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Friday, 28 January 2011

The Decline of the Glasgow Bar

It’s Friday night, the second last before Christmas. A bitterly cold evening with treacherous winds but there are plenty of people about and traffic is choc-a-bloc.

Warm light from the corner pub beckons and I gratefully accept its invitation. Harvey’s Bar is one of the better-known watering holes in Maryhill, its smart maroon and black exterior a landmark in this shabby part of North Glasgow. I’m sure I can hear raucous sounds as I approach the door.

But inside springs a surprise. There is very little noise. I order a drink at the island bar, admiring the unusual canopy with its exquisite tiling and pillars. Everyone else in here seems used to the interior, all eight of them. I’m getting some attention now; in this area non-regulars do get noticed. But it doesn’t last, and I can observe them instead.

A couple of groups chatting quietly, crowded on one side of the counter. Every few moments one or more goes outside for a smoke, letting the outside chill circulate effectively. One of the group wears a Tesco uniform, a recruit of the newly-opened store up the road. It’s the only kind of mass employment in Maryhill. There are no Xmas office parties round here. One reason for the quietness on what is meant to one of the busiest evenings of the year.

The nearby Botany Bar is up for lease. Not a going concern, though. There are more punters outside smoking – 3 – than inside. The dismal interior and rickety furniture part of the problem. Even the cheery service doesn’t prevent me moving on swiftly.

I’m walking past a concrete block of take-aways and bookies, a post-office (giros) and chemist (methadone) in between. Down a gap between two fast-food outlets a wheelie bin overflows, an upturned trolley’s wheels spin and polystyrene food cartons litter the ground.

The pub at the end of the row looks like an exhumed bomb shelter and has two floors to the shops one. It sits almost opposite the large Maryhill Police Station, the fictional residence of one Jim Taggart. The Elephant & Bugle, named after the badge cap of the old Highland Light Infantry whose barracks were nearby, had a notorious reputation as, allegedly, the haunt of choice for local dealers trading in commodities other than stocks and shares.

I hesitate at the door. But inside there are neither suspicious stares nor guys with anything to hide. Just four or five middle-aged blokes at the counter in the far corner watching two others play pool. One of the pool players is quite a bit younger. The wheelchair he sits in isn’t proving much of a hindrance as he dispatches his opponents as quickly as the balls, while effing and blinding much to the amusement of his audience.

No one else enters for a while, apart from a chap with hair dyed black and the edges shaved to at least an inch away from his ears. A distinctive look, but I’m not going to discuss it with him. He goes over to his pals at the bar who have enough space to set up a game of dominoes on the counter. I finish my pint and leave with the sound of the disabled guy challenging anyone else for a game, “Who’s next? Ya cunts ye!”

The street has emptied somewhat in the time I spent inside, suburb-bound traffic thinned and the locals mostly hidden away in their homes. In a short distance I pass two more pubs, both with For Sale/Let signs outside and little life within. But half a mile away in Glasgow’s trendy west end I know the stylish bar/restaurants, the ones you see in lifestyle reviews, will be full of prosperous revellers ordering cocktails, Pinot Grigios and other premium beverages at backlit bars, after enjoying organically sourced meals on the mezzanine level. Passers-by check them out through massive floor-to-ceiling windows. The party has only just begun.

A matter of economics sure, the rich always have a better time. But something more than that. The inexorable decline of the community pub, even in Glasgow, a city famous for its raucous bars and hard-drinking culture. Health campaigners will be encouraged by this trend, set in motion by, amongst other factors, the smoking ban of 2006. This legislation, passed by people who don’t spend time in the pub, solely affected people who do. Now most of them smoke at home, and drink there too.

Publican James Clancy, who along with his brother John, has run pubs in Glasgow since the 1960s, is well aware of these changes. He has seen the ebb and flow of the bar scene and how it reflects changes in society. Home drinking has, of course, affected the trade badly, but Clancy offers a comparison between the supervision exercised by good landlords and the lack of controls at the supermarket check-out. “I know most of the people who drink in my bar, I can vet them. I know who can handle the drink and those who can’t, I know their limits better than they do,” he tells me. “If I hear of a guy who misbehaves on the booze, even at home, I won’t be serving him. Do they do that at the Asda?”

James’ place is The Laurieston, a historic bar just over the River Clyde from the city centre. Its immaculately maintained 60’s interior with features such as suspended counter canopy with hidden lights, original formica mini-tables and period pie-heater, was used in the existentialist thriller, Young Adam, to re-create Glasgow of 50 years ago.

This status, along with attentive service and conviviality, helps it maintain a viable amount of punters, which includes each Saturday night, the local deaf society. And everyone inside will get home safely, Mr. Clancy personally phoning a taxi for each person that requires it. To Clancy, his pub is the haven from the troubles outside, not vice versa.

Lack of jobs and money in working-class districts are the reasons behind the decline of community pubs, he believes, that and societal problems which see an area like the Gorbals, just along the road, now have barely a couple of pubs but plenty of chemists dispensing methadone. For the Gorbals and Maryhill substitute, Shettleston, Yoker, Springburn and many other districts on the periphery of the city. All with similar problems and all with falling pub trade.

Alistair Don of The Doublet, another of the dwindling band of independent owner landlords, has his own ideas why. Apart from complicated, expensive legislation including continual presence of designated license holders, exhaustive operating plans, increasingly rigorous health and safety provisions, the unfair deals and margins large pub estate landlords impose on their tenants mean there is no money left to re-invest in the pubs, leading to a vicious circle of decreasing footfall and revenues.

His own place, which recently celebrated its 50th birthday, sits between the city centre and the west end in the relatively prosperous area of Kelvinbridge that insulates the pub from the worst of the economic trends. But he knows of previous customers who have changed their ways due to the relatively high costs of drinking-out. One such guy now buys his booze in Tesco and drinks it on the sly in the nearby Botanic Gardens public park.

Don, like James Clancy, has learned the value of good landlord to punter relationships, “I got told this early on: if you’ve two drinkers at the bar, strangers to each other, start talking to them and once they are chatting to each other, you’re job is done.” You have to wonder who the guy in the park will be talking to as he enjoys his drink from a poly bag.

When I put it to him that the days of the wet-led (non-food operations) bars are over he disagrees, seeing a future in premium drinks, like cask ales and malt whiskies. And in a catchment area like this he may have a point but where does that leave pubs in places where folk can barely afford basic booze brands let alone the high-end versions, or any kind of bar food?

Heading west from The Laurieston is the Tradeston district, an area in the shadow of the huge M8 Kingston Bridge over the Clyde, earmarked for regeneration for many years, but its resurgence has stalled as the new flats have failed to sell.

The historic Old Toll Bar (established 1893 and once owned by footballer Jim Baxter), just along the road, can lay claim to being Scotland’s finest interior with extravagantly carved dark wood and original spirit casks, but it is virtually empty on a Saturday night in January. Two staff and four customers vie to be the most disinterested. Even karaoke, incongruous in this splendid gin palace, fails to rouse anybody.

I leave quickly and move along to The Lord Nelson where there is also karaoke. But only a little more interest. Maybe nine customers? This is a Rangers pub, but the karaoke master is under strict instructions not to allow any songs that could be construed as inflammatory. Instead we get a trio performing the ultra-bland “I Will Fix You” by Coldplay. The three down-at-heel blokes speak their way through it, but at least they’re trying.

Outside, I talk to two of them as they shiver between drags on a shared fag. One of them reminisces about time spent some years ago in neighbouring bars such as The Red Lion, a start point for their trip to fans’ favourite and fellow-karaoke devotee Stuart McCall’s testimonial in Bradford. In the end the police turned them away before they even made the ground.

He heads inside but his pal hangs back, as if wanting to speak privately. He tells me something of his history. Divorce made him homeless, now he’s staying in a hostel, over the river in St. Enoch’s Square. “I miss my kids,” he says, “but I need to get on my own two feet first. I just want a job.”

This guy’s simple wish echoes James Clancy’s view about the lack of decent jobs and the choices thus denied. Half an hour later I’ve returned to The Laurieston where he is polishing his mixer bottles before replacing them in ordered rows under the gantry. I ask him about the future for the pub, and for himself and his brother, both now beyond standard retirement age. “Ah, we’ll just keep plugging away,” he smiles. Any doubt in his eyes vanishes when I mention future levies on all licensed premises, threatened by the Scottish government. “You have to realise,” he says, “we don’t sell booze in here. We sell conversation.”

Politicians, health professionals and interested commentators have been clear in their wish for a change in our drinking habits. Alcohol should be enjoyed, they say, in moderation in clean, modern, safe establishments, serving refreshments such as food and coffee alongside. And they are partly right. But not everyone can afford this sophisticated mix. What happens to their community meeting points? What fills the role provided by the pub for hundreds of years? Coffee shops?

Bars are places where lifetime friendships are forged and broken, partners won and lost, and political movements founded. Places where the good times are never forgotten. They are truly the heartbeat of the community. Can you say the same for Starbucks?

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Out From The Shadows - The Victoria Bar

The Victoria Bar, 159 Bridgegate, G1 5HZ

There’s very little sound round here after dark. Mostly just the wind whistling off the Clyde and finding the gaps in the buildings through which to, er, whistle. The lamplight seems dimmer than in the rest of the city centre, and shadowy figures emerge on street corners only to disappear as quickly as they appeared. I had just stepped out from my hiding place when suddenly…

But enough of my attempts at noir pulp, my job is to look at the recently re-launched Victoria Bar. It has a long history and good reputation in this part of the city, along with its near neighbour the Clutha Vaults. Recent years haven’t been so good though, including an abortive name change to Scotch Corner and opening times reduced to two days a week.

The neighbourhood has had its troubles too. A forgotten corner of town enclosed by a massive outdoor car park, the High Court, and the river with nothing but empty or dilapidated buildings in between. A homeless hostel is round the corner bringing the predators who latch on to the inhabitants, and Paddy’s Market, which, for all its faults and signs of glaring poverty, at least brought colour and authenticity to the area, has been consigned to history by the city fathers, holding their collective noses while doing so.

Quite a change from the days that Bridgegate – the street on which The Victoria sits - was one of the handful of streets that made up Mr. Glasgow, Jack House’s medieval Heart of Glasgow. Some centuries on from that, the area housed the city’s grandest residencies and their influential owners.

Gradual decline occurred during Victorian times when the wealthy headed to the west end of the city and since then no major development has reversed the decline. Apart, that is, from the rejuvenation of The Briggait building in the 1980s. It was restored and occupied by various small businesses, mostly fashion and art and design outlets, even some licensed units. This precursor to the later re-development of the larger Merchant City, failed after a few years, despite the efforts of its optimistic backers.

The drinking round here has changed vastly too. On adjacent Stockwell Street many premises have been demolished, including Ronnie’s Bar and the ancient and the brilliantly-named Robert Jaferay’s Wine & Spirit Cellar. Today an Argos store and the car park occupy their places. All that remain nearby from a long list are Westering Winds – a modest den on Bridgegate – the aforementioned Clutha Vaults and The Scotia, with its unsubstantiated claims to be Glasow’s oldest hostelry.

The latter two and The Victoria have a long tradition as folk music havens. This heritage and the pub’s renown as part of this triumvirate helped persuade present operator Tom O’Donnell to buy the lease a few months ago.

Now, folk music can’t be listed amongst my life favourites but that didn’t prevent me visiting the new operation. It was good to see the Old Victoria sign back again and a decent paint job too. Also noticed the Pop Up Comedy poster, an indication of O’Donnell’s wish to have live performance at the heart of the pub’s attractions.

Inside, I was struck by instant déjà vu. Without warning I was back in an indie music bar of the eighties and nineties. Not quite student days or the QM, but of that ilk, like The Halt Bar on Woodlands Road, only more so. Blackboard signs promising live delights such as open mic, the pop-up comedy, established band visits, quizzes etc were drawn in the vivid colours and style of circus posters, or that of a tattoo artist. And one wall is festooned to cramming point with music tour posters.

A partition wall does just that to the room, one side busy, the other quiet, my guess that the bands play on the former side while the less sociable customers seek respite on the other. Not that the interior is very big, there’s only enough seating for around thirty punters, with the three booths the pick of the spots.

The Muse sat in one of those while I went to the semi-circular bar – situated to the right of the partition wall. The Victoria is one of the few Glasgow bars to stock Brewdog beer on tap, part of its commitment to draw away from the mainstream. I took the Punk IPA at 6.5%. This particular beer proved too intense and hoppy for my palate but I have since tried the modified, weaker version, which was smooth on the taste buds.

The Muse had been admiring the tongue and groove panelling on the wall and ceiling, but she’s always been more interested in DIY and practical things than a dreamer like me. I nodded for a while then asked her nicely to get another round in. She returned complimenting the service, a friendly barmaid lacking the pretension or disinterest still prevalent in many of our bars.

I had done my own admiring in the meantime. Vintage framed ads going beyond the ubiquitous Guinness ones. Balloch Lade and Claymore whiskies were among the old brands I noticed. These were from the original Victoria, something of a bonus for the new buyer. They form a nice link to the pub’s heritage and go well with the dark wood interior.

The trailed Pop-Up Comedy was taking its time to, er, pop-up, so we looked for the beer garden. No sign was evident so we walked past the bar to one of the doors on the far side. This proved to be the right one. The garden is shared with the Clutha Vaults, using the space at the back of their wedge-shaped premises backing on to the walls of the Briggait.

It’s a very good size, in warm weather it has the capacity to hold more than the interior of the two bars combined. Murals and a real-to-goodness-actual tree growing through the concrete – not quite as impressive though as the indoor tree at Waxy O’Connors in London – complement the rough and ready feel out here. In winter, as with all beer gardens, it lacks a cheery feel. But a handy flu by the door gives you heat at your back, allowing you to linger over your nicotine stick of choice.

We left via the Clutha, it looking a little quieter than its neighbour and with the staff giving off a bored air absent from next door. The Clutha does have a pavement area but that seems to be its only advantage over The Victoria. And while The Victoria doesn’t have the same interesting nooks and crannies of The Scotia, it also possesses none of its cliques or its delusions.

The triumvirate will continue to combine to attract punters to this windswept corner of the city, and maybe The Victoria will become the most celebrated of the lot, stirring a revival in the licensed trade and the area in general. Let’s hope that’s not mere fiction.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Christmas Chronicle - Armstrong's, The Dram, Cail Bruich Restaurant, Sloan's Bar & Restaurant

I had decided to leave out any Xmas period review as I thought my previous piece on festive socialising had adequately covered the phenomenon. But on second thoughts, here on Old Christmas Day putting away the tree, I’ve decided to recount my festive bar going before the memories become consigned to the slop-tray of history.

Christmas time isn’t for discoveries of new drinking joints nor, necessarily, visiting old haunts. It is time for realising what pubs actually are: landmarks and comfortable (hopefully) places of refreshment that reflect their local surroundings and history. And a time when you realise their purpose: meeting places for reflection, relaxation, gossip, jokes, romance and everything else under the moon. Thus, form and function in harmony, the Holy Grail for both publicans and writers.

Christmas Eve
Although it isn’t the night it used to be, The Muse and I have established our own little tradition for Xmas Eve. A wee, cheap bite and some drinks through till the early hours of the big day. This year Kid N was in-tow, but his food preferences are simple: Burger. Upstairs at Stravaigin was the choice. One course each. After the good food, and Kid N’s departure, we moved through to the new main bar for cocktails. Nice, if quiet, atmosphere, was slightly spoiled by the staring habit of a certain regular, a Soap actor I believe. Ease off, wee man. Anyway we enjoyed our French Martini (sorry, I know it should be an aperitif) and our Tom Collins.

Next it was up to The Dram, on Woodlands Road, previously the famous Uisge Beatha. It’s been dramatically refurbished. Opened up – huge windows - and rendered contemporary. Stylish and practical, but now merely generic. Gone is the feel of a dilapidated Highland lodge, as is its uniqueness. Two drinks and then a call came in and we were headed to the heart of the west end to finish the night.

Wednesday 28th
Despite early starts all week I was determined to experience some Xmas-to-New Year midweek vibe. Armstrong’s on Battlefield Road may be new to me. If I have been before, it was in the days prior to my recording of my greatest hobby, probably when it was called Satchmo’s. There was a reasonable buzz within, this helped probably by its proximity to the Victoria Infirmary. The local feel is palpable, down even to the pecking order at the bar. Despite that qualification, it’s worth a visit, pool tables and an exemplary beer garden adding to the attraction.

Off then back towards town to the recently re-launched Victoria Bar. My full review of that joint will be up soon, but in brief, the rebirth deserves success. Of course, its address near the heart of old Glasgow is a help, but the pub has more than just location going for it.

Ok, there’s no autonomous bar within this place, and you can’t drink in there without a table and a meal, but permit me to mention Cail Bruich, on Great Western Road. It was the venue for our family meal on Scotland’s most famous night. The menu, concentrating upon seasonality and Caledonian produce is very ambitious, but it delivers on the expectations, due largely to the skills of head chef Chris.

Meal and complimentary drams over, it was across the road to Bobar. The time was early to mid-evening, pretty busy with a mixture of full-term revellers and those popping in before or after the main event of their nights. Good mix of ages too. A few of us took the cocktail option and a Bellini and a heavily spiced Bloody Mary met with approval. But the star was the Sloe Gin Fizz, the plum flavours giving this the most famous of highball drinks an appropriately winter slant. Around ten o’clock I went against type and headed for a house party, leaving the remainder of Hogmanay- on- the- town, with mixed emotions.

Sunday 2nd January
After our different Hogmanay I was itching to get out and about. We were intending to meet pals who, from last information received, were progressing from The Titwood towards Shawlands. In the meantime, we popped in to The Georgic. Last time in this old-time howf, one of the south side’s best, there was a distinct smell emanating from the toilets. This time it was one stage worse, the toilets seeming to be solidly backed-up, if you know what I mean. The regulars didn’t seem to notice but we headed through to the relatively fragrant lounge bar.

As it happened, our comrades had taken a detour via Battlefield but eventually we rendezvoused in The Waverley Tea Rooms. Up to its usual high standards was the Tea Room, but my enjoyment was spoiled by some wag comparing my appearance to that chap off Grand Designs. Most of our group headed into Corinthian around midnight. Only the main bar and casino were open, illustrative of how a large venue in Glasgow will struggle to get near capacity most days of the week. It was certainly busier on Hogmanay my sources tell me. Jam-packed was the word. Though the immature nature of some parts of the clientele dampened the fun.

Monday 3rd January (Afternoon)
Rumours had reached me mentioning a phenomena called the (December)/January sales. Conceding defeat without a murmur, I accompanied The Muse to Buchanan Street. In the event, I got the bargain, within the hour. Toasting early victory in The Vale, I received not only hard looks from the barmaid after paying with a Magarret (50 pound note) – a Xmas present, I swear – but some unusually duff information from one regular on defunct pubs in the vicinity.

The Social – as popular as ever - had no tables for an afternoon snack so One Up filled-in. First time I’ve been in before 9pm,so strange to have such space. Good £4 or £5 one course offers though. We finished in Sloans. I preferred it as The Bastille but things are improving here, especially the covered, heated courtyard. Unfortunately the upstairs Snug wasn’t open, the bar staff giving the impression it rarely makes an appearance. A pity. Please don’t advertise what you can’t deliver. The Muse told me to forget it. And enjoy, what proved to be, my last festive drink.