Saturday, 8 March 2008

Becky's Dive Bar




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’.

22 comments:

Law Minx said...

Was Becky by any chance a friend/acquiantance of Jeffrey Barnard?!

Ron Knee said...

This brings back memories of Dirty Dick's. I once personally stuck a ten mark note on the wall of his bar to mark place with all the other foreign notes which had been stuck there.

I think it too has gone due to stupid elf and safety laws.

white rabbit said...

Minx - I always liked the story of the hospital registrar introducing Jeffrey Bernard to a group of medical students with 'This is Mr Bernard who closes his veins with 40 cigarettes a day and then opens them again with half a bottle of vodka'

Ronald - which Dirty Dick's? There are a few...

Ron Knee said...

The one at Bishopsgate in the basement. The original cellar bar which had all the old shite in. Now it has been tidied up and the dead cats have been put in a glass case.

It was a shame as the cat's legs used to be good for holding rounds of toast safely while you ate them.

Just done a bit of research and it is still there minus the interesting bits. The bar top downstairs was covered with old foreign coins, I recall.

PS isn't blogger playing up these past few days, what?

Julie said...

Great post - sounds like the first page of a novel I would want to read.

B.E. Earl said...

Becky's Dive Bar sounds like my kind joint.

I've gone full circle in my choice of bars over the past 20 or so years. Started out at dive bars, moved on to fancier joints, back at dive bars now in my early 40's.

Headed into NYC this coming Saturday to celebrate a friend's birthday with a rousing tour of the city's best beer pubs and dive bars. I can't wait.

Cheezy said...

That sounds like my idea of heaven. Oh the tyranny of H&S... :(

PS: You may already know this but the Rose & Crown in Clapham Old Town does a pretty good pint of Ruddles.

white rabbit said...

Ronald - I know the one. It has been sanitised as you say. Becky's wouldn't last ten minutes these days.

Julie - do you know, I've never thought of that. I'm thinking now. Becky's did figure in fictional form in White Rabbit the novel (see Yer Rock & Roll 6) but a novel centred around it? Hmmm... I got a crime novel to finish first, though.

Ol Bug Eyes - I think what I hate is the uniformity of bars now. They are pretty much all owned by big chains and they are all the same.

Cheezy - in fact I didn't know that. My local pub excursions tend not to get much beyond the Windmill and the Nightingale these days.

downtown guy said...

Damn regulations shut down the best oyster bar in North Florida a few years ago. Their floor sloped, their toilets stank, and they seemed to have a 12 year old girl serving beer, but they were home to many a local or biker and served the best smoked mullet you'll ever put in your mouth. Then they got his by a hurricane and all the times the inspector looked the other way came crashing down on them. RIP, Posey's. RIP, Becky's Dive Bar.

Ron Knee said...

Smoked bad haircut? Fuck that! I wouldn't like to smoke a mullet. Glen Muir has a good mullet though, look the pratt up on Myspace. Goes under the name of "Majick"

(he carnt spel eiver)

Anonymous said...

being very bored this morning i googled Becky's dive bar, somewhere i have fond memories of in the 70's, and it actually came up!!! we used to celebrate new year there after jumping in the fountains at Trafalgar,

Ian said...

Becky's is to live again! Tony Barry of the Red Car Pub Co (Wheatsheaf, Borough Market GBG 2004,2007; Bell, Bush Lane GBG 2004-2006; Swan, Ship Tavern Passage GBG 2006-2009 and the recently acquired Castle, Furnival Street)has taken in on to relace the Wheatsheaf during its temporary closure for railway construction.
Becky's can never be repeated - it would not be allowed - but the Wheatsheaf's atmosphere (and name) and ten real ales will be the next best thing - and you will not need wellies to go to the gents. Opening night Wednesday 15th April.

offstage said...

Your description corresponds wonderfully with my own memories of Becky's in the 70s. I found a couple of photos that went with an article I wrote for a now long forgotten travel mag. I have downloaded the pic onto my myspace site www.myspace.com/offstagebooks but if that is a hassle let me know and I will post the photos for your contemplation, cheers Brian

Mick said...

I too remember Becky's well from the 7o's-definately squalid but the Ruddles County was spectacular!
These was the era of the first Camra "Good Beer Guide" just a few pages stapled together.
I departde for Oz in the late 70's, now live in Darwin, we have a pub approaching Becky's standard-the Humpty Doo Tavern.

Anonymous said...

I remember visiting Becky's Dive Bar. It was the place I drank my first pint of real ale 47 years ago.
The description above is true to life and brings back a wonderful memory.

Peter said...

I remember ordering '24 pints of Ruddles, please Becky.' Do you?

sybil law said...

Becky's Dive Bar sounds like my kind of joint. Shame it's gone.

white rabbit said...

Peter - I remember the occasion well. I also remember that Becky being a trouper did not blink at this unusual request.

Sybil - You would have liked it. This I do not doubt ...

Chris Partridge said...

The beer wasn't always good. I remember one Saturday night they ran out completely, and Becky sent to the local offy for a load of Party 7s, cans that held 7 pints of Watney's Red Barrel, possibly the worst beer ever offered for public sale in this country. The sight of them pouring pints from these enormous tins will stay with me for life.
Along with the taste of the sausage sandwich Becky made for me one lunchtime when I was so hungry I threw caution to the winds. I was very lucky not to end up in hospital.

white rabbit said...

Chris - welcome to my humble blog. The Watney's Red Barrel story sounds all too terribly true. Oh and never eat any food there. Lord no - not if you valued your intestinal tract.

Peter Why said...

I can't even remember which street Beckie's was in, but had some very drunken nights there. Didn't she also sell Theakston's Old Peculier? I do remember a very thick, ropy beer.

I still have some photos taken down there, including one of Beckie herself. They are slides. I'll try to work out how to scan them.

Peter

white rabbit said...

Peter - Southwark Street. I'm not sure about the Old Peculier - it would have been bottled if it was sold there at all. I'd be fascinated to see the photos if you can do the techie stuff.