Friday, April 25, 2008

14 Years Livin' In The Bottle

I first started drinking in the Cock & Bottle 14 years ago. At the time I was living in the next street, somehow lucking out with a cheap flat in the Ladbroke Grove area. The pub, although as down to Earth as you could get, attracted local bo-ho heroes. On any given night you’d see Suede Anderson, Elastica, 3-D from Massive Attack, Damon Albarn, Goldie, The Chemical Brothers – it seemed to be like a Brit Pop era Stella Street. The place was understated and encouraged our particular brand of lazy all day drinking. The same vertically challenged man has been sat at the same stool at the bar for as long as I can remember. This place was never trendy, more an antidote to what was going on around it – mellow, welcoming, warm, friendly.

Nothing has really changed in the ensuing years. Yesterday, sat with my friend Ed, I found myself scratching my chin and wondering on whether the place had been retouched in the decade and a half since we started drinking there. He remembered it had, and, quite fantastically, they’d done it up just the same as before. It didn’t need a refit, an open kitchen, a jar of olives on the counter, it just needed more of the same. The surrealist picture of the landlord had always taken pride of place in the fireside bar (he appears to floating suspended in a sea of Guinness glasses, twinkling like stars in a boozy firmament – it really is worth seeing for yourself). The beers and the snacks, as far as I can remember, have always been the same (the only variation being market forces and marketing gimmicks – ‘Extra Cold’ this or ‘Ice’ that). Tavern Snacks, always the saltiest potatoes in packs, are the only food I’ve ever eaten in there, and I kind of like it that way.

It’s remarkable and heartening to know that the Cock remains just so after all these years. The surrounding area was razed like a blast zone at the end of the ‘90s and rebuilt entirely for ladies who lunch – pubs like The Duke Of Norfolk have gone the way of dodo, replaced by another shop selling overpriced fashion wear to people with more money than sense. Westbourne Grove doesn’t seem able to support great, old fashioned pubs – the sole exception of the Cock. Everywhere else constantly shifts and reinvents, even the giant Sam Smiths booze palace The Lonsdale, formerly a hangout for Goths and people in bands who could have been contenders. Elsewhere, in the knock on effect areas like Kensal Rise and even Harlesden, where locals have shifted to due to sky rocketing house prices, pubs have undergone a fundamental shift – locals out, gastropub prices in. the square mile where I used to live (the corner of Ladbroke Grove, Chamberlaine Road and Harrow Road) now has six gastropubs to one ‘Last Bastion’ style spit and sawdust boozer (The Flora). That’s six pubs playing the same music, six pubs where food is pushed round the plate while someone nips off to the bogs to hoover up a load of gak before coming back to loudly bray about how tough things are in the world of music videos. Nothing against that kind of behaviour, but does London really need more ‘hang outs’ like this rather than good old-fashioned palaces of reflection like the Cock?