Drink Deep, Or Taste Not The Pierian Spring
Toh Hsien Min goes pubbing in Oxford
By Toh Hsien Min
Sometimes on Saturday and Sunday nights I can be found in a small Irish pub on Circular Road, behind Boat Quay. At such times, I’m almost inevitably wearing light blue, sometimes with a blue cap, and biting my fingernails while staring at an LCD projection screen. I’m usually not in a terribly reflective mood at such times, but it has occurred to me that since returning from Britain I’ve not settled into a local. If the great British social institution is the public house, then its necessary corollary is the local. A local is the pub round the corner, where you go to drink on a regular basis, sometimes daily. You know the first names of the bar staff, and they know yours. Sometimes, you know the rest of the clientele as well, and not always because you frequent the pub with your friends.
The closest I have come is this Circular Road pub, Molly Malone’s, but that is mostly because the Manchester City fans in Singapore have settled there for live games. I’ve been often enough to know some of the regulars there, and the bar staff know I seldom deviate from Kilkenny, but it’s not exactly within walking distance of Mount Sophia. More fundamentally, my omission could be due to pubs – or any of our equivalents – not playing as much of a role in the intellectual life of Singapore as they do in Britain, or as cafés play in France, or bars in Italy.
While it is true that British pubs have come to be associated with the working class, and despite a recent phenomenon of up-marketing pubs in London and other posher areas in the South, pubs remain an integral part of British literature: as setting, as site for social commentary, and as arena for inspiration and exchange of ideas. Ever since Chaucer started his pilgrims out from the Tabard in Southwark and Skelton spoke of those “With all theyr myght runnynge / To Elynour Rummynge / To have of her tunnynge”, British writers have drawn inspiration from their pubs. In fact, from an etymological point of view, the words “inspiration” and “spirits” have evolved from the same root.
This drawing on taps of liquid intellectual gold is something that hasn’t happened in Singapore. No one will find much in the Penny Black worth writing about. The history of pubs in Singapore tends to be accidental rather than integral to what the pub is. The Dubliner by Winsland House on Penang Road, a pub I found had much more personality in its previous incarnation as the Elephant, used to be a Christian temperance society that combated the influence of alcohol in the nineteenth-century British colony. Even if one appeals to analogy and calls for the comparison to be made with the kopitiam instead, our local institution falls short. Our writers do not spend significant amounts of time thinking and reflecting in the kopitiam. Many scarcely even write about it. Whatever mentions appear in our literature tend to be incidental, or peripheral. Alfian Sa’at describes a dream “of sitting at S-11, / with the usual bunch of affectionate liars, / skinny artists, red-eyed dreamers”, but neglects to flesh out what the place is, does not show its rickety tables spilling over onto the grey-tiled walkway. Yong Shu Hoong hints at a coffeeshop when he misses Taman Serasi and goes instead to Ghim Moh “where we had / beer and coffee, and spoke fondly / of how we first met, absent brothers / and J.R.R. Tolkien”, but again the scene is sideshow, and one only infers the coffeeshop by previous experience of Ghim Moh (which has about half a dozen coffeeshops within a 300m radius). In the anthology No Other City (2000), which purports to portray urban life in Singapore, the coffeeshop is mentioned only once.
If British pubs have literary value, then the capital of literary pubs in Britain is Oxford. Oxford used to have its own famous traditional brewery, in Morrells, and could also call upon Morlands of nearby Abingdon, though both have since been taken over by larger brewery groups. Coupling Oxford's history in beer with its academic environment produces a heady brew. There are too many literary associations to cover in a day in Oxford – or an essay – so many visitors head for the most obvious destination to sample the literary tingle: the Eagle and Child, whose clientele used to include C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Nevill Coghill. Forming between them a group known as the Inklings, they used to read fragments of their ongoing work to one another for criticism and discussion in the back room, known as the ‘Rabbit Room’, every Tuesday morning between 1939 and 1962. Some of their photographs still hang on the walls. The ‘Bird and Babe’ is today still a pleasant pub: the backyard has been converted into a conservatory, basically a glass extension of the ceiling into the backyard, with wrought-iron garden tables and chairs. The interior doesn’t throw up any surprises: a fresh coat of whitewash over the plaster and the wooden-beamed ceiling, now lemon-yellow. It still draws its share of literary enthusiasts, academics and students, alongside other pubs in the city. College bars too, are natural if often too rowdy sites for intoxicating stimulation to the brain. Often after finishing a poetry workshop, we used to proceed to the New College bar, where the foozball table drew me less than it did in my college. It’s possible that we proceeded up Holywell Road to the King’s Arms too. The King’s Arms, at one of the important crossroads in the university, may be the quintessential post-matriculation, post-exam, post-graduation celebration point, and one I initially found rather unsuitable for daily use as it seemed to be the preserve of young, upper-class male students in day jackets, but the excellent Young’s ales and the literary discussions I’ve had there soon conspired to change my mind. Young’s ales, as I found out, do not smell on your clothes when vigorous hand gesturing in impassioned literary discussions knocks a pint off the table.
I didn’t really have a local when I was living in Walton Street, where one of my literary heroes, Philip Larkin, also lived (and pubbed) for a while, although the closest candidate must have been Jude the Obscure. This Morrells pub was renamed in 1995, from the Prince of Wales, after the novel by Thomas Hardy that sets some of its scenes in Jericho and Oxford under the guise of Beersheba and Christminster respectively. The Irish licensee, Noel Reilly, is keen on the arts, which explains the Keble poetry readings we used to organise there, the occasional play, music nights and comedy evenings, and also the framed artwork in the back of the longer room, though it doesn’t altogether explain the movie posters stuck on the walls, nor that during the 1998 World Cup it declared itself a ‘Football Free Zone’.
Rather, I’d come to consider the Lamb and Flag, directly opposite the Eagle and Child, as my local, because it was right behind Keble. I like the uneven, pastel yellow exterior with the grey slate roofs, and the narrow, cosy interior - consisting of a number of small, clinker rooms, which can get very smoky - that is still somehow larger than one might expect from an outside view (but not by very much). The tables are variously aged in beer and the walls and floor are uneven. There is a dining area facing St Giles, which has the crests of Oxford colleges put up. The building itself is owned by St John’s, who wanted to close it down and turn it into student accommodation in 1997 but were denied permission by the City Council, because the cobbled path running alongside that fills with puddles every time it rains is the last public thoroughfare from St Giles to Parks Road between Broad Street and Keble Road. The pub fills up nightly with mostly Keble and St John’s students hankering after good and cheap pub grub and Theakston’s beers, and it’s little surprise that it used to be one of Tony Blair’s watering holes. But its literary fame comes from the aforementioned Jude the Obscure.
While seeking distraction to “the real Christminster life”, Jude Fawley, the scholar-in-waiting, has as much of a student’s instinct in seeking out a pub:
After a rambunctious display of Latin, Jude exits the pub, disgusted that his drinking companions had not the same regard for the Latin. “He hastened down the lane and round into the straight broad street, which he followed till it merged in the highway, and all sound of his late companions had been left behind.” The undergraduates of today may not be quite so fastidious as the non-undergraduate of yesterday, but at this point in the book the geography may be questioned, for Jude had earlier waited for Sue at the site of the present Broad Street, which is introduced in the book in: “The broad street was silent”. At this point the description could equally apply to the Turf Tavern, another claimant to the ‘oldest pub in Oxford’ title. Once a malthouse built outside the city walls, the Turf fits the description even more closely in being hidden away in its own courtyard, low-ceilinged, and off Holywell road, which leads directly to Broad Street. The Turf’s enclosed position gives the weather more difficulty in getting at it, and makes its the outdoor areas some of the most attractive in Oxford: three of them, with picnic tables, and open fires in winter. It also has a mention in Brideshead Revisited: “the Turf in Hell Passage knew us well”, narrates Charles, the protagonist, not long after Sebastian Flyte justifies my pub activity by naming “lectures at Keble” as one of the perilous steps towards getting sent down (or expelled, in normalspeak). However, returning to Jude, when the eponymous hero revisits Christminster later in the book, the tavern is re-described as “now a popular tavern with a spacious and inviting entrance, which gave admittance to a bar that had been entirely renovated and refitted in modern style since Jude’s residence here.” The Turf cannot be by any means described as spacious. If the Lamb and Flag’s penchant for reinventing itself – it underwent renovations twice in the final years of the last century – has little relevance here, Jude’s meeting with his estranged wife Arabella Donn closes the issue, for in the final section of the book, Arabella says to a landlord: “You may remember me as barmaid at the Lamb and Flag formerly?” To this day, many still believe the Turf to be the pub mentioned in Jude, but if it needs any confirmation, Thomas Hardy is said to have written parts of the novel in the Lamb and Flag itself.
My favourite Oxford pub is literary only by remote association, however. It’s a country pub called the Perch, which resembles a homestead, and has a lawn-like outdoor setting, which you reach, over what used to be a stile and now is (alas) a gate, by a narrow path through some louring shrubbery – or less picturesquely, from the road serving Binsey Village. Keeping to the more Alice in Wonderland route, however, one starts from Walton Well Street off Walton Road, crosses Port Meadow and the River Isis, and follows the tow-path. There are horses and cattle grazing on the meadow, and on some Saturday nights tremendous indie raves are held there, despite official disapproval. Swans, mallards and coots occupy the river, making way for the occasional river-steamer. Another Singapore poet besides myself has written of it:
although, as a Tab, his portrayal is coloured more than amber and scarlet. But the literary richness for me comes from how the place still vindicates the poetry written after it. When walking along the tow-path, be sure to look northwards along the Isis for a view of the poplars – these are the trees that replaced those Gerard Manley Hopkins saw being felled, but they are grown so large as to bring us back to his Binsey poplars:
Yes, we after-comers can guess the beauty been,
If you look back towards Oxford, the only trace of the city you will see is the ugly spire of Nuffield College poking over the tree-line, and possibly the Thom Building further north. The pub itself can be seen from the junction of the towpath where a rock-studded path leads towards Binsey in winter, but not in summer when the foliage is luxuriant. It’s the closest country pub to the city centre, with uneven, flagged floors and a dark, wooden atmosphere. There is a lawn that will grace any quad in Oxford, on which are set lawn-tables, and by which drooping willows add to the dreaminess of it all. There is a children’s playground and a giant chess set, and electric fires in the winter. There is even - allegedly, for I’ve never seen it - a resident ghost, who is sometimes seen by the staff and customers alike standing at the bar waiting for a pint. I could sit there for whole afternoons, nursing my Old Speckled Hen, a smooth, strong ale with berry notes and hints of mandarins and light wood, and a dry and layering palate, and work out lines and lines of poetry.
Toh Hsien Min’s trip to Britain was partly sponsored by the British Council Singapore. The Oxford pubs mentioned in this essay are:
The Eagle and Child