Low life

A lament for the best pub in Devon

11 November 2017

9:00 AM

11 November 2017

9:00 AM

We had a hyperbole competition, the taxi driver and I, over the climbing full moon, clearer and brighter than either of us had seen it for as long as we could remember. Did I know, he said, that the gravitational power of the moon on the Earth was just enough to stabilise the Earth’s wobble? It might have been put there, and its mass finely calibrated, just for the task. No, I said, I didn’t know that, but it just goes to show. ‘Show what?’ he said. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. But after thinking about it I said that maybe it goes to show that the physicists and astronomers are banging their heads against a brick wall. ‘How’s that?’ he said. He was a young man and terrier-like in his passion for logical debate. Well, I said, it seems like every five minutes the TV news excitedly reports that scientists are certain that they are going to discover life on another planet any day now, but they never do, do they?

The moon soared into view again. You could see the mountains and seas and what-not with the naked eye. I peered up at it through the windscreen hoping it would keep up the good work.

How long was I back for, asked the taxi man. I don’t know, I said. Maybe a few weeks. ‘Any plans while you’re here?’ he said. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’ll probably go to the pub. I’ve missed the pub.’ ‘Any particular one?’ he said. ‘The King Bill,’ I said. ‘I love a Saturday night up the King Bill getting slaughtered. I need it.’ ‘The King Bill’s shut,’ he said. ‘Closed down. Didn’t you know?’

I was shocked. At a verbal stroke this taxi man had removed my metaphorical moon, and the world was wobbling out of control. ‘It can’t be,’ I said. ‘Yep,’ he said. One often hears the sad statistic that a pub a day is closing in Britain. It feels as though one a day is closing in this part of Devon alone. Some aren’t regretted. But the King Bill and its clientele of losers, paupers, weirdos, seers, bores, babblers and underage drinkers was always a nailed-on brilliant Saturday night. The landlord, a single, mild-mannered Mr Nice Guy, would turn a blind eye to most things. He turned a blind eye so readily he ought to have been registered as disabled. You could get away with anything except taking your drink outside when you went for a fag. That he was hot on, because his neighbours complained about the noise the smokers made. Apart from that, the pub was Liberty Hall.

There was that time, for example, when a respected political commentator friend came down to Devon to speak and we arranged to meet afterwards at the King Bill. He arrived at 8.30 and by 8.40 he had pulled a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. Or rather she pulled him. I witnessed it. He couldn’t believe his luck and neither could I. The pub was packed and the live band was rocking, so I left him to it.

I was having a fag outside on the pavement when he came out to look for me. ‘Can you get us some weed or something?’ he said. I turned to the nearest bloke, a bassist in a hot local band, and asked him if he knew of anyone with weed. To answer my question he started skinning one up right there on the cracked window sill. My London friend was mightily impressed. ‘Ask him if he’s got anything else,’ he whispered. I said to the bassist, ‘Have you got anything else?’ ‘No,’ he said. Pointing to another bloke smoking on the pavement, he said, ‘But he might have.’ So our metropolitan visitor’s laudable whim to make a contribution to the general gaiety was catered for by the bloke standing next to us, and then by another bloke standing two yards off — and all good-quality stuff at knock-down prices.

It was like that, the King Bill on a Saturday night. Your single-minded ambition to take leave of your senses as quickly as possible was its own ticket of admission to a charmed and affable circle. Moreover, there was a decent pool table and the jukebox had a lot of old soul classics on it and the bar staff took little persuading to turn up the volume. And you could do that sad thing and get out of your mind and dance alone with your eyes closed and the other customers would completely understand and give you a friendly pat on the way past.

The moon disappeared behind a hill then reappeared and the taxi driver and I contemplated it in silence. There it was, weird, impossibly bright, and steadying the Earth with its gentle power. But the best pub in the area was gone.

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