“Why do we keep coming back to this awful place?”
The question is one that members of our little gang of Fleet Street veterans take in turns to ask every time we gather in the awful place for lunch. That it remains unanswered may explain why the question has been asked, several times a year, across a span of some four, and in some cases five decades.
The ‘awful place’ is El Vino – invariably and incorrectly referred to in the possessive form as El Vino’s – a wine bar once frequented by journalists from the various titles of the national press as their ‘second office’. For some, I suspect, it was the first office. If it failed to qualify as an office in the strictest sense of the term, it certainly counted as an exchange, a gathering point many a rumour or piece of gossip might be traded for a bottle of the estimable house claret.
El Vino is the home of the legendary Private Eye character Lunchtime O’Booze. The magazine’s editor never disclosed the identity of the man on which the character was based. But then it could have been any one of several dozen regulars – and many there were who claimed the privilege.
More than a few newspaper columns have been dictated over the El Vino telephone, above the background clamour of clinking glasses and raucous laughter. As one editor observed: “When I read an article based on intelligence from ‘informed sources’, it’s a safe assumption that those sources are lunchtime companions at El Vino.”
El Vino was by no means the only alternative office, or exchange, on the Street. Each newspaper had its favourite watering hole, the preference largely based on proximity. The Daily Telegraph crowd tended to gather in the King and Keys, a few doors along from the newsroom, a Hogarthian rat-hole where evenings without a fight breaking out were as rare as scoops. The Daily Mirror haunt, on Fetter Lane, was the White Swan, universally known as The Stab – as in stab-in-the back – because that was where anyone facing the sack often found out about it. Reuters men went to The Cogers, a dreary, soulless pub, but one that offered the singular convenience of being imbedded in the ground floor of the Reuters building. “He’s in the building somewhere,” secretaries would often claim when their bosses were missing ‘downstairs’, happy in the knowledge that no lie had been told.
Other taprooms frequented by Fleet Street’s finest were the Cheshire Cheese – where Doctor Johnson had once held forth – The Clachan, located in an alley opposite The Guardian’s dingy walk-up offices, and an underground dive called Mother Bunches, where the manageress (as she would then have been called) threw patrons out as the mood took her, which was quite often.
El Vino’s own managers were no slouches either when it came to chucking customers out. In the 1960s, the bar was run by one Frank Bower, a descendant of the bar’s founder, Sir Alfred Bower. Frank reigned supreme, and seemed to derive great pleasure from baring regulars who had broken one of El Vino’s unpublished but strictly enforced commandments. Swearing was the most common transgression. Bower, a rotund and florid man given to wearing brightly-coloured waistcoats, ruled the place with an iron fist, without as much as a hint of a velvet glove.
Most of Fleet Street’s taverns disappeared in 1986 when the newspapers decamped to geographically diverse quarters. The exodus was set in train by Rupert Murdoch, who, in a renowned midnight coup, took his four titles out to the Docklands to thwart – and, as it turned out, to destroy – the predatory print unions. Most journalists sentimentally sided with the unions, but now acknowledge that the ‘Dirty Digger’ probably saved the British press.
El Vino, almost the sole surviving taproom from the days of Grub Street, somehow kept going. It goes, still. Its traditional patrons may have fled with the general Diaspora, but somehow the business still ticks over, although the consensus is that El Vino is ‘not what it once was’.
But that refers to the clientele rather than the physical place. That hasn’t changed at all. The décor, a mouldering amalgam of brown walls and yellow ceiling, remains untouched, as if preserved for posterity by English Heritage. “This joint hasn’t been decorated since World War Two,” someone recently observed. “Oh, much longer than that,” said the manager with just a hint of pride.
In truth, redecorating or modernising El Vino would represent an act of cultural vandalism. The regulars may complain about the peeling paint, the holed leather chairs, the threadbare carpets, the Edwardian telephone attached to the wall, but secretly they regard them as part of El Vino’s weird charm.
If the dreary décor has always been part of the appeal, so too was the dismissive attitude of management and staff to regular customers. Few efforts were ever made to make patrons feel at home. I once mentioned to the then manager that not once in forty years had the house ever bought me a drink. “And I doubt, Mr. Jessop, that we ever will,” was the response. (Thing have changed of late, I should add, and much for the better.)
Even in the abuse of customers a grand tradition was being observed. El Vino throughout its history (it was founded in 1874) refused to serve women at the bar. The ladies were confined ‘as a courtesy to their comfort’ the owners claimed, to the seating area in the back room, where table service was provided, somewhat whimsically and haphazardly. Women, even though confined to the back room, could not wear trousers. Men were obliged to wear ties. I still have two of them, provided when, just to test the rule, I showed up tieless.
It is said that a person of uncertain gender once entered the bar, and was promptly thrown out. Someone asked why. The manager’s response was impeccable in its logic. “If it’s a Him, he’s not wearing a tie, and if it’s a Her, she’s wearing trousers. Either way he, she or it doesn’t get served.”
In 1982, two women, affronted by the open discrimination, famously sued the owners for the right to be served at the bar. They won. After that, some regulars lamented, it was downhill all the way. The dress-code was quietly abandoned. Now, even mobile telephones, barred for years, can be heard cheeping above the hubbub. For this formerly unpardonable I myself was once ejected.
Actually, I have been ‘barred’ (a sentence no longer than 24 hours) on two or three occasions. Once was for using language likely to be found offensive by women. Actually my banishment was not for using language likely to offend women but for my temerity in pointing out that since women were not allowed in, none could possibly be offended.
Presiding over this splendid anachronism, in case you’re wondering, are the Mitchells, two brothers related by marriage to the founding Bower family. (And, I believe, uncles of Andrew Mitchell, the minister who lost his job after allegedly insulting a policeman at the gates of Downing Street.) Their father, Sir David Mitchell, a Member of Parliament for 33 years, and a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, once owned El Vino and occasionally helped out behind and in front of the bar, leading Paul Johnson, editor of the New Statesman, to remark. “This is an extraordinary place. Do you know, I’m told that one of the waiters here is a Tory MP.”
It has been an extraordinary place. And if it no longer is, some of us like to revel in its colourful past for one solitary and simple reason: it is our colourful past too.
Long may El Vino thrive, even as a ‘bloody awful place’ because if it goes, then so will a part of some of its patrons.
And I’m still waiting for that free drink.