Thursday, May 25, 2006

End of an era in Soho

Norman calls last orders for the barred of Soho

By Christopher Howse

(Filed: 23/05/2006)

The strangely coveted title of London's Rudest Landlord is today open to competitors, as its long-time holder, Norman Balon, tenant of the Coach and Horses, Soho, tucks the sale price of the pub into his locally made suit and takes the Underground home to Golders Green.

Mr Balon, 79, has told more people to drink up and leave than Jeffrey Bernard drank large vodka-ice-and-sodas at his barside during the decades he wrote Low Life, his celebrated Spectator column. Quite a few, then.

Mr Balon outside the Coach and Horses on his final day

Last night, the pub nevertheless overflowed, like a badly pulled pint, with well-wishers. Richard Ingrams made a two-sentence speech: "The only man grumpier than me. I salute you." Dame Beryl Bainbridge cheered. Spencer Bright, biographer of both Boy George and Norman Balon, looked sad.

The pub is to be run by a consortium, with a restaurant reached by stairs where the gents is now.

This is the pub behind Michael Heath's extraordinary cartoon strip The Regulars in Private Eye, which once had one Regular saying to another: "I'm sorry I was rude last night. You see, I was sober."

Yesterday Michael Heath said: "I don't remember Norman being rude. In fact I don't remember anything from those years."

Actually, by classic Soho standards of breathtaking, stiletto rudeness, Norman Balon was measured. American tourists, enquiring after sandwiches, might, though, be puzzled to be told to leave now and not come back.

It was a defence mechanism against bores. The Coach, as everyone called it, was a pub for talking, since Mr Balon would tolerate no jukebox, among other things. But Jeffrey Bernard did not "hold court" there.

He had to compete in conversation with, among others, the unshameable Daniel Farson; Tom Baker, popping in from a voice-over; Conan Nicholas, the man who invented cat-racing; or with David Wright, the poet, who was profoundly deaf. It was he who, one morning after a particularly acrimonious shouting match, said, "Well, it seemed very quiet to me."

For the last three of four decades, Italians and shoplifters drank at the Greek Street or "shallow" end, and serious drinkers and talkers at the Romilly Street or "deep" end.

Generations from St Martin's School of Art filled in the gaps to suffocation point, including the girl who inspired Jarvis Cocker's song Common People, whom he can't remember, though she was very memorable.

Norman Balon was really invented by Richard Ingrams, when editor of Private Eye, from which William Rushton and Peter Cook and the rest came over the road for lunch each day.

Norman soon figured as "Monty Balon, the genial meinhost" in the magazine. For 40 years, Private Eye has held its fortnightly lunches for informants and prominent people in a chill room upstairs once described as "a National Health side-ward decorated from Army surplus stores".

In turn, Mr Balon invented Jeffrey Bernard, who used the pub as an office and had a supply of Senior Service cigarettes kept for him in the cupboard by the stairs.

Norman and Jeffrey probably loved each other, if Jeffrey ever loved anyone. They certainly had rows. "You're barred, and don't come back." But he did.

Immortality came in 1989 with Keith Waterhouse's play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, a sell-out with Peter O'Toole in title role and the pub interior as the set. Mr Balon would refer to it as "My play".

Norman Balon, who had "Norman's" painted on the side of the pub, which no one ever called it, wasn't actually born in the Coach and Horses, but he was bred there.

His father took on the tenancy on Feb 3, 1943, a noisy time in London. Norman, just turned 16, left school to help. They sheltered in the cellar during air raids.

The top-floor room where young Norman slept was in recent years used as a studio, first by Richard Ingrams's son, Fred, then by the successful painter Rupert Shrive.

Painters always drank in the pub: Francis Bacon sometimes, Lucian Freud generously, Frank Auerbach intently in conversation with Bruce Bernard, a writer about painting.

A small Maltese house-painter called Jojo would fill up on whisky before climbing a four-storey ladder with a sack of cement on his shoulder. Damien Hirst, when he drank, dropped in of a morning for a scale of the shark.

A low point came after Mr Balon's divorce. He sat scratching his wife's name off hundreds of matchboxes printed "Norman Balon, London's Rudest Landord, with the Most Charming Wife --." Since 1985 his life has been cheered by Grazia Weiner, a small, surprisingly vocal opera-lover from Venice.

Norman Balon used to work from 8am till midnight. He went seven years without a holiday.

He opened 365 days a year and at Christmas lunchtime presented regulars with a mug bearing a drawing by Michael Heath of him saying: "You're barred."


The (printable) sayings of Norman Balon

(Filed: 23/05/2006)

1 Here's your money. F**** off.

2 The beer is meant to be cloudy. I suggest you go elsewhere.

3 You're barred. You're too boring to be in my pub.

4 Spoof is not a game of skill eligible to be played in a pub, and if you don't like it you can p*** off.

5 I don't care whether you're a man or a woman, you can go now.

6 Out! Out! Out!

7 You're so ugly you're upsetting the customers.

8 Can't you see, you idiot, that

I'm on the telephone - to an MP trying to find the Private Eye lunch.

9 I am not obliged to give a reason, I don't want you in my pub.

10 And don't come back.

No comments: