Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Another nail in my heart

The Carpenter's Arms, on Nelson Street, at the bottom of the Jericho area of north-west Oxford, was my 'local' in the early '90s when I returned to my student stomping grounds to work for a couple of years. A little later, my oldest drinking buddy The Bookseller lived for a year in a nice basement flat on Walton Crescent, almost directly opposite this little gem of a pub, which extended my close acquaintance with it for a little while longer.

The ambience wasn't marvellous: it felt too much like the living room of a private home, with plush beige carpet throughout (most of the pubs in that area had indeed originally been private residences, many having been converted into commercial premises in the mid-1800s as a result of the Beerhouse Act). But it had a friendly landlord and landlady, a mixed crowd of regulars (partly thanks to having the Oxford Synagogue next door), some decent bar snacks, and a very well-kept pint of Guinness. It also had three other conspicuous attractions: a good dartboard (I don't play much; but I like a game occasionally, and having a decent quality board that won't spit your darts back out on to the floor half the time is a major incentive to take your arrows out with you more regularly), an excellent jukebox (including a lot of The Kinks: Sunny Afternoon, Lola, and Apeman were particular favourites in there for a while), and..... an Aunt Sally court (the BEST pub game ever: like an aerial version of skittles in which you have a single wooden 'dolly' mounted on top of a post as the target, and you hurl great billets of wood at it from some yards away; most miss and thwack into a sheet of canvas or plastic stretched behind the target to catch them; it is very satisfyingly physical - and a great fun competition for anyone to join in, because it's very simple but almost no-one is really that good at it).

Back in those days, the place also had its resident eccentric, a rather sketchy character of indeterminate age (though a little nearer to 60 than to 40, I would guess) called Dave, who, despite appearing half-cut most of the time, was a formidable opponent in any kind of pub game. I was reluctant to take him on at cribbage or dominoes, having seen him trash others of the regulars at these uncomplicated games. But he mentored me for a while at Aunt Sally. And he taught me a very good betting trick at darts.

Another unexpected delight of the place was that most weekends I would find my old friend Mohammed in there. I was a little taken aback when I first bumped into him there, surprised to find that, although a 'good Muslim', he was fond of a pint of Guinness. I was also impressed that he still recognised me, quite a few years on from when I'd last seen him. Mohammed had been one of the first guys to open up a kebab van in Oxford (nowadays, there are a dozen or more such mobile food stalls around the city centre; when I started there as a student there were only four, and only one or two of them sold kebabs, the others being burger or baked spud places; but there was a veritable 'kebab explosion' during the mid-80s, with new vans appearing every term). He was also one of the best (my college made him an honorary member of its Junior Common Room in gratitude for his contribution to keeping the student body well fed); and even after he gave up his own van after half a dozen years or so, he'd still occasionally reappear on a new van somewhere, sharing his experience with a young friend or relative to help them start up (the benefits of his input did not always persist for long, but you could guarantee that any van on which he had been sighted would have excellent salad and a properly fiery chilli sauce for a month or two afterwards).

So, although I was only hanging out there for around 18 months (and, most especially, during the month or two that my old college pal Richard - the one who seduced me into coming to China! - stayed with me during a break from China one summer), I have a host of fond memories of that pub. And I had been looking forward to popping back there on this visit - just one drink, for old times' sake. Alas, it was not to be. The place has closed down, and been converted back into a pair of terraced houses. According to The Lost Pubs Project, this may have happened at some time in the later '90s - though I'm pretty sure I recall it still being there in 2000. Well, whatever, it's gone now; and I have a lump in my throat.

A day later, I noticed the Horse & Jockey on Woodstock Road was gone too; closed in 2002, apparently. I have fewer regrets about that: it was a large and fairly charmless pub, never a favourite or regular haunt of mine - although I did drop in occasionally during my student days, since it was the last pub heading north out of the city on this road, and was a convenient stop-off if visiting friends at the adjacent St Anne's or St Anthony's colleges.

It seems we've lost something like half of the pubs we used to have in the UK 40 or 50 years ago, and, if the recent rates of attrition persist, we could have lost half of the 60,000 that remain in another decade or so. I hope this won't happen: the situation seems to be stabilising a bit now, after a few brutal years of closures precipitated by the smoking ban and the crash of the economy. But it is dispiriting, disorienting to find that so many of the landmarks of my student days in Oxford have now disappeared forever.

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