The first obvious way my drink problem developed was through my lunch hours. When I was working for GRRR Books in High Holborn, lunch pretty much became a liquid affair between 11am (When the pubs opened) and 2pm (When they shut, back in those dark regulated days). I had my own personal pub-crawl circuit that stretched from Soho to Smithfield; from St Giles High Street to High Holborn.
The professional alcoholic through, likes to keep it simple and my drinking often began in the closest pub to me. Exit front door and turn right. One minute later arrive Endell Street and the Oporto. Next to the swimming baths, it was a small and narrow pub with little remarkable about it. The bar was nearly always run by a middle age woman. I knew nothing about her and rarely tried to engage her in conversation. All that mattered to me was that she kept serving me. I was a well-behaved drunk so as long as I had cash being served wasn’t normally an issue.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Oporto for me was its other customers. It was ten yards across the street from St. Mungo’s which was one of the best known homelessness hostels in the country. There were probably any number of people staying at St Mungo’s who used the pub from time to time but there were two that I remembered above all others. A few years back, someone on facebook named them for me but I can’t find that post. I think they may have been known as Jerry and Little Legs – it’ll make sense shortly.
They didn’t seem to have the same desperation as I did. I would be often be, literally, waiting for the door to open at 11.00. Jerry and Little Legs would roll-up a bit later. Jerry was a larger man (I was starting to get fairly big myself by now) and was almost a stereotype old the old-fashioned man of the road. His bulk was wrapped in an old raincoat, tied at the waist with a bit of string. He presumably had some money as he never asked me to buy him a drink.
Although I liked to sit at the bar, Jerry preferred a table so I would often join him along the window. There was only room for the bar and a line of small tables along the edge of the room. I think the glass was smoked so we didn’t get to see out. We chatted about nothing and everything. I don’t remember to be honest. He may have told me a bit about his life but I was knocking back 15 pints in a lunchtime so not much of it stayed. What I do remember is that his hands were covered in some of the largest and discernible warts you were ever likely to see. All I could do was put my hands on his; touch his warts; try to show him that it didn’t matter. It was a small thing but it was all I could think of.
Little Legs was a different matter. He had dwarfism and displayed both the height and features you would expect with the condition. He would lollop up to the bar where I was sat and use me as a ladder to haul himself onto a bar stool. He was full of mischief and humour. I think he used to take the mick out of me but I was still quite naïve in those days so I didn’t always get it.
I was comfortable with those guys. Yes, I came from a pretty stable and secure white-upper working class background. I was certainly not at risk of being made homeless. I lived with my parents and at that point my drinking was still controlled. They had no idea that I was on the piss all day whilst at work and I was able to hide the extent I’d been drinking long enough to eat some tea before heading off down the pub for the night.
It was in my head that I was breaking down. I knew way back then that my drinking wasn’t normal. I knew that I was pissing away the talents I had been born with. I knew my potential was not so much unfulfilled as unbegun. In my head at least I was one of society’s misfits; one of its rejects. I was happy with Jerry and Little Legs – they accepted me for who I was.
The Oporto belongs to the Craft Beer Co. now. Even if I drank I don’t think I’d ever be accepted in there.