Monday, March 8, 2010

Of Pimlico Now Let us Sing by the Landless Landlord

'Of Pimlyco now let us sing,

Rich Pimlyco, the new-found spring,

Bewitching Pimlyco that tyes

The rich and poor, the foole and wise,

All in one knot. Of that we write;

Inspire your poet to indite,

You Barlie Muses Pimlyconian.

He scornes the Muses Helyconian;

(Poore soules) they none but water drincke,

But Pimlyco dropt into his ink,

His lines shall flye with merry gale,

No muse is like to Pimlyco Ale.'

Thus John Skelton.

If there's disappearance, there's also persistence, resurgence, re-appearance, emergence. Whichever of these it is, the case of Pimlico, particularly strange, is not uncommon. If pubs go under and signs come down, some must stay, others replace them.

I first became interested in Pimlico by way of publicity on a pub wall in Seven Dials recording a discontinued line. Naturally my original assumption was that the area gave its name to the beer, but that isn't in fact the case. The name Pimlico, centuries before it moved snugly into its present West London home, referred to a place in Hoxton. On Early English Books Online, the first references tend to be to an 'ale house', a place of questionable reputation, and best summed up by John Skelton's Pimlyco, or Runne Red-Cap, Tis a Mad World at Hogsdon, written some time before his death in 1529 and quoted in part above.

It opens with the poet wandering around the spring fields on London's then outskirts, admiring the love-makers who meet there for the flowers and rural solitude. As he approaches the city, seeing increasing crowds converging on a little spot in Hoxton, he follows to see what they're after. Pimlyco, man, they tell him, reeling and falling laughing, Pimlyco. Perhaps this is the name of a new play, he thinks at first, the area already associated with drama, but is eventually put straight, and, munching on a local cake, joins them in enjoyment of a pint of what it is they're all enjoying - Pimlyco, it transpires, being a brown ale of exceptional strength.

This then, and despite the later move west, was a phenomenon like that at the Angel - the pub, itself gone, leaves a whole area bearing its name, its mark, shadow, ghost; an area become pub sign, and so material for a post.

Opening an A-Z I was quickly gratified to see there was still a Pimlico Walk in Hoxton, and made my way there.

I was soon confused to realise that it clearly wasn't a continuing presence of the place name, but only a reference, invented, I had to assume, by councillors trying to salvage a sense of continuity from slum clearance/bomb rebuild. Further place names around the local development confirmed this: Macbeth, Oberon and Caliban House all clearly part of a recent street plan, referred back to the time of the original Pimlico moniker, when the place had gained those same associations with the stage Skelton already refers to. Even the Macbeth boozer opposite, I reasoned, must be a nod to this same business.

But if antiquarianism's not the object of these posts, nor could a way in be the present Pimlico Walk, its spawn. Clearly a councillor not too long ago had done the same research I just had, uncovering the theatrical past of the area and the beer, and naming the little passage accordingly. To have come here in this earlier antiquarian's footsteps was to have sent myself in circles, following exactly in my own, believing them another's. The present name was a fictional re-invention of the past, and to make it the object of research was to have entered into that fiction.

Around 3.00pm, it was too late to go wandering around the market looking for a way back in, the stallholders already shutting up, taking with them what may have amounted to subjects for a more concrete post, leaving only the streets, litter, the stalls bare.

Of course I snapped any intriguing pub signs I passed, for the record: the Howl at the Moon, for instance, for its wild feel, the Bacchus for the priapic propagation of the patronym, the Macbeth, opposite Pimlico Walk, remarkable in its cartoon excess, but not with any hope, I admit, of uncovering signs of significance. All this was part of Hoxton, Pimlico was not. And yet it was from Pimlico, pure invention, wandering around the market, I was unable to leave; it was Pimlico, imaginary presence of a distant past, I continued to photograph.

As I reached back to the southern end of Hoxton Street in the evening dark, Old Street was already busy with the night crowd. I followed various flows, up to the station a source, back around, towards the Walk again, following a steady stream of pleasure seekers now, to the Macbeth, where the lights now coming into their own made clear what the excesses of its sign should earlier have suggested to me: this was a pub for the night crowds, not a market pub at all, and I decided to investigate the interior.

On a stage at the end of the bar Girls Names warmed up, watched over by a sound engineer, two men who turned out to be producers for a small local label, and myself, testing the Guinness. A man sat on a bench reading; conversations were quiet, punctuated by the occasional clack and thud of pool balls.

On the wall behind the red baize table an elaborate tiled mural caught my attention. Before his happily carousing guests, Macbeth extends a trembling hand to a ghost only he can see. I studied what was an impressive work in detail, somewhere between a visualisation of what might be a stage production and a direct realisation of the story behind it. Whether this is a genuine visitation or a hallucinatory externalisation of guilt is left undecided. The laughter of the other guests may suggest they attribute their host's vision to inebriation alone, or perhaps simply that they themselves are too drunk to notice anything unusual's going on.

The landlord, whose name I recall as Mark, confirmed that the mural was original - listed, in fact. Though the evening's unfolding events were to blur details, the general subject of our conversation was the picture itself and its place in local history. As the mural confirmed, the name of the pub long predated any council invention of Pimlico Walk. The area's associations with performance were of course not the preserve of the local authority. Others had clearly been drawing on the past to support other, independent agendas.

In the nineteenth century, pubs, especially in a working-class area like Hoxton, were frequently criticised as corrupters of morals. Perhaps the reference to the entertainment associated with the early days of the area, when no less than the Bard himself may have been out here on the piss, was a defence - unassailable in our opinion - of an activity at the heart of the nation's heritage. As an inscription on the front of the building proclaims, gin had originally been distilled here. Perhaps the hallucinatory content of the tiles was a wink, in fact, to the wild deliria of that drink, whose effects on the lower orders were even more concerning to the middle classes than those of ale.

'Last great poet of Catholic England', as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has it, Skelton led what seems a colourful life as tutor to Henry VIII, libertine, satirist, carouser, jester, learned social critic, thorn in tender sides. In Pimlyco, he tears through what reads like an unruly array of poetic styles from classical to doggerel, nonsense, satire and song, apparently, within the situation of the story it tells, under the effect of the generally chaotic joy of carousing.

Meeting the landlady, he learns her secret: the ale, it seems, is brewed under roosters, whose deposits give it that edge over its rivals that excites the insatiable appetite of the crowds. This special quality, he understands, bursting into hallucinatory song, crowned laureate by a hop-spun aureole of confusion, makes of the ale also his muse.

In the pub as a whole, the atmosphere, already pleasant from the outset, appeared to grow ever warmer as the evening wore on, the staff and punters, the sound man, producers bands and fans all equally determined to enjoy themselves. Stella, as I recall the name of Mark's step-daughter, runs not only the upstairs taps but also the Macbeth pub blog. She was contemplating posting about a pub ghost which, she'd heard, may haunt the building. We discussed whether the stories were credible and agreed it was not the point; the fact was they were real - one of the barmen downstairs, for instance, able to raise hairs with them - and as such they deserved inclusion.

Emerging with the last drinkers, I already realised the story of Pimlico was unfinished, will need at least one further post - expect an investigation of the West London area soon. Perhaps the western Pimlico, too, will turn out to be invention. The investigation of how exactly the signs work, the forces that decide which name will spread from a pub to the surrounding area, or leap across the city from East to West, which will disappear and which re-emerge, can only occur piecemeal, but, reality or fiction, both Pimlicos, each on their side of the city, would at least have their post.


  1. well you had more fun than at the pompidou cafe ! - sounds fine...

  2. You'd have to ask the cappuccino crew about the Pompidou - not my sort of place. No disrespect to the Windowless Consultant, but did the world really need frothy coffee?