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Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Vale

The Vale

5 – 7 Dundas Street, Glasgow

Pubs or inns have since their beginnings offered travellers a place of refreshment whether they have reached their destination or are stopping off before the next leg of their journey. Horse-drawn coaches would rumble into town and deposit wearisome wayfarers at a welcoming hostelry complete with a roaring fire, buxom serving wenches and foaming tankards of ale. That’s the fantasy downloaded from film, TV and literature but there is reality in there somewhere.
Nowadays we have sparkling cocktail bars within transport hubs such as Heathrow Terminal 5 and the re-conditioned St. Pancras railway station. That particular bar – a champagne bar reputed to be the longest in Europe- aims to rival the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar but it will need many years behind it before claiming such status. There will be other grand examples throughout the world of travel, establishments both inside and adjacent to major stations, ports and other disembarkation points. In Glasgow, just opposite the western exit from Queen Street Station we have The Vale, and our city is none the worse for it.
It took me over a decade of drinking to finally sample The Vale and largely it was its location what put me off. It wasn’t my point of arrival so why would I wish to use its services when my experiences of pubs near stations was, strangely enough, far from the glamour described above. At best they had been dank, uninspiring places where no one with any sense or taste would remain for longer than their bus or train. Genuine travellers would be up at the bar, in the light, while in the darker corners lurked various characters sitting waiting and watching but probably not for their connection. You can see these places all over Britain not just in the obvious denizen haunt spots like Kings Cross. Places that somehow manage to be both bland and dodgy.
Whether Dows the pub adjacent to The Vale possesses any or both of these attributes I can’t say but it certainly exhibits way too much cheap wood and carpet for any self-respecting Glasgow pub, along with incongruous hanging baskets. Its proximity to The Vale affected this semi-seasoned but opinionated traveller.
One Friday afternoon or early evening a friend suggested meeting in The Vale. I was about to suggest an alternative such as Waxy O’Connors – not a radical choice but the nooks can be interesting – or somewhere not too far down West Nile Street. But for once I decided to let things happen instead of directing them.
I arrived first, coming round the corner past the bookies in Dundas Lane meaning to turn right and straight into the pub. Instead I crossed the road to see it as others see it. As if for the first time. From there in the kind of light that must have been early winter I was not impressed by the marble frontage and the vivid green lettering. It didn’t go with the fine stone of Dundas House of which The Vale occupies the ground floor, and didn’t encourage you to contemplate it for too long. So in I went.
A porch- like entrance greeted me. Inside an old guy stood propped against the glass. He was smoking – this being before the ban I hasten to add to any inspectors reading – gazing out on the taxi-filled street. And probably showing his companions for the day some consideration by smoking on his tod. When I returned recently I could have sworn it was the same guy standing there again, gazing out too, but this time with no fag in hand, thinking of the old days. Wishing, perhaps, that our legislators had given him the same regard he gave to his friends. Leaving aside the politics, the porch an unusual feature that brings the pub closer to the street and vice versa.
Inside the ceiling was a warm green and the floor the same marble-effect as the frontage, however it didn’t seem to jar as much as that had, even though it was cheap, aged vinyl. Around the walls old, but comfortable red leather couches provided most of the seats, along with four or five small tables and chairs. On the walls themselves a number of framed newspapers – historic editions such the Munich Air Disaster – vied for space alongside traditional branded mirrors, and a mounted, multi-coloured collection of old beer pump discs. I turned on my heel towards the bar thinking that the only places I’d seen such embellishment before was in a few old men’s bars across this and other British cities. Okay in their place, I thought, but not really for this time of the weekend.
Two bar staff looked at me as I finished turning to the bar. “What you having?” one of them asked, while she poured someone else’s tipple. On me like a flash, you could have said. Impressive though, in a bar already fairly busy. The third staff member was bustling about in an area enclosed by the aforementioned porch but separated from the punters’ entrance. Rustling up some dinner, probably, but there would be no such luck for the customers, only Sahara Nuts (Trademark) in there own little heated pod. Another minus mark for the traditional pub. Nae grub.
And there didn’t seem to be much of a choice of whisky either. Apart from the optic blends, all I noticed was Scottish Leader and only a handful of malts. Hardly a great advert for the nation, disappointed tourists deprived of a decent selection of our national drink.
I had answered by this time. While I waited, looking behind the bar for any drink out of the ordinary – some obscure brand of vodka or rum say – the relatively small space behind the bar became apparent. Yet the barfolk worked easily around each other. Busy with the present drink and with the next order lined up in their head. And you could see everything was geared for the efficient transition to the next order. Clean glasses and other accoutrements to hand, the preparation for busy times had been done and that process would repeat itself over and over until the night was through. Whatever happened no customer would be denied service because of lack of organisation. And looking more closely, I could see nothing on the shelves behind the bar that wasn’t related to the serving of drinks, and every bit of space was used. No fancy stereo, CDs, bottles for display only, no colour co-ordination. In fact no styling at all. Just basic utility.
Once I had my lager and looked closer at my fellows round me, I was indeed of the younger age range but the average was probably not much over 45. It was difficult to tell whether most of them were at the start or the end of their day/evening out. And we were still getting the drift to and from the bookies you would expect from a pub in close proximity, even though the larger race-cards were finishing off for the day.
Over in the far left corner four or five people were chatting round a table, they being the only discernible group in the pub. Maybe regulars. However among the rest of the punters there were acknowledgements; nods, names used, quick references to recent results and happenings. I got the impression you didn’t have to come accompanied to get a conversation. And if you didn’t want one there was the three TVs. That night it was Spanish football but if the occasion was major they had a pull-down screen too.
I learned later that The Vale is an unofficial Tartan Army meeting point this explaining the various pieces of memorabilia hanging around. Amongst this was also a Mike Tyson caricature. I can’t remember if this was before or after the Holyfield ear-biting debacle but it was certainly after his first incarceration. A controversial inclusion on your wall certainly, but one less self-conscious than, for instance, the Confederate flags that appear all over the beer-selling world.
My pal arrived soon after. Running late, he was expecting a mild rebuke, I’m sure, but none coming he pressed home his luck.
“Fancy a wee chaser?” he asked, needing a catch-up.
“What you offering?”
“Take your pick,” he pointed at an unnoticed board, a stock board, in fact, of 60 or so malts. So there again we had nothing done for show. The range was there, but without a song and dance. I ordered an Ardbeg.
And with the whisky came a warmth, not just caused by the rush of alcohol, but of our surroundings. The chatter around about, the streetlights, the increasing animation of the group in the corner, the occasional tinkle from the two puggies, the wallpaper – velvety to the touch – and even the marble-effect floor. I couldn’t explain any of it. These things just come upon you.
It had been his idea to come here but he was the first to suggest we moved on, sometime around 9. I nodded even though I didn’t agree, but my resolution of earlier held sway: I would follow. We headed off then, southeast across George Square, away into the night. I’m sure it was to some bars filled with more talent or more style but I remember nothing else of that night, apart from our first pub.
I’ve been back to The Vale and added a few experiences since. On one occasion my partner and I popped in after watching the rugby elsewhere. Again only expecting to stay for just the one before a bite somewhere, we were taken by the anytime rate of £1.50 a bottle of Heineken, Stella, Carlsberg and, rather unusually, Tuborg. Malt of the Month at the same price helped too.
Managing to get a table in what I had perceived as the regulars corner we got into conversation with a middle-aged couple who were waiting for their train - To Linlithgow in fact, and after our conversation we resolved to one day check out that town’s interesting hostelries. Anyway, our companions made a habit of daytrips into Glasgow and invariably ended up for at least a couple in The Vale before heading home.
Both had purchased some books and were eager to discuss their choices, especially when they learned of my background. Unfortunately, amongst their purchases were a couple of crime thrillers, of which my opinions are widely-known elsewhere. I was, however, unwilling on this occasion to alienate our newly acquired friends, so I hummed and hawed and tried to move the discussion onto a biography I had spotted in their bag. They were having none of it though, and wanted, specifically, my opinion on the detective fiction.
At this, my partner excused herself, with a smile, as she knew what was coming. Having been put well and truly into a corner I began loudly to explain my position (I don’t know why I was so loud; perhaps annoyance at getting pressed like this, or perhaps I thought it would put off any reply).
Now, having gone through the limitations of genre, the ridiculousness of plot and the paucity of decent characterisation, I was just beginning to expound on my belief that life does not conform to a pattern or plan that such thrillers lay out in their plots when a big voice came from the bar.
“You got a clue what you’re talking about, pal?”
I looked up at a big guy who certainly matched the voice. He was looking over at me with an expression I couldn’t quite fathom.
“Yeah, I think I do,” I replied, hoping my voice was steady. He kept looking over at me, over the shoulder of our new friends, who suddenly seemed less inclined to talk about fiction, literary or otherwise.
Then, in the pause, thinking he hadn’t heard me – or just filling in the awkward silences I’ve always hated in conversations – I continued: “Do you know what you’re talking about?”
The old guy from Linlithgow hunched his shoulders even lower and turned in towards his wife, further isolating me in the corner.
The big chap was over to the table in a moment, that enigmatic expression still there. But I was watching his hands not his face. The pint in them came slamming down onto the table.
“Do you mind if I sit down?” he asked.
His expression hadn’t changed but the middle-aged couple sagged in relief and that settled me. The guy started talking, all about his passion and justification for crime thrillers. His spiel was well rehearsed; I reckoned then that his expression was him thinking, planning his response to my challenge. One of the things he mentioned was an American author/lawyer whose name I was unaware of. This guy, supposedly, wrote crime in his spare time, the proceeds funding his crusading work in the field of child protection. All very laudable, I thought, but not an argument that advanced the literary value of crime in any way.
Still, at that, my partner returned from The Ladies upstairs for which she had had to obtain a key from behind the bar. Upstairs is the The Vale’s function area, which I learned later hosts an open mike night for bands. The only requirement is that they play their own music. Very good, in my opinion. Goes some way to countering the ubiquity of cover-version outfits.
After a round or so of drinks and a conversation that although fruitless in conclusion was heartening in itself, the Linlithgow couple made to go for their train and the big guy returned to his pals at the bar. We were set for the off too and headed for the door.
On the way I spotted a framed photo on the wall. It was an old one of the pub. Blackened exterior, the full original name The Vale of Leven, and underneath it Aitken’s Falkirk Beer. This was an independent brewery – James Aitken - that operated from the 1740s right up until the 1960’s when it was amalgamated with Caledonian United Breweries that eventually became Tennents.
Examining it, I guessed the photo was taken sometime between the 30s and 50s. I tried picturing the scene in and around the pub pre-war, and it was possible even for me with my limited imagination. And that is The Vale’s strength, you can trace its history as you stand today with your pint. From its early days when life in and out the pub was so different, to the 70s when, I guess the, marble frontage and the flooring were added, and then on until present times.
The bar has change as its city has changed. It has evolved rather than being changed by an owner’s misguided conception of how a pub should be, or had incongruous features stapled on at the behest of some chain.
It is this quality that will encourage you – without or without a train to catch- to return and add to The Vale’s history.

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