West End actor and former lecturer John Oke Bartlett recalls Portsmouth’s rich (and bitter) history of bars and breweries.
The Royal Standard in Edinburgh Road is one of those special gems that very nearly closed down in December 2013 but thankfully this little pub has had a reprieve and is open for business as usual. Creating the very special atmosphere, way back in the early ’60s, was down to recently retired Chief Petty Officer Jack Wood and his wife, Ruby.
These days people are always ‘ticking boxes’ or ‘putting their own stamp’ on things and it is fair to say that I particularly dislike both of these phrases intensely. However, in the case of Jack and Ruby’s take on how to run a difficult pub, they certainly ticked all the boxes and without a doubt put their own inimitable stamp on the premises.
I can almost hear the response to ‘a difficult pub’ but in the past The Royal Standard, along with some other notable Portsmouth licensed premises, The Mighty Fine, The Mucky Duck and the Yorkshire Grey to name but a few, all had their fair share of pugilistic fisticuffs and unsociable behaviour. Whilst all of these establishments were frequently visited by ‘Jolly Jack’, the Royal Standard had a particular place in every matelot’s heart. By all accounts Jack Wood was a taskmaster and a martinet and certainly not the sort of person to get on the wrong side of – perhaps a character trait that was required when the Navy resided in force in Portsmouth. When I first visited the pub Jack had moved on to Fiddler’s Green a good few years earlier, leaving the running of the place to Ruby and her son.
As a landlady, inimitably, the pub took on the nomenclature ‘Ruby’s’ and indeed ‘Ruby’s’ is how I have always known the place. Like her husband, Ruby was a stoic, no-nonsense landlady but she also had a different side to her. Not having been in the Navy myself I was not in a position to put this to the test, but I have been told that if a sailor found himself short of ‘a bit of tin’ towards the end of an evening, Ruby would chalk up a few beers and provide for the ultimate ‘just one more and it’s perfect’ syndrome that most of us have felt at one time or another. Apparently these small debts were always repaid, sometimes months or even years later, depending on when the respective ship returned back to Portsmouth.
On entering through the corner door of the pub, immediately to the left was a wooden partition dividing the tiny front bar from the main area. I am reliably informed that in earlier times, this Private Bar was mainly used by ‘laydees’, or so my informant would have us believe. The spelling of ‘laydees’ leaves little to the imagination and goes a long way to furnish a picture in the mind’s eye as to exactly what kind of ‘laydees’ frequented the snug.
In order to accommodate both bars the heavy wooden counter swept round in an ‘L’ shape with the partition being built into the curve at the top end. In its heyday and being predominantly a naval bar used almost exclusively by sailors, the décor reflected the clientele it served. Festooned around the walls in every conceivable nook and cranny were many ships crests, mainly of British origin with a smattering from foreign ships. These crests had been given freely by visiting matelots as a badge of pride and honour, a kind of ‘we were here’ tribute to a place worth the trouble.
In various forms this kind of salutation has been going on since the first cave man daubed his muddied hand on a rock face to proclaim to future generations of his existence. Indeed high in the upper galleries on a parapet, of the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia in modern day Istanbul, there are two sets of Viking runes believed to have been created in the 9th century AD, which incidentally was long before the infamous Varangian Guard were formed in 988 AD, which declare ‘Halfdan carved these runes!’ My, what a vandal!
The furniture in the room was similar to most of the pubs in Portsmouth- bentwood chairs, rectangular or round tables all slightly grimy with ingrained beer from generations of careless customers. Behind the bar was a collection of over two hundred cap tallies and indeed it was here, whilst leaning on the bar and pondering the ramifications of all these ships great and small, I first met Len, or Lenny the Lime to his friends.
At the time, Len was in his early sixties and during the 1950s he had been the Lime Operator at the old Empire Theatre across the road. These old style lanterns created ‘an intense illumination when an oxyhydrogen flame is directed at a cylinder of calcium oxide or quicklime’, so now you know! They were generally known as ‘the Limes’, hence the expression ‘to be in the limelight’ a term which is still very much in use today. Electric lighting gradually replaced the old Limes and now the next generation of LED lighting is, in its turn, replacing the outmoded standard style of electrical theatre lighting.
Len’s task was to illuminate specific areas of the stage with a hand-guided spotlight, often the bane of both operator and performer alike. From the operator’s point of view it is quite tricky to sight the lantern, release the iris and frame the actor in a perfect circle. However it is unbelievably frustrating for the performer if this is not done accurately, as if the beam is slightly off target and misses, one half of the body or the actor’s head is instantly plunged into semi-darkness. I have known many an actor to quickly shuffle into the limelight and after the show exchange some heated words with the hapless lime operator.
The old Empire Theatre in Edinburgh Road, Portsmouth was a fine example of a relatively small Phipps theatre, opening its doors for the first time in 1892. The theatre had a chequered fortune with several refurbs, until finally closing on the 30th of August 1958 with a variety show entitled, ‘Folies a la Parisienne’ and ‘Therein Lies The Rub’. During the 1950s to try and keep the theatre viable and open for business, a number of shows featuring naked women were performed.
Len was the Lime Operator and from his position high up amongst the gods he had a bird’s eye view and could see everything as it unfolded on the stage. As movement of any kind was completely forbidden, the nudes had to keep stock still in whatever poses and situations the director had conjured up during rehearsal. To comply with the Lord Chamberlain’s office, these early shows were somewhat naïve in nature, merely consisting of a staged tableau which, rather bizarrely, was often taken from a classical or historical context.
On one particular night the show had run its inevitable course and was reaching its climax and final tableau. True to form to the genre, this turned out to be a depiction of a scantily clad Joan of Arc at the stake. As an adornment, on either side of the hapless Joan were two kneeling angels, who with arms raised in supplication were doing their very best to give the sorry picture some gravitas. As this was the finale and final offering, the management had spared no expense and in order to stay within the law but still create the allusion of movement, the unlikely semi-naked angels and saint had been instructed to take up their reverential poses on a relatively narrow conveyor belt that had been set into the stage.
This whole contrivance ran from the back wall of the theatre down to the edge of the apron stage and was operated by what could only be described as an old fashioned signalmen’s leaver of the type designed to change the points on a railway track. The idea was to set the conveyor belt in motion and bring Joan and her angels down stage and closer to the dirty mac brigade in the auditorium, which, it was hoped, would have the effect of maximising the sensual titillation. Once the three, tastefully positioned statuesque women had reached their destination the conveyor belt would then be put in reverse and the wobbling trio would retreat back up stage to the back wall whilst the curtain fell to whistles and rapturous applause. The phrase ‘the best laid plans of mice and men’ springs to mind; surely this was an accident just waiting to happen.
Len, as usual, had sighted and picked up Joan, a rather well-endowed blonde and was diligently following her progress, flesh all a quiver with every bump and lurch, as she and the angels trundled their way down stage. From his privileged vantage point Len could also see into the wings and witness the valiant efforts of the man operating the conveyor belt wrestling with the antiquated machinery as he tried to stop the contraption and throw it into reverse. Joan’s pious countenance remained intact for her short journey as the conveyor belt drew her ever nearer to the precipice that constituted the edge of the stage and orchestra pit below.
When it became apparent that there was a problem with the brake, her reverent face and that of her fellow travellers, took on quite a different expression as they approached the end of the runway before being pitched forward into the abyss below. Far away up in the gods, Len of course, was powerless to do anything about this sorry state of affairs and could only watch with amused concern as Joan of Arc and her ethereal attendants disappeared from view off the end of the stage.
Meanwhile with an apparent empty stage in front of him, the Front of House manager assumed that, even though the tabs were not in, the show had finished, so he promptly put up the House Lights. Len and the audience were then greeted to the conductor, first violin and second horn player assisting the dishevelled ladies in a most undignified manner. In the excitement all decorum was cast to the wind as they manfully stepped up to the task by placing their hands wherever was necessary to heave and push ‘this too, too solid flesh’ back onto the stage.
This description, from Royal Navy Memories, of what it is to be a matelot is priceless.
A Matelot is not born; he is made out of leftovers! God built the world and the animals and then recycled the gash to create this dastardly weapon. He took the leftover roar of the lion, the howl of the hyena, the clumsiness of the ox, the stubbornness of the mule, the slyness of the fox, the wildness of the bull and the pride of a peacock – then added the filthy evil mind of the devil to satisfy his weird sense of humour. A Matelot evolved into a crude combination of John Dillinger, Errol Flynn, Beau Brummel and Valentino – a swashbuckling – beer-swilling – lovemaking – LIAR! A Matelot likes girls, rum, beer, fights, uckers, runs ashore, pubs, jokes, long leave, his mates and his ticket. He hates officers, rounds, divisions, saluting middies, naval police, painting the side, jaunties, navy scran, his turn in the barrel and signing on!
A Matelot comes in four colours; white, off white, dirty and filthy – all looking alike under a tan and a uniform. He is brave drinking beer, abusive playing crib, brutal defending his pride and passionate making love. He can start a brawl, create a disaster, offend the law, desert his ship, makes you lose your money, your temper and your mind! He can take your sister, your mother, your aunt, and when he is caught get his captain to vouch for his integrity. A Matelot is loved by all mothers, sisters, aunts and nieces; hated by all fathers, brothers, uncles and nephews. He has a girl in every port and a port in every girl. He breaks more hearts, causes more fights and begets more bastards than any other man, yet when he is off to sea he is missed more than any other! A Matelot is a mean, hard drinking, fast running, mealy mouthed son-of-a-bitch, but when you are in strife he is a strong shoulder to lean on, a pillar of wisdom, and a defender of the faith and cause. He fights for his mate, and dies for his country, without question or hesitation!
This is a Matelot!
Image copyright: Google 2017