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Saturday, 20 February 2021

The Eternal Whipping Boy


So here we are, 11 months in, and a few days before the UK government’s announcement of their “roadmap” out of lockdown. Amidst the mountains of speculation, one thing is pretty much agreed upon by all observers, pubs will be at the back of the queue for reopening. What is also widely acknowledged is that such a decision has no scientific basis. But that doesn’t matter to politicians, academics, journalists, social media commentators and all the other influencers, large and small. That the licensed trade and night-time economy occupy the lowest rung is more about worthiness than rates of transmission.

Going to the pub is frivolous, they say, and we must prioritise other sectors before we can even consider bars and nightclubs. So non-essential shops will be back first, followed by every other business you can think of and then pubs, maybe, and probably with restrictions for months, even when most of the population are vaccinated. Because going to the pub is just a luxury, they tell us. Completely ignoring the benefits socialising brings to all of society; relaxation, improved mental health, combatting loneliness and isolation, community spirit, spending time with strangers, old-fashioned fraternity.

In comparison to pubs and clubs, restaurants and coffee shops will be treated far more favourably. These activities, eating and mainlining caffeine, are respectable. You can be productive on coffee, you see. This is to be encouraged in the brave new world of work and achievement. Popping into a bar for a few drinks, just to see what happens or who you might meet, is such an alien concept to our rulers (official and unofficial) that the arguments over a substantial meal with a drink went right over their heads. And an extra bonus is that subversion – social and political – is a phenomenon rarely seen in cafes.

The roadmap of Monday 22nd February is likely to be guided by all the above “considerations” and hospitality – Britain’s vice, don’t you know? – will have to stomach the gruel it is served. Pubs in Scotland will face an even less palatable menu, with Nicola Sturgeon set to look at the schedule set out by Boris Johnson and mirror most of it, particularly its sequencing, but add on five or six weeks for Scotland.

That’s because the SNP has an unwritten motto, as do a chunk of the population, “never knowingly less righteous (ie authoritarian) than the next country”. Seemingly more in thrall to public health experts here than in any other part of the UK, if not Europe – without seeing any actual improvements in population health.

 We have academics such as Professor Niamh Fitzgerald of the University of Stirling whose team recently produced a piece of research regarding conduct within licensed premises across central Scotland during the time they were actually allowed to open and sell alcohol. I mentioned this research team and its intentions way back in my last blog. According to the researchers, there was not 100% compliance with the required social-distancing and other measures. When I suggested online that this survey was commissioned by the Scottish Government, she replied that it was not commissioned by the government, rather the CSO (Chief Scientific Officer) had solicited for research and then accepted their proposal. I thanked her for the information but it took a few more messages on Twitter before she actually admitted the research was funded by the Scottish Government. Quite a crucial fact, one could say.

The professor has made a career out of demonising alcohol, so doubt must be raised about the impartiality of her and her team of researchers. They visited 29 premises and spent around 2 hours in each. With all due respect to their skills and commitment, I visited far more than that amount of pubs across Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales in the period July to October and found a remarkable level of industry adherence to the rules, not to mention a serious and probably crippling amount of money spent on screens, PPE, outdoor seating etc

In those many licensed premises I can recall only one joint which did not take my name and address. In comparison, in the same three months, I visited a similar amount of different coffee shops, and in at least 10% of those premises there was no recording of my name and address. But as we know, coffee shops, cafes and restaurants, supermarkets etc are not put under the scrutiny experienced by pubs.

As if to add to our joy north of the border, Sturgeon and colleagues appear to now be intent on following the advice of zero-Covid zealots like media darling Professor Devi Sridhar. One of the main outcomes of this tack will be the banning of all foreign travel from Scotland for an indefinite period. That this may be accepted by a sizeable amount of the Scottish electorate is perhaps down to the quite extraordinary (in peacetime, anyway) amount of psych-ops employed by all UK governments, a task which has been taken up with glee by psychologists such as Professor Stephen Reicher of St Andrews University (yes, another Scottish-based professor).

When one observes this panoply of concerted action by many professions, one does wonder if lockdown has presented an opportunity for the professional and laptop classes to once again examine and dismantle the lives and passions of the lower-middle and working classes. And perhaps even exact some revenge for Brexit (I speak as a Remainer, btw).

“So you voted for Brexit, eh? Well, because you have jeopardised the chances of students undertaking an Erasmus, you can forget about that cheap week in the sun in Benidorm. And see those few quiet pints in your local midweek, or a booze-up in the social club or nightclub come Saturday, that won’t be allowed until at least summer 2022. And, by the way, keep delivering those Amazon packages and serving me at Waitrose. That’s your place, and don’t forget it.”

Yes, eventually the pubs and social clubs will re-emerge in the UK, maybe even nightclubs and casinos. But the landscape will have changed dramatically, independent operators even more an endangered species, chains such as Wetherspoons ever more dominant. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is the inevitable outcome of the UK establishment once again casting the licensed trade as the whipping boy.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

You're On Your Own

Davy has been at his bedroom window most of the day for the last eight weeks. He goes out for a walk sometimes but can’t be bothered others; there’s nothing happening, nowhere open. Of course. But still he stands there, looking out from his second-floor tenement flat.

The main reason is maybe because he can see both the Alexandra Bar and The Crown Creighton from there. His real favourite, The Duke Bar, is just out of sight but two out of three isn’t bad. In normal times, he pops in to one or more of those bars most days. Just a couple, mind, he’s not a heavy drinker. He goes for the chat, maybe some dominoes. Not too many folk frequent both the Alexandra and the Creighton but Davy is a non-denominational socialiser; for him, the thing is to get out and about, for its own sake.

Jean, his wife, is gone three years. His family now consists of two great nieces and their mum and dad. They only visit him occasionally during the best of times, so… Most of his pals are in the same boat. He doesn’t know though if they stand at their windows too.  Maybe they’ve got a chair they bring over.

He’s one of the luckier ones, he thinks. Some of his friends, living in hollowed-out areas such as Dalmarnock or Haghill or Ruchazie, don’t even have a local Post Office or general store, let alone a decent pub. His pension is lasting not too bad and his health is reasonable too, a couple of stents inserted half a decade ago the only real issue.

So he is well able to stroll down to the Gallowgate for a visit to The Drover and/or Hielan Jessie, maybe even as far as The Braemar, beyond The Barras. On his way back home after a few pints he often gets to thinking on his luck and of people he has known over the years, people less blessed than him. And of course, he has regrets. Drink brings these thoughts out but somehow he knows it’s right that he does revisit his past; contemplating is just something you should do, with or without booze in you.  

Other times, especially weekends, his mood takes him further into town, around and about High Street. It can be MacKinnon’s or The Old College Bar; even better, karaoke in The Old Ship Bank or The Black Bull until midnight. Then a taxi home – he never has done chips or kebabs after drink – or a long walk. More thoughts. 

And at his window, some of those thoughts are returning to his fortune in life compared to others, wondering whether he has taken what he has, what he had, for granted. The friendships; his time with Jean; their holidays to the Dorset coast, or to Spain every couple of years; his youth. All things receding, long gone, of course, but maybe there is still life to be lived. And maybe it won’t be too long until the pubs reopen.

Those who follow the news assiduously will realise I could not possibly interview “Davy” or anyone else face-to-face in these strange times, so they can cheerfully disregard all that I’ve written above. However, there are many people like Davy and some will perhaps share his optimism regarding pubs and clubs and their future. In that regard, a dose of realism is required.

Leaving aside questions of R rates, PPE, care home neglect, the pitifully low capacity for test, trace and isolate; the fate of the hospitality trade in Scotland depends largely on political will. So let’s see where the large political parties in Scotland stand.

To begin with, years of legislation, disparaging statements and general public policy in this country have demonstrated what politicians and their advisers think of Scotland’s bars, social and nightclubs: for them, pub-going is the country’s dirty little secret. They may pay lip service to some restaurants/bars that bring in tourism money but for the kind of pubs Davy might go to, there is nothing but ignorance and disdain. 

In the last few years, there has at last been recognition that home drinking is far more damaging to public health than that in regulated environments such as pubs, but this has come far too late to arrest the decline in the numbers of pubs seen in Glasgow and across the country.

As for the Tory party; unless people haven’t been paying attention for at least the last 40 years, the Conservatives only care about their own. I will leave you to decide what tiny percentage of the population that actually is. And as for the party in Scotland in particular, any party/organisation/piss-up in a brewery/menage that has Jackson Carlaw at its head is in deep trouble. Needless to say, the plight of ordinary, traditional pubs in areas of Glasgow beyond the tourist or Instagram circuit is not at the top of the Tories’ priority list.

The Scottish Labour Party has always failed to deliver on its rhetoric claiming to represent the less well off. The party has more represented the interests of public sector professionals and a slice of their counterparts in the private sector, rather than bus drivers, cleaners, the unemployed. And its record over decades of hegemony in the GCC is a rather shameful one, consigning the city to life under the twin blights of neglect and corruption, especially with regard to Glasgow’s built heritage.

In Glasgow and the wider nation, the SNP has now been in charge for a sizeable amount of time, and can no longer point at past failings of other parties as an excuse for outcomes today. They share the general political distrust of pub-goers and pub and club operators, and may indeed feel it even more keenly, given the deep strain of puritanism and self-righteousness embedded in their DNA.  

And a recent announcement that they have commissioned a Stirling University-led study into how pubs in Scotland could open has raised fears amongst industry insiders that this academic-led work is designed to achieve the exact opposite, namely keeping pubs shut for as long as possible, not as long as is necessary.

There has been talk of the first bar reopenings comprising of outdoor service only, but this will surely require councils to ease their draconian policies affecting outdoor drinking. Going by previous actions of GCC, this kind of flexibility seems unlikely, killing stone dead any early hope of even limited trading. 

Indeed, it is suspected, if council offshoot City Building has its way, the eventual closure of pubs such as The Old College Bar and The Black Bull will be welcomed, allowing them even more scope to facilitate developers’ greedy plans for more and more identikit blocks of student flats.

No, the prognosis for the bar, club, hotel trade is not at all good (I claim the prize for the understatement of the decade) and pub lovers – whether punters or licensees – are on their own. Don’t expect any help from politicians, Twitter’s circuits of self-congratulation, the Edinburgh-based lobbyists, and most academics. The only way they will bend is under sustained pressure.

My prediction – and I fervently hope to be wrong - is that, as bars across Europe gradually open their doors again, those in Scotland will be at least 3-4 months behind, and probably the last in Europe to reopen. And with restricted trading likely to continue for a while after that, a reasonable estimate is that more than half of Glasgow and Scottish licensed premises will be gone for good by the end of 2021.

Pessimistic maybe, but that is where the present evidence points. Who knows how long Davy will be standing at his window?

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Favourite Bars of the Last Decade

No unnecessary preamble; this particular stuff requires no explanation.


Favourite Bar - Town of Ramsgate - the most atmospheric of the many great Thames-side boozers, the proximity of the historic Wapping Old Stairs adding to the air of the place. Hopefully the latest refurb won't change things too much nor preclude a good old London singsong.

Runners-up - The Boleyn Tavern (East Ham's finest on a grand scale).
                    - Boisdale Belgravia (nowhere better for whisky and cigars).
                    - Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (if it's good enough for Dickens it's good enough for me).
                    - Dog and Duck (ditto Orwell in this slice of Amsterdam in Soho).
                    - Windsor Castle (a mahogany gem of an interior ingeniously compartmentalised).


Favourite Bar - The Central Bar - a living example that a working-class bar can be just as grand as its more upmarket cousins. Situated beside the site of the old Central Station in Leith, the interior's use of tile, stained glass and mosaic flooring, not to mention a remarkable wooden gantry, can render a first-time visitor speechless in admiration; while the more regular punters just get on with their drinking.

Runners-up - Leslie's (a southside treasure trove of snugs, elegant woodwork and snob screens.)
                    - Jinglin' Geordie (superseded The Halfway House as the best fun to be had down Fleshmarket Close).
                    - Devil's Advocate (a more modern take on how to feel at one with the Old Town and its back closes,coupled with a huge whisky list).
                    - The Shore (restrained elegance down by Leith waterfront, its dark wood best enjoyed by candlelight).
                    - Bramble (led the way in the capital's cocktail renaissance).


Favourite Bar - Boadas - it's not just that it's Barcelona's oldest cocktail bar and that you are drawn back to the '30s as soon as you enter this wood-panelled sanctuary that from the street offers no obvious signs of the delights inside. No, add the impeccable bow-tied service, the gentle atmosphere, the exemplary cocktail expertise. On my first visit, I sampled the barman's latest creation - Blackpool Rock - one of the 365 they have to learn and perfect for every day of the year. And he threw in hand-drawn directions to a hard-to-find bar next on my itinerary.

Runners-up - Los Caracoles (a labyrinthian grotto of a restaurant dedicated to Barcelona classics,                            made even better by its beautiful front bar, or vice versa; take your pick).
                    - Alternatiff Area Comix Gallery Bar (how Prague does a dive bar, complete with
                    Tony Montana mural).
                    - Tynska Bar and Books (booze and literature, literature and booze, booze and...)
                    - Black Swan (service and cocktail knowledge to rival the world's best, at a fraction of                        the cost, in this backstreet Budapest joint).
                    - Szimpla Kert (Budapest's best ruin bar; quite an accolade).
                    - Lo Scalo (hacked out of a Riomaggiore cliff. The view alone...)



Favourite Bar - The Philharmonic Dining Rooms - a lot of pubs are described as palaces. This place is one. A Liverpool institution for decades, it brings the city's people together in drink and food, whether they notice the countless Victorian extravagances in glass, copper, mahogany and tiles or not.

Runners-up - The Pheasant Inn (in Cumbria - great food, pleasant gardens and an even                                           more impressive public bar).
                   - The Corn Mill (how to do a riverside pub, here by Llangollen's fast-flowing River Dee)
                   - The Hand (a Welsh village local near the superb Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall. Plenty of                          chat, most of it in Welsh. Limited craft beer selection - who gives a ....?)
                   -  The Boot Inn and The Duke of Cornwall (both in Weymouth. One for heritage                                  overlooking the harbour, the other just for a good time).


Favourite Bar - Kintail Lodge Hotel - it may not be the most illustrious of bars but is situated in the heart of one of Highland Scotland's most spectacular areas. Good food and drink and an eclectic mixture of locals, climbers, walkers, and tourists from far and wide. If you're lucky, you might even get an impromptu performance from a local piper or accordionist.

Runners-up - The Old Forge (community togetherness and intrigue all in one building. I recommend the long walk in through Knoydart, as long as you are prepared for the Rough Bounds).
                    - Feuars Arms (it is very rare in Scotland to have such flourishes of style outwith the
                     the big cities. And that!)
                    - Monteiths (Untouched with limited-edition mirroring. Shore Road, Gourock).
                    - Black Cat Bar (just along the road to Greenock and this bar also has a terrazzo                                   spittoon. Slightly more detail than in Monteiths and with an archetypal island bar).


Favourite Bar - Cleary's - to pick my favourite Dublin bar is a tough ask but this place has it all; the Joyce connection - as The Signal Box- it sits under a railway bridge in the shadows, it is not inundated with tourists, and has an amazing interior.

Runners-up - The Stag's Head and Mulligan's (it says much about Dubliners' civic pride that                                  historic pubs such as these have been protected for well over 100 years).
                    - The Dawson Lounge (show me a smaller bar, go on, show me one!)
                    - Quinn's Bar (a snug, a signal box and an extensive back court in this Dungannon                               stalwart).
                    - The Crown Liquor Saloon (once seen, never forgotten).
                    - The Spaniard (a long narrow continental bar never lacking a buzz).
                    - The Morning Star (less well-known than the two Belfast bars above, an example of
                     how well the city has used its alleyways, known as entries in these parts).


Favourite Bar - The Finnieston  - if I was judging over the last couple of years, when standards have slipped here a bit in terms of bar expertise and service, it would not be top but over the piece, as they say, The Finnieston has been the best cocktail joint in the city. Its low ceiling and discerning use of dark wood create atmosphere from lunchtime till last orders, and I don't know why I enjoy feeling like I'm sitting inside a galleon but I just do. And its outdoor area out back over the old railway line is one of the best cigar spots anywhere.

Runners-up - The Grove (still holding its own amidst the Michelin-star-hunting eateries).
                    - The Old Toll Bar (best-looking bar in Glasow).
                    - The Georgic (old-school split between lounge and public bar).
                    - The Railway Tavern (Edwardian Shettleston. Blogger-free zone).
                    - Cabin Bar (you won't find smaller. You won't find more casual).
                    -  Black Bull (it's not just the karaoke).
                    - One Up (I've lost count the number of times I've...).


Areas like Gallowgate/Calton need reviving, not gentrifying. Hopefully, joints like The Gate will help to do just that. And just for its own sake, maybe it can show that there is still a future for properly thought-out wet-led new bars in this city.


Thursday, 5 October 2017

Backwards and Forwards

As, unfortunately, time only seems to point one way, sometimes it’s nice to defy the currently established laws of physics and look backwards as well as forwards, maybe even simultaneously. So that’s what I’ll do here, before the passage of time renders it all mightily insignificant.

One of the aims behind this blog was to link the present with the past, specifically (though not exclusively) Glasgow bars with their previous incarnations. Largely because it is hard to think of any other shared, community assets that a person of today can sit or stand in the same place that their forefathers and foremothers did, and then do exactly the same thing they did too – take a drink.

Perhaps libraries and museums are further examples of such shared and continuous heritage but they lack the number of pubs and most definitely their conviviality. Bars are living history and are aptly described as “people’s palaces”.

So it is nice to hear some first-hand responses to this blog that tell of people’s own connections with pubs, stories that link them and their families with the life of a bar mentioned in my musings herein. Three spring mos prominently to mind.

Anne Fox now lives in the States. She used to live on Admiral Street, as a child, just round the corner from the Old Toll Bar. Coming across my blog, she decided to email me about the bar. In her early years, she was, of course, unable to enter the premises but she has fond memories of its role in the community and its use by her family. Her recollections included stories of a major subsidence issue with the building in 1954, leading to her mother having to throw the young Anne from the window to safety, and a tragic gas incident which resulted in the death of Anne’s grandparents in the mid-1960s.

Having emigrated around half a century ago, she returned to visit the area about two or three years ago and was disappointed to see the Old Toll unoccupied and in a sorry state. However, my blog alerted her to the reopening and resurgence of the bar and when she returns this autumn she intends to visit the Old Toll and raise a toast to the past with old friends and her cousin, her only remaining family member from those distant days.

A posting of mine from a few years ago, surveyed various unheralded bars round about Parkhead Cross and received a generous response from a local, Mo. He recounted light-hearted tales from the hostelries of the district frequented by his father and other relatives, most notably the gigging exploits of his brother Tommy, an accomplished guitarist, whose virtuosity on his instrument of choice didn’t protect him from the indignity of stepping aside every time a punter wanted to use the pub’s toilets. Aye, space is precious in the Glasgow bar.

The last anecdote I will mention relates to a bar I have concentrated quite a bit of attention on in this blog, it being recognised by those most knowledgeable on the subject as the oldest bar in Glasgow. Standing in a bar one day, appropriately enough, talking to a barman about my blog and specifically the fate of the Old College Bar, a woman of around 40 nearby, enquired if we were indeed talking about the bar on High Street.

Now living in the West End, she was originally from Castlemilk and she told me that the Old College Bar was where 30-odd years ago her father, then separated from her mother, would pop into the Old College after he had picked up her and her sister from their mum at the weekends. He would catch up with his buddies and have a couple of pints while the girls would be indulged with soft drinks and crisps. All refreshed, they would be ready for the long bus journey to his home. For this lady, the demise of the Old College, if and when it goes, would be a severing of a link to her past, bittersweet though it was.

Three everyday stories, no more, no less, but all illustrative of the important role pubs have played and will continue to play in the lives of the folk of Glasgow.

So that’s the past dealt with but we have to always look forward, there is no choice - unless the B-Theory of time can be proven - so here are my plans for the near future, some of which may creep into this blog.

I preferred the previous incarnation, Universal, but Malones in Sauchiehall Lane have piqued my interest with their newly constructed rooftop cider garden. I will be visiting it very soon. Coincidentally, there are a few plans for other rooftop bars across the city, including the Radisson Red hotel near the Hydro, due to open in April, and I believe another similar offering at the hotel under construction south of St Enoch Square, also overlooking the Clyde.

Less welcome, for me, are Brewdog’s plans for a new outlet, Hopworks, on East Campbell Street near the Barras. The most recent developments in the area, St Lukes, and A’Challtainn are joints that are sympathetic to the district and to its history. The arrival of the Brewdog chain to east of High Street suggests gentrification rather than benefit to locals. On the upside, the plans do include a beer terrace.

The Viking Bar on Maryhill Road continues with its radical refurb, installing, for example, huge windows on its west and south sides. I visited a couple of months ago when works were around halfway completed, I will return once everything is done and dusted.

Not too far away from the Viking, up in Possil, the Balmore Bar has reopened after a lengthy absence. It is looking bright and dapper and I will include it in a proposed survey of in and around Saracen Cross during the first weekend in November, the highlight of which will probably be my return to the excellent Standard Inn.

Celino’s massive new opening in Partick has received lots of attention, an investment which is an enormous jump in capacity for the owners, coming from their far more modestly-sized outlet on Alexandria Parade. I’ve been in during daylight hours and am impressed with the interior, even though I would have preferred use of a darker wood tone. I particularly like the small coffee bar by the door, those couple of chairs surely the best seats in the house.

Their island bar is an attempt to create a destination drinking spot, something their rivals in the east, Coia’s, have never utilised. It will be interesting to see the interaction of a night-time between diners and drinkers.

Moving away from Glasgow, next month I will be heading up the east coast for a long-overdue return to the watering holes of Aberdeen. The historic gems, the Grill and Cameron’s Inn (Ma’s) will surely be visited, along with the whisky and cigar emporium CASC.

Nearer in time, this weekend I will be returning to Northern Ireland after a visit only six weeks ago. On that occasion, I missed the opportunity of sampling the delights of a few gloriously intact listed interiors of pubs in County Tyrone. This time, that mistake will not be repeated when I land in Belfast.

Pubs on my list include Ronnie Drew’s, the Errigle Inn, and the Rock. And even though I’ve been many times, the most famous of all, the Crown Liquor Saloon will feature too. It promises to be a good weekend. Just goes to show, there is even some comfort in the future, no matter how fleeting.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Shettleston Two

The Railway Tavern, 1416 Shettleston Road, Glasgow G32 9AL
The Portland Arms, 1169 Shettleston Road, G32 7NB

One of the main components of the East End of Glasgow, Shettleston is a district often burdened by a fearsome reputation but in reality it is much like many areas of the city, north, west, east and south, with the accompanying positives and negatives.

There is a decent promenade to be had along the length of the main artery, Shettleston Road, selecting pubs as you go. But it is a pity that so few interested imbibers, not to mention bloggers, seem to want to explore around here.

Anyway, their loss, and that includes missing out on two of Glasgow’s best bar interiors. The first of these is the Railway Tavern, situated at the eastern end of the thoroughfare.

The Railway Tavern is a modest, cottage building, with no hint of the delights inside. This pub dates from Edwardian times and was from the first regarded as a workingman’s establishment.

At first glance the interior looks quite simple, basic even. An island bar with a low-rise, fragile looking gantry greets one, but the beamed ceiling is more impressive. The interior is quite small, everything seemingly scaled-down. But this just adds to the warm feeling that comes over you in here, unannounced.

It is more than just the heat you get from the numerous guarded fires. There are two of these sited permanently in the two sitting rooms (or snugs) that give this place some of its reputation. One of these has some interesting engravings on its wall but the real interest is the service buttons that were once linked to service signal boxes in the main area. Those wishing to conduct their drinking away from their fellows could thus summon service without leaving their seats. Those were the days…

Another feature of great interest is the Family Department or Jug Bar. This is an enclosed area by one small corner of the bar counter only accessible through one exterior door. There would be no mixing between those using this area and those in the rest of the bar, because this was where the family (wife or children) would be allowed to collect a jug of beer for the man of the house. An early off-licence.

The Railway Tavern retains such curiosities long past their actual use, realising that history should be preserved and that it gives modern pub-goers an enjoyable link to that history.

The tavern nowadays is a real community pub. The manager, Derek, knows most punters by name and creates a welcoming atmosphere for everyone. Unusually for around Shettleston there is a beer garden, situated beside trees at the back. All in all, The Railway Tavern is a good option to take in the afternoon’s football on TV, a full evening of chat and drink, even karaoke at 3pm Tuesday and Sunday.

Opposite is the The Kirkhouse, a decent family and food-friendly establishment but the other historical gem in Shettleston is The Portland Arms, about 600 yards west of The Railway Tavern.

Re-opened in the 1930s to accommodate the drinking appetite of well-paid workers newly employed in the armament factories of the East End, The Portland Arms shares with the Steps Bar and Rogano Restaurant, both of the city centre, a well-preserved Art Deco interior. These are some of the best examples of inter-war design anywhere in the UK.
The previous Portland Arms had been around since 1842, the new version the brainchild of ambitious licensee Jonathan Tindal. He used the architect Alexander-Hood Macleod, whose business had been in decline. Macleod’s main experience had been industrial work, and these techniques and materials were applied to The Portland, which is a B Listed building and interior.

There are many notable features starting with the building’s modernist exterior. Its granite and brick fascia and steel lettering sets it apart from the tenements all around. Inside, the vogue materials of the 1930’s walnut and chrome are employed to great effect. All doors and the counter are in walnut, with walnut zebra-style veneer panelling also on the walls. Chrome is banded round the counter. Small match strikers remain under the counter and between seats, an echo of smoking days. Above the bar gantry is a large cream canopy, a very unusual feature, originally inset with neon lights.

Probably the most notable aspect to the interior is the four well-preserved sitting rooms, or snugs, in each corner. All are self-contained and glazed, the two front rooms with windows on to the street, something unique in this country I believe. One of these is designated as a ladies room, the other, is unfortunately, in use as a storeroom. There is also a jug bar. With all these wonders it is easy to fail to notice the two Art Deco fireplaces, notable features in their own right.

There is no denying that the bar is operating at a level far below that of its heyday and this is reflected in the rather cheap, harsh strip lighting under the canopy and indeed the whole of the interior. It is also unfortunate, though unsurprising, that the original terrazzo flooring is long gone.

The last but one time I visited the Portland, I was on my own and smartly dressed in a winter coat and crisp white shirt and happy with my appearance. A few guys in their early 20s, who looked to be in the know, were smoking at the entrance and one of them, noticing me as I passed, greeted me thus – “Alright, slick?” I smiled and nodded, glad that someone else had appreciated my look, even if it was not entirely what he meant.

Inside, there were quite a few other colourful characters and after my visit I made the following notes – “Within minutes you realise that this joint contains the highest concentration of reprobates and rogues since the last meeting of the Privy Council. To be more specific, the denizens here can be split into two categories: those who are barred from the Railway Tavern, and those who should barred from the Railway Tavern.”

But on my most recent visit to the Portland, a Saturday in late April, things were different; the bar staff more attentive, the clientele rather less forbidding, a unity amongst all the punters creating a far more relaxed vibe, an atmosphere that this wonderful interior deserves.
There are other notable bars along Shettleston Road. I have in the past confused The Drum and The Town Tavern pubs, being not too far apart. I prefer the latter for its attractive bar staff, ingenious wee patio and various malts priced at £3 a pop.

Venture off the main road and The Palaceum Bar might be your choice for refreshment. I’ve done that once…

Ahem... but returning to Shettleston Road, The Cottage Bar is well-known, even to non-drinkers. That relates to the Arthur Thompson/Paul Ferris gangland saga, that has spawned more bad books and films than Jack the Ripper.

My first time in the Cottage was around 15 years back, a full decade after the lethal end of that feud. After a couple of beers I decided to ask a few punters what they knew of the case. The first guy said nothing, the second pointedly ignored me, the third told me to GTF. I took that as the cue to drain and split.

A little lesson learned, you could say, and one that I keep close as I continue to tramp the streets documenting the life and times of bars in Shettleston and beyond.