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Tuesday, 4 February 2003

Richard Cooper's 2003 Hoban Adventure 27/28


The Cheshire Cheese, Crutched Friars

(The Medusa Frequency)

I think Crutched Friars has to be one of the best street names I’ve heard, even in London. My blurry head mixed the word crutched with crouched and I imagined the street centuries ago populated by little tonsured, stooped old men in heavy cassocks hobbling around on their way to the London Foot Clinic. The pub was directly under the railway bridge taking trains to and from Fenchurch Street Station and there was just the one streetlamp in the vicinity, so the whole thing felt juicily Dickensian, and, by extension, Hobanesque. There was a sign on the wall under the bridge saying:


If you witness a vehicle striking this railway bridge, please contact Railtrack using telephone number 01708 641225. State “Bridge strike at Savage Gardens” and quote bridge number FSS1495. Immediately afterwards inform police using 999 system.

The full Medusa description of the Cheshire Cheese refers to a décor of red and black, so I was expecting the pub to be dark and dimly lit with small knots of old men mumbling in corners smoking Golden Virginia and playing bridge. Whether Russell Hoban embellished the interior to give it more atmosphere for the novel or whether it had had a refit since the mid-eighties I couldn’t be sure, but the words red, black and dark were not the ones that immediately sprang to mind as I walked in. It was certainly welcoming, but kind of yellow and green, quite bright and a little on the hard side, with one of those polished wood floors that people’s voices and juke-box tunes bounce off rather than be absorbed by in the style of the old-fashioned pubs. There were tables and chairs dotted about and at the far end of the bar an enormous TV screen was suspended. It wasn’t very busy, but almost everyone in the pub seemed to be a City type in a pin-stripe suit, and for a moment I had the awful feeling that this was an old pub that had been yuppified in the same manner lamented by the John Smith character from the Zetland Arms scene from Amaryllis. Given the suitage in the place I jumped to a conclusion and thought the screen was showing Bloomberg statistics and financial news, but on a second look it was just a sports programme, and not everybody in the pub in fact was wearing a suit. Long overdue for a drink, I was called to the bar where I stood for a couple of minutes while the single barman, a Kiwi in his early twenties with spiky hair and an animal tooth on a cord around his neck, served a group of City types who seemed to have taken up residence at the other end. I’m eternally useless at getting the attention of waiters and bar staff, and, in quintessential English fashion, I tend to just wait patiently for hours repressing my rage until I finally implode. Here however one of the City guys actually made the unheard-of sacrifice of pointing the barman in my direction, a gesture for which I was very grateful and which raised my opinion of both clientele and establishment immediately. I ordered a glass of Australian red wine and a packet of cheese and onion crisps (any other flavour seemed wrong somehow) and retired to a table. From here I soaked up the gentle atmosphere and surreptitiously inserted the previous quote about the approach to the pub from Savage Gardens into a menu of some nice-sounding pub food, and secreted this quote underneath an empty pint glass:

Of course I was hoping very much that Gom Yawncher would still be here. I realised he had technically gone the way of all flesh at the end of the novel, but on an imaginative and spiritual level he was surely still with us. The glasses were in fact collected by a man in a blue shirt but he didn’t say anything so I couldn’t gauge his accent, and he looked about 40 years too young to be Gombert himself. Then again, I reflected, there seemed to be a general lack of actors of the Gom Yawncher generation around London these days: all the bar and café staff, the buskers, the strangers on the Tube, the cashiers and attendants at the various shops and museums that I’d met today had almost all been my age or younger, and most of them weren’t from London or any region of the UK but from all across the globe. Maybe when Gombert died he was replaced by a younger, more exotic actor, one who was seen to reflect the needs of a changing society and a more demanding audience, in the same way that British soap opera characters seem increasingly to be given Croatian boyfriends and neighbours from Sicily. Then again, I had heard a rumour of a pub in Borough High Street run by a Londoner; I made a mental note to check it out another time to see if it really was true. In the meantime, I wondered what part I was playing today. I fancied myself as Michael Palin, but I realised with sadness that the role was already taken. It looked like I’d have to settle with being Richard Cooper instead.

Next stop

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