The brewers have evicted the tenant landlord of the Coach and Horses in Soho, Alastair Choat, who has run the place since 2006. I can see why he is cut up about it.
The Coach is well known the setting for the hit comedy with Peter O’Toole, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, which tickled the West end Zeitgeist in 1989, reprised a decade later. I suppose it was like making a play about the Algonquin Hotel and Dororthy Parker and the lads. But the play worked so well because Peter O’Toole wanted to be like Jeffrey Bernard – drunk, irresponsible and loved by women – just as Jeffrey had wanted to be like him – tall and famous with lots of money.
It was no accident that the Coach had a special relationship with The Spectator in the Eighties, just as it had had since the Sixties with Private Eye. I used to hop eagerly onto the 19 bus from The Spectator, where I worked, to take Jeffrey his copy of magazine with his column in it every Thursday morning. Michael Heath, with whom I shared a tiny office, celebrated the pub’s peculiar clientele in his brilliant cartoon strip The Regulars in Private Eye.
It was a popular pub with that kind of journalist, as well as poets, shoplifters, actors, painters, retired tarts, dressers, gangsters and all-purpose layabouts, because of its landlord, Norman Balon. He was Choat’s predecessor as tenant, not just a manager, and stayed for 63 years. He paid a huge rent and huger business rates to run things the way he wanted, which was in a very strange way indeed.
I used to think Norman had been born in the pub, but he was already 16 when his father was granted a licence, at 11 o’clock on 3 February 1943. For a large part of his life, though, the Coach was home. It was an odd, rambling, echoing, dark building to call home, with its steeply turning stairs, windowless passages, random cubby-holes, bare floorboards and an upper floor that was eventually abandoned to mice and the occasional pigeon that somehow got in under the eaves. In a dim corridor on the first floor a notice was pinned to a door: ‘This toilet is not to be used by members of staff .’
Norman succeeded partly by not allowing things. He didn’t allow music, so customers were able to talk to one another, or shout, after a few drinks. He didn’t allow gangsters to intimidate him for protection money, which took some courage, and he didn’t allow corrupt police to call the shots, for he never made a sideline in stolen goods. He wouldn’t even let anyone buy him a drink. He took the virtues of negativity to such a pitch that he had ‘London’s Rudest Landlord’ printed on his matchboxes and eventually painted on the outside of the pub under the legend in even bigger letters ‘Norman’s’. No one ever called it ‘Norman’s’.
He was genuinely rude, though, and still is in retirement, aged 92. He told me recently: ‘They hate me because I tell them the truth about themselves, which they can’t stand.’ There is something in that, but it was more about using words as weapons against bores.
Norman fell in with Richard Ingrams’s hatred of bores, and with the implicit war against them that was waged by the Regulars, who could not bear spending hours in the company of facile anecdotalists, or people who took themselves seriously, or vicarious fame-seekers or the conventionally ambitious for money, houses and happiness. So they repelled them with hard words. That is why half the people you meet who remember Soho in the Eighties say it was exclusive and unfriendly. The other half, who were accepted, remember it as a warm and tolerant place, their only real home.
Norman Balon was lucky that the spirit of the times meant that his pub was full to bursting with people who knew they’d always find someone interesting to talk to. The Eighties (which I look back on as bohemian Soho’s crazy apogee) were also astonishingly easy-going about drunkenness. Publishers and journalists were not alone in putting away fabled volumes of wine and spirits at lunchtime and coming back for more in the evening. I did a lot of passive smoking too, as the air was full of tobacco clouds, which looked rather lovely on a sunny afternoon.
Last time I was in the Coach, the dominant note was not smoke but cat. It is now a vegan pub. The people who made it so distinctive in the Eighties are dead. That kind of Soho died on 28 April 1992, with the death of Francis Bacon. There have been landlords at the Coach since Peter Rowlandson paid rates there in 1734. Alastair Choat might have made something new of the pub (I can’t think what), if he’d been left with the same leeway as Norman Balon. I have no lively hope that Fuller’s brewery will.