Plain Speaking

Gavin Clarke anniversary, London, pub, walking

by Tony White

Plain Speaking’ was written to mark the 110th anniversary, on 5 October 2021, of the birth of Brian O’Nolan, best known as Flann O’Brien, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author. The story was first performed at David Collard’s Carthorse Orchestra, an online salon, Saturday 2 October, and first published by 3am Magazine.

Keats and Chapman found themselves between Spitalfields and Shoreditch in the East End of London. Keats had just given a reading for Steven J Fowler’s English PEN Festival of Modern Literature at Rich Mix, and Chapman suggested a cheeky pint.

It being the 5th of October, Chapman also reminded Keats that it was the great man Brian O’Nolan’s birthday.

‘In that case,’ said Keats, ‘I know just the place.’

The pair were only steps away from a pub called The Old Blue Last on Great Eastern Street, which was justly celebrated ­for one great, historical, cultural, industrial, scientific and literary fact: it was the first house where porter was sold. Indeed a large sign graven into the gable end of The Old Blue Last – facing goods yard and market ­– proclaimed this fact in capital letters three feet high: ‘THE FIRST HOUSE WHERE PORTER WAS SOLD.’

‘So it’s all this place’s fault,’ said Chapman, but Keats’s mind was elsewhere.

Trying to make conversation Chapman went on, ‘If only porter could talk,’ he said, ‘what stories it could tell!’

‘Ah,’ said Keats, ‘but it does, if you have ears to listen.’

Keats, it must be said, was an unusual drinker, because for him the pleasure of a pint of porter was not just about the aroma, the taste, the weight of the glass in his hand or the beneficent effect of the blessed liquid on mind and body. For Keats, no small part of the pleasure of drinking a pint came from the hiss of steam from the dishwasher door, the rattle of the glasses in their crates, the creak of the pump, the first gurgling squirt from the nozzle, the splash of beer into a still-warm glass, coins in the till, the friendly chink of glass meeting glass, slurping off the foam, the sound of that first great glug in his own throat, the oesophageal embrace, his loud sigh of satisfaction ­– Aaah! – the gurgle in the gullet, his belch, all of this – the auditory paraphernalia of the practice ­­– was as important to Keats as the aroma, the taste, the weight of the glass in his hand or the beneficent effect of the blessed liquid on mind and body.

As the friends approached the pub however, Keats stopped aghast. That famous sign which for a century or more had proclaimed to market and railway workers alike that The Old Blue Last was the first house where porter was sold, had been obliterated by an enormous billboard.

But Chapman was undeterred. ‘Look!’ he said, and there was already a queue of people waiting to get in. Young people, at that. ‘They must’ve all,’ he said, ‘had the same idea as us.’

He was already looking forward to conducting the assembled company in a rousing rendition of ‘The Workman’s Friend’.

But Keats’s mind was on other things: the hiss of steam from the dishwasher door, the rattle of the glasses in their crates, the creak of the pump, the first gurgling squirt from the nozzle, the splash of beer into a still-warm glass, coins in the till, the friendly chink of glass meeting glass, slurping off the foam, the sound of that first great glug in his throat, the oesophageal embrace, his own loud sigh of satisfaction ­– Aaah! – the gurgle in the gullet, his belch . . . Just the thought of it was already sharpening his thirst. So he was dismayed when his reverie was interrupted by two surly bouncers, demanding to search their bags for illicit booze, and confiscating Keats’s bottle of mineral water in case it contained vodka. But in the interests of the grander project, Keats went along with this, and soon he and Chapman found themselves in the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, the public bar of The Old Blue Last, the first house where porter was sold.

But once inside, the din was extraordinary. DJs stood at the decks, the music was deafening, and these crowds of junior office workers were evidently not ­­here to celebrate the anniversary of the great man’s birth. Judging by the table reservations these smartly-dressed young people were here to celebrate Jenny’s birthday, Christine’s birthday, Tim’s leaving party. But Keats was undeterred, and made straight to the bar. Keen as he was to toast the great man in style.

So you can imagine his consternation amidst this great cacophony, leaning over the bar and straining to hear the hiss of steam from dishwasher door, the rattle of the glasses in their crates, the creak of the pump, the first gurgling squirt from the nozzle, the splash of beer into a still-warm glass, coins in the till; straining, but to no avail.

And as for the friendly chink of glass meeting glass, slurping off the foam, the sound of that first great glug in his throat, the oesophageal embrace, his own loud sigh of satisfaction ­– Aaah! – the gurgle in the gullet, his belch?

All went unheard.

            Keats began to moan and shake his head.

            Chapman in a bid to lift his friend’s mood began to propose the toast to O’Nolan, but Keats’s heart clearly wasn’t in it. He’d take a sip then moan and shake his head, take another, moan and shake his head. He just kept taking little sips, moaning, and shaking his head! So that in the end Chapman contented himself to merely raise a glass alone in silent honour of the great man, for here they were after all in The Old Blue Last, the first house where porter was sold.

            ‘I can’t take it anymore!’ said Keats, dashing his unfinished pint down on the table. And he ran from the place, tripping over the bag of birthday presents next to Jenny’s chair, bumping into Christine’s girlfriend, knocking over the drinks on Tim’s table and having to give them a twenty from his own pocket, thanking the DJs, nearly getting into a fight with the bouncers, then battling his way out through the queue, until he found himself back in the cool autumn air of Great Eastern Street, and wondering which pub was nearest: The Golden Hart, The Bricklayers or The Griffin. Where might he be able to best enjoy the hiss of steam from a dishwasher door, the rattle of glasses in their crates, the creak of a pump, the first gurgling squirt from a nozzle, the splash of beer into a still-warm glass, coins in the till, the friendly chink of glass meeting glass, slurping off the foam, the sound of that first great glug in his throat, the oesophageal embrace, his own loud sigh of satisfaction ­– Aaah! – the gurgle in the gullet, the belch, and he turned towards The Bricklayers. But before he’d gone a couple of steps, Chapman too burst out of the Old Blue Last, the first house where . . . I don’t have to tell you. He battled his way through the queue and grabbed his friend by the arm, saying, ‘What the hell was all that about?’

            But then he looked up at the great billboard that was obliterating the sign which for a century had proclaimed that this The Old Blue Last was the first house where porter was sold, and he said, ‘Is it the sign that’s upset you? The denial of history, the desecration and the sacrilege? Money-lenders, as it were, let in to the temple?’

            And Keats said, ‘No, if the brewery can boost the balance sheet by selling some prime advertising space, good luck to them! We know,’ he said to Chapman, ‘You and I know that The Old Blue Last is the first house where porter was sold, and maybe that’s all that matters. Look at it this way: at least the original sign is being preserved behind that monstrosity.’

            ‘Well,’ said Chapman, ‘was it the indignity of being searched for illicit booze?’

            ‘No,’ said Keats. ‘It must be a big issue for them. Surely the licensees are just protecting their livelihood.’

            And Chapman thought for a second and said, ‘Well, is it the young people who’ve upset you? Partying on with no care for history, let alone the great man’s birth and his literary legacy?’

            And Keats, who now had the bit between his teeth, said ‘No.’

Keats, who had begun striding single-mindedly up the road towards The Bricklayers and was already savouring the prospect of that hiss of steam from the dishwasher door, the rattle of the glasses in their crates, the creak of the pump, the first gurgling squirt from the nozzle, the splash of beer into a still-warm glass, coins in the till; already anticipating the friendly chink of glass meeting glass, slurping off the foam, and the sound of that first great glug in his own throat, the oesophageal embrace, the loud sigh of satisfaction ­– Aaah! – the gurgle in the gullet, the belch . . . That very same Keats said, ‘No, I don’t begrudge those young office workers their party. I’m sure they work really hard. They deserve a night off. Besides,’ Keats went on, ‘why should they care about us, or remember some old dead writer? Time moves on. Look,’ said Keats, ‘who’s going to remember you and me in a hundred years’ time? Good luck to the lot of ’em, I say.’

            Chapman was perplexed by his friend’s sudden philosophical turn.

            ‘Then what was all that about,’ he said, following Keats through the swinging door into the quiet of The Bricklayers. ‘Why all the moaning? Why did we have to leave our drinks unfinished on the table? Why make such a great fuss?’

            And Keats, visibly relaxing, relieved and overjoyed at last to be amidst the hiss of steam from the dishwasher door, and the rattle of the glasses in their crates, Keats for whom the creak of the pump, the first gurgling squirt from the nozzle, the splash of beer into a still-warm glass, coins in the till, were just as important as the aroma and the taste, the weight of the glass in his hand and the beneficent effect of the blessed liquid on mind and body; Keats who was about to enjoy to the utmost, and with renewed pleasure, the friendly chink of glass meeting glass, slurping off the foam, the sound of that first great glug in his own throat, the oesophageal embrace, the sigh of satisfaction ­– Aaah! – the gurgle in the gullet, the belch; this very same Keats raised his glass to Chapman and said,

‘Nah. It was just with all that noise in there, I couldn’t hear myself drink.’


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tony White’s latest novel The Fountain in the Forest is published by Faber and Faber. He is the author of five previous novels including Foxy-T and Shackleton’s Man Goes South, the non-fiction title Another Fool in the Balkans and numerous short stories. Tony White would like to acknowledge the support of Arts Council England through the Arts Council Emergency Response Fund: for individuals. Twitter: @tony_white_

NOTE

‘Plain Speaking’ was written to mark the 110th anniversary, on 5 October 2021, of the birth of Brian O’Nolan, best known as Flann O’Brien, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author. The story was first performed at David Collard’s Carthorse Orchestra, an online salon, Saturday 2 October, and first published by 3am Magazine. With thanks to Shirley MacWilliam and Anna Aslanyan. Picture by Dawid Laskowski