Saturday, 7 July 2018

Into the lions’ den

All About Beer magazine has recently published an article by Boak and Bailey entitled Decoding the English Pub, about the potential pitfalls awaiting the unwary explorer if they inadvertently venture into the “wrong kind” of pub.
But if you wander into side streets, the outer suburbs, or into the shade of concrete tower blocks, you might still come across the kind of pub where it is possible for an innocent abroad to get into trouble. There aren’t many exterior clues other than a general state of disrepair, although with experience you develop a kind of sixth sense based on the state of the curtains or some subtle hint implied in the signage.
While I can identify with much of what they describe, I have to say that the article rather exaggerates the scale of the problem. I’ve been making a point of going in to unfamiliar pubs for more than forty years, and during the earlier part of the period I was very much a speccy, geeky student type who would stand out like a sore thumb in a working-class boozer. Obviously not all pubs are to everyone’s taste, but the occasions where I’ve experienced any kind of overt hostility have been extremely rare. And those have more often than not been in smart pubs, or ones that clearly set their stall out to welcome casual customers, not grotty backstreet boozers.

To some extent, the process is made easier by the passage of time. When you’re young, you tend to be more self-conscious, and often with good reason, as young people tend to be much more judgmental about their peers. The examples I referred to above in general occurred when I was under thirty, and involved people of a similar age. But, as you grow older, this dissipates, and you just blur into the generality of middle-aged people. Nobody’s looking at you, nobody’s judging you, nobody’s bothered. It only becomes an issue if you choose a slack time to venture into a pub that there’s no obvious reason for someone like you to visit.

Another factor is the decline of the tied house system. Going back forty years, the vast majority of pubs were tied to breweries, and these estates include a wide cross-section of types of pub. In many areas, you would have to visit some pretty unpromising establishments to find a particular beer. I remember visiting the Bay Horse on Grinfield Street in Liverpool, about fifteen minutes’ uphill walk from the city centre, in search of Thwaites. It wasn’t threatening as such, but a fairly grim council estate boozer that I wouldn’t remotely have chosen to go to except for the beer.

But, as the Big Six tied estates have been broken up, and the remaining family brewers have disposed of most of their bottom-end pubs, it’s pretty rare that you will need to go anywhere “rough” in search of a specific brew. While many people may feel seriously out of place in the new generation of craft bars and micropubs, it’s unlikely that they’re going to be told to their face that they’re not welcome.

The question must also be asked how many people are actually looking to visit unfamiliar pubs at random anyway. Yes, if you’re a pub enthusiast such as Boak & Bailey or myself, you might be, but I’ve written before how the general public are much less likely to visit pubs on spec now than they used to be. And, with the growth of information on pubs available on the Internet, a couple of minutes’ research should give an indication of the flavour of the place. Pub enthusiasts will know the rules of the game and sometimes will be willing to take a chance out of curiosity.

True, the Good Beer Guide tickers are under a compulsion to visit certain pubs, like them or not, but how many of the kind of unwelcoming establishments we’re talking about actually make it into its pages nowadays? They might have done forty years ago, but not now. Ironically, you’re more likely to encounter a problem ticking off the National Inventory, which records architectural distinction, not pub quality as such. I’ve written before about how I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb when visiting the Wheatsheaf at Sutton Leach in the suburbs of St Helens, and I also felt in the Plume of Feathers in Carmarthen that, while it had some interesting features, there was no conceivable reason I’d want to be there for beer, company or atmosphere.

The well-documented decline of the traditional working-class boozer, exacerbated by the smoking ban, has greatly reduced the potential for the casual pubgoer to encounter a hostile reaction. Such pubs do still exist but, as the article says, you have to actively seek them out in inner-urban backstreets, downmarket suburbs and council estates, and are unlikely to stumble upon them by accident. There are still a few in plain sight in locations with greater footfall – two that spring to mind, at least by reputation, are the Three Legs and the General Eliott in Leeds city centre. However, there is a difference between the atmosphere being a touch “raw” and actively threatening, and both of these pubs must be accustomed to the occasional casual punter wandering in off a busy city street. Having said that, I recently found no problem in the Eliott’s sister pub, the Duncan, although a keg-only, no-food boozer with an older, working-class clientele may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

For a related, although not identical, set of reasons, the “strangers in tonight” rural pub of the “Slaughtered Lamb” type is also a vanishing species, although I’m sure some do still exist in the deep countryside away from the major conurbations and off the tourist trail. They may well appear on WhatPub and other online guides, but the evenings-only opening hours and lack of food (and possibly the absence of real ale) give a clear indication that they’re not looking to appeal to outside visitors.

There can, of course, be other forms of discomfiture of a more subtle and unintentional nature. After all, not every pub is going to suit everyone, and in some you may well conclude “this just isn’t for me”. I recall when aged about 20 venturing into a Shipstone’s pub in Leicester city centre (since demolished) and finding I was the youngest customer by about thirty years. I have to say I did feel rather out of place and didn’t linger too long, but there was nothing unpleasant. You would probably feel the same today if you wandered into the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place, although how many 20-year-olds would do that just on the offchance?

A couple of decades later, I went into the National Inventory-listed Golden Cross in Cardiff to admire its magnificent tiled bar, unaware that in the evenings it was the city’s premier gay venue. It was inevitable that other customers drew the wrong conclusion about my reasons for being there. And many people may get the impression that their custom isn’t really wanted if they go into a pub and find that every single table has a place setting, or they’ve never heard to any of the beers on the bar.

In summary, the chances of the casual punter wandering into a pub where they’re made to actively feel unwelcome are actually pretty slim, and probably lower than they ever have been. If it really concerns you, there’s a simple option in most towns of any size, which is to go in Wetherspoon’s. Yes, they may contain some rough-hewn customers, but the general atmosphere is never hostile, as their whole set-up is intended to welcome casual custom. Or, very simply, don’t go in any pub that doesn’t display a food menu. On the other hand, some of the most genuinely welcoming and characterful pubs in the country, both urban and rural, may not look too promising from the outside. But, if you are curious about pubs, it’s always best to do a bit of research beforehand rather than leaving it entirely to chance.

On a different note, the article also refers to the tourist trap pub, where “you will end up paying over the odds for substandard food and drink consumed in a joyless, plastic setting.” Now, I’m sure such places do exist, which cynically provide a poor offer at inflated prices to a captive market, but again I’d say they are a lot less common than they once were as people become more savvy. I can’t, for example, think of a single place in the centre of Chester that falls into that category. And it shouldn’t be taken to include branches of chains such as Wetherspoon’s and Nicholson’s, that happen to be in favourable locations, but in fact just provide the organisation’s standard fare.

40 comments:

  1. Spot on Mudgie...I'm not sure why you would feel threated going into a pub unless you are actively looking for trouble. 99% of the people 99% of the time are fine and that is the same everywhere not just pubs. I think they are sensationalising this as I've been to plenty of boozers in built up areas that are just glad of you trade. In fact, arguably, some of these so called 'threatening' places are often the most welcomng.

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    1. It certainly can, and does, happen, though, and often to more shy and socially awkward people. Very often, it comes across as a form of bullying.

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  2. Did you miss this bit?

    “These days, you’re unlikely to find one of these unless you’re a very adventurous traveller because many have been demolished or converted, while the more substantial buildings have been given corporate makeovers—not tacky or exploitative, merely inoffensive.”

    There's also sometimes a failure to empathise in this conversation. There are pubs where I, a nondescript middle-aged white bloke who grew up on an estate, feel quite at home, but which friends of mine (and Jess, in some cases) tell me they wouldn't enter on their own. Not necessarily for fear of being beaten up so much as being the centre of attention, or stared at. You might say, “They should suck it up!” but why, when they can just go somewhere else?

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    1. I didn't miss that bit, and basically I'm agreeing with you. But, despite your caveat, the general thrust of your article does come across as being that the casual pubgoer needs to be alert to the possibility of a hostile reception, as one of the commenters pointed out. In general, nowadays, a beer tourist doesn't need to read the runes.

      As others have said, there's also a big component of age in it - by and large, it's younger people who get picked on.

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  3. You can sort of tell from the outside whether somewhere looks like a shit hole or not. It's more noticeable if in unfamiliar territory. I think like the boiling frog metaphor, you may not notice a local pub go gradually downhill and become a shit hole until a friend from out of town asks why we are going in this dump and it dawns on you that yes, it's become a bit of a dump.

    As for being rough. People do make the assumption that run down equals rough. Often not the case, but it fits our expectation of rough people. Again it's easier to assume if you don't know that the gormless toothless lad at the bar is called Pete and is quite harmless and wouldn't hurt a fly. He just looks a bit odd and it's natural to be wary of odd balls.

    If you take my view. You are spending your own hard earned on a service. You are supporting nowt. It's not a campaign, movement nor cause. It's a service you are paying for. Go where you find good service, good products and value for your quid. Rough arsed shit holes tend not to qualify. Nor do cliquey micropubs run for the vanity of the proprietor. Pubs with clean toilets that are well maintained and well run tend to be okay. If the answer to the question "would I take a bird in here on a first date?" is a no and your taste in birds is respectable then the gaff is a shit hole.

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  4. I've got strong, but distant, memories of feeling uncomfortable in pubs (like yourself, I have to look back to my twenties or late teens). But it's not the classic "heads turn, conversations stop" moment as you walk in, or being challenged by hostile regulars at the bar - in fact I don't remember either of those ever happening to me. What did make me want to sup up and get out ASAP was being accosted by somebody - usually in a guarded but basically friendly way - and not knowing what to say, or even (horror or horrors) not understanding what they'd said. "Smile and nod" will only get you so far, particularly when you've got a sneaking suspicion you've just been told you're sitting in Big Frank's place.

    So I think the key factors, for me at least, are/were a certain lack of social adeptness (some people just have it, some don't), and - more importantly - the conviction that if you do set a foot wrong something terrible will happen. It's that second feeling that wears off once you get past about 27, I think. And maybe B&B are writing for under-27s...!

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    1. On the other hand, B&B write:
      "We once walked into a pub only to be greeted by five men in soccer shirts, one of whom simply pointed and said: “No, no — turn round and walk out. Now.”"
      Crikey. Never had anything *remotely* like that happen to me, at least not when I was on my own or with other adults (kids in pubs is a whole other story).

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    2. Yes, often it's not overt hostility but some kind of slightly "off" remark that you're not quite sure what to make of. In my book, politeness generally consists of not trying to make unsolicited conversation with strangers, however well-meaning.

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    3. Let's be honest. If you ran a pub and Hinge and Bracket walked in, you'd simply point at the door and say "No!"

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    4. The Stafford Mudgie8 July 2018 at 13:56

      CL,
      Hinge and Bracket have always lived not far from me and it's only when they're 'dressed up' that they might possibly have any difficulty getting served.

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  5. Most of the shitholes near me are long gone, but not all by any means. Those that remain seem to be funded almost entirely by indirect state subsidy while in some bigger high streets that still have a few shitholes left, shining beacons of respectability have opened in their midst offering cheap beer in clean surroundings and became an overnight success by virtue of zero tolerance to bad behaviour and drugs, managers that can't be intimidated and dress codes (no trackies). Yes, I give you J D wetherspoons.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie8 July 2018 at 17:00

      Yes indeed but just a few years after opening as a shining beacon of respectability with clean surroundings a Wetherspoons venue can become the town's worst rat infested shithole.

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    2. Hasn't happened in the three that I was thinking of. Blyth, Wallsend, Byker.

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  6. The only time I ever really experienced a spot of "trouble" in a pub, was back in my student days. I was visiting Oxford, with a group of fellow students, staying at the house of a friend of theirs, who was at the famous university.

    We'd headed out to the Cowley district of the city, which was where the car works were situated, and a world away from the dreaming spires, picture post-card image most people have of Oxford. We were on our way to a party, and called in, en route, at a large "roadhouse" type pub.

    I didn't have that a good a feeling about the place, but wasn't too bothered as we'd only intended stopping for one drink. It's along time ago, but I do remember the atmosphere being a little "hostile." It wasn't until a still lit cigarette but flew past, rather too close to my nose, that I thought it was perhaps time to go.

    My friends felt the same way, so without drawing too much attention to ourselves, we drank up and slipped out. This was obviously a classic case of "town v gown" - something I had only read about before.

    From memory, the party was a disappointment as well and, seeing we were hard-up students, who didn't want to spend beer money on a taxi, we were left with a long walk back into the city.

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  7. Glasgow is a fine city, one of my favourites.

    However, there is a problematic pattern, when in England, one of its burghers draws up a chair uninvited, I have found.

    There sometimes follows some unintelligible muttering, and when you politely ask "sorry?", it may be met with "I didnae fuckin' say anything".

    I have, literally, had it said to me, after some rigmarole (à la Alexei Sayle) "I know ye. Ye killed ma brother".

    Actually, any stranger who draws up a chair uninvited is equally likely to be a psychopath, come to think of it. And it can happen almost anywhere.

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  8. I haven't read the Boak & Bailey article yet, but I imagine it has been prompted by their self-assigned task of visiting all the pubs in the Bristol area, since they moved there recently.

    I've been to a few pubs that might be thought slightly rough in my role as a part-time reviewer on Pubs Galore, but nothing like as many as Alan Winfield - his moniker on the site is Al 10000, though I believe he had visited over 11 thousand before ill health put a spoke in his wheel. He used to really enjoy going into rough-looking estate pubs that no one else would be seen dead in.

    I think B&B are probably suffering from the same self-consciousness that you mention feeling when young, though from a different cause. I do feel it a little myself when going into some of the pubs that I want to review. In places where I stand out like a sore thumb I tend to resort to the note facility on my phone, rather than my usual spiral back notebook, in the hope that it makes me look more like someone just catching up on emails than looking for the right turn of phrase for my possibly scathing review.

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    1. Yes, writing notes in a book does rather mark you out!

      Alan comes across as extremely thick-skinned when venturing into, er, challenging pubs.

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    2. Oh yes. Sheffield. I did get into a scuffle in the Brown Bear near to the Crucible once. Some soi-disant ex-SAS PTSD type (yeah) drew up a chair...

      The pubs been done up, but the customers haven't, have they? Ah well, that's Sam Smiths for you.

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  9. Agree with all of that Mudge. Only add that the Beer Guide does still thrown in the odd pub you don't expect. Ship in Connah's Quay and King's Arms in Kingswood, Bristol in last year spring to mind, both basic brilliance.

    Only times I feel unwelcome are in micro pubs run by grumpy owners for their grumpy mates in dead silence. One on my blog recently.

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    1. Yes, I often feel with micopubs is that either you're drawn into the conversation whether you want it or not, or you're cold-shouldered.

      And the 2019 GBG will include in our branch area a certain tied house in the suburban backwoods belonging to a family brewer situated on the other side of the Pennines, although obviously I'm not at liberty to name it. Very welcoming, in my experience, but some people will walk to it and wonder what they're letting themselves in for.

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    2. With the smaller ones perhaps, but not at, say, the Blue Boar in Leicester or Black Dog in Whitstable. Some have music too, which helps like that.

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  10. In the late 80's when I was in the sixth form, I went to an "A" Level French day at Salford University. At dinnertime, me and a couple of mates decided to look for somewhere to drink and walked into the nearby Pendleton estate.

    The first thing I remember is seeing a kid with a half-brick smashing the window of a staircase in a block of flats. We eventually came to a rather rough looking estate pub and went in, and the conversation actually stopped as it does in films (to be fair, our school uniforms did mark us out from the other customers).

    We went up to the bar where the woman laughed as she served us our halves of Boddies as we obviously weren't her usual clientele and then found some seats and ended up chatting to a guy who was equally amused by the incongruity of it. A few other people then drifted over to see this curiosity in their local, but again were friendly and still laughing bade us goodbye as we finished our drinks and left.
    It would probably have been a different story in the evening. I can't remember the name of the pub, and very much doubt that it's still there.

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    1. Matt, my first experience of Boddington's Bitter was in one of those flat-roof pubs on the Pendleton High-Rise Estate. I was a student at nearby Salford University, and that visit would have been sometime in late 1973.

      I don't recall any hostility, but until that occasion I'd never seen a bitter as pale as Boddington's, and assumed everyone was drinking lager! The beer was dispensed into over-sized, lined-glasses from electric pumps, with the horizontal glass cylinder, visible on the bar.

      I'd never tasted beer as bitter as Boddington's either. Happy days!

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie8 July 2018 at 19:00

      Happy days indeed but the over-sized glasses weren't lined as the electric pumps used 'government stamped' meters. I never got out to the Pendleton estate but remember Boddingtons from them in the Old Garratt.

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    3. Getting a bit off topic, but my recollection is that in the 1970s many oversized glasses *were* lined, but you accepted that the 1/8 inch the beer fell short of the line was accounted for by the head. It was only in the 1980s that the principle of "the meter is the measure" became generally accepted.

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    4. The Stafford Mudgie8 July 2018 at 21:44

      Staying a bit off topic.
      Well in Banks's and Hansons pubs the 24 fluid ounce glasses were most definitely unlined and I doubt how many customers would have accepted the explanation, if the bar staff knew it, for their pint appearing a good eighth of an inch short.
      Weights and measures legislation nearly sixty years ago accepted that the meter could be the legal measure. Otherwise the over-sized unlined glasses commonplace in the Midlands, if not throughout the north, would not have been introduced.

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    5. I'm not sure, but looking online I think that this might have been the pub we went to in Pendleton. It closed in 2008, despite a local campaign to save it.

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  11. Interesting that all the comments stories go back decades. I suspect these types of pubs don't exist anymore. The shite hospitality being the reason.

    I recall going in a pub near Burnley train station once that has a threatening oppressive about to kick off atmosphere. We supped up and left sharpish and one reason I think maybe we were left alone was that we were a mixed group with women and the shaven headed tattoo's let us leave. But that was back in the early noughties. Getting on for 20 years. If you want to find such things I would guess heading to places like Burnley where the locals have 6 fingers and straight line family trees is the place to find them.

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    1. Fair point Cookie, but is that because we've aged, and there's not much swagger to be got from shoving about some sixty-something, as many of the commenters here are?

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    2. Or even that you self select yourselves out of the flat roof pubs and stick to peer reviewed CAMRA book recommendations? Dunno, mate. but that's that thought. The murderers arm's is still out there, but is ignored.

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    3. If an earnest young Guardianista couple walked into the Jolly Crofter on Edgeley they would probably get some distinctly funny looks. But why would they anyway?

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    4. WhatPub says of the nearby Pineapple, "Boisterous and lively keg boozer; the heart of Edgeley. Karaoke often heard all day." That's more than enough information for Miranda Coke to steer clear.

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    5. no I think those kinds of pubs are still out there, Ive certainly experienced it over recent years in places around the country,like London,Nottingham,Milton Keynes,Colchester even the likes of Norwich or even closer to home and strangely it neednt be the pub specifically, just who is in the pub at the time.

      The thing that changes as you get older is you realise you arent forced to go into these places that you dont like and you tend to stick to places you do, and in unfamiliar territory you always go with the guide

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    6. The Pendleton pubs all went on police/council insistence I think after they became part of the battleground in the wars between and within the Salford and Moss Side gangs, including this notorious incident.

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    7. The Stafford Mudgie9 July 2018 at 16:01

      Matt,
      I think the lesson from that sad story is that you never know what might kick off in a pub that's got football on the television.

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  12. I'd like to thank Cookie for the travel advice on Burnley as I may have to visit there for a couple of days next month. I have been to quite a number of pubs (over 8000 at last count) but have rarely encountered 'hostile incidents'. There was a pub locally which had a distinctly hostile atmosphere on my one visit but I soon twigged that it was the local drug dealing centre and then drunk up and left. Adopting what I think used to be called the 'Tetley Bittermen' approach helps - i.e. going into a pub as if you already know it, marching up to the bar and quickly settling on a beer without consulting a guide book or asking for an eggcup's worth first. The B&B posting seems to have been written originally for Americans who are often apprehensive about making a first visit anywhere. What struck me as odd was prominently listing the Vine in Brierley Hill (aka the Bull & Bladder, not the other way round) although this is distinctly off a normal tourist itinerary. However, perhaps the website publishers may have been looking for some more original pub suggestions? If so, I'd have been very tempted to also include the Crooked House which I don't think is that far away.

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    1. Try "The Lord Nelson" in the town centre of Nelson, just up the road from Burnley, for an experience. It's known locally as "The Zoo"...
      But seriously, avoid the pubs of Burnley and Nelson; if you are in that area go to the town of Colne to find the good pubs and micro bars.

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  13. The Stafford Mudgie8 July 2018 at 16:40

    Some small market towns are incredibly suspicious of outsiders and while checking out all of a town’s sixteen pubs in 1999 I was confronted by a ‘local’ in one with “D’you come from round here?” and in another with “Which side of the river are you from?”, both times more rude than threatening although I dread to think how worse it might have been had my skin been a different colour to theirs.

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  14. Really enjoying reading this stuff. I used to live in a very down to earth (rough arsed) part of Liverpool and went to every pub for miles around. Got a few odd looks in a few and often had to wait until every regular had been served, but generally fine - often friendly and welcoming. Did get jumped on (from behind)in, I think, The Newstead Abbey, on Smithdown Road by a drunken regular and was thrown out and told to "Fuck off back to the Earl Marshall", my then local. Everybody knew everybodyaround there

    Nowadays being older, nobody bothers me. Mind you there are one or two pubs around here I'm wary of, but again, I have no reason to go there. You just have to exercise common sense and caution. If it feels totally wrong, don't go in.

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  15. Only time I ever felt in physical danger was when someone took a dislike to us (probably very irritating students in) 1978. Elderly gent suggested we were in genuine danger and offered to follow us out when we left, to check if we were OK. It was here.
    https://pubs-of-manchester.blogspot.com/2011/07/osborne-victory-street.html

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