt of some wonderful eccentrics. A drunken red headed Irish journalist had what seemed to be a reserved seat at the end of the bar. I once heard him recite Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’ word perfect from his seat, apropos of nothing. At least I think it was word perfect. I didn’t have the text to hand to check.
And Becky? Well, no-one really knew anything much about Becky. She was sometimes known as ‘California Becky’ but I don’t know why. Did she have an accent? Yes, it is called ‘slurring your words’. She invariably dressed in black. Her hair was dyed the most raven, blackest black. How old she was I cannot begin to guess but she was already pretty elderly. She drank something extraordinary. Then she drank some more. And then some more again (you get the idea). By the end of the evening she was invariably blotto. She liked my friends and me and we liked her. I do believe that she genuinely liked people as opposed to pretending to for commercial reasons. She had a gramophone. Yes, I mean a gramophone as opposed to anything more modern. She also had the most bizarre collection of records. When she put on The collected speeches of Winston Churchill you knew she was completely gone. Harry assisted Becky. He was the cellarman and had the hugest beer gut I think I had ever seen. We once got very drunk with Harry and he confided in his cups that he did rather fancy Becky. The idea of the two of them getting it on makes the mind boggle. I think he just said this for the sake of appearances. His appendage must have been anaesthetised by alcohol for years if not decades.
But damn! On Friday or Saturday night Becky’s Dive Bar was the place to be.
How did it end? Well, the local council did an inspection. They did not like what they saw. Okay, it was squalid. And their point was? Various friends of Becky including myself made desperate attempts at a clean up. For example, the grease of generations (plus indeterminate objects that had mysteriously become attached to the grease) was removed from the kitchen. Too little too late. I should have said that as well as the public parts there were two layers further underground which had formerly been a debtors prison. I went down a few times. It was a very strange experience. The cell numbers were still over the doors. They were three further subterranean layers. They were sealed off and for good reason. They were a former plague pit. ‘Nuff said. Somehow it seemed apt.
Becky’s Dive Bar was duly closed in a flurry of public health summonses from the appalled jobsworths. Nobody knows what happened to Becky. She just disappeared. The gaiety – if not of nations – at least of London was diminished thereby. If I extract a conclusion from the story of Becky and her Dive Bar it is this: there are some people for whom the usual rules ought not to apply. They don’t work for them and they add something to the richness of life by breaking every rule. They appeal to my anarchist streak. By pushing them under we are all diminished. Let glorious eccentrics be!
By the way, there are no pictures online, or otherwise accessible to me of Becky’s Dive Bar. The picture is of Southwark Street, however. I rather like it. It is described as ‘man in overcoat ambles past Poured Lines by Ian Davenport on Southwark Street, London’.