Norman, Gaston and Larry's Sausage
I see that Norman Balon is to retire from running the Coach and Horses in Greek Street, Soho, London. This has attracted a lot of media coverage, partly because the pub is the venue for Private Eye's lunches but also because Norman was always dubbed the rudest landlord in Britain.
His pub was never one of my watering holes when Soho was my stamping ground. But I went there a few times in the hope of being insulted by Norman but without success.
I don't think Norman really was the rudest landlord. The competition for that title would be very strong. I think he was clever enough to make it his pub's unique selling point. And frankly, it didn't really have any other selling points.
The late Gaston, landlord of the French Pub in Soho, could be pretty rude when he wanted and quite witty with it. A lady once asked for a Pimms and Gaston replied: "Madame, this is a pub not a greengrocer's."
Then there was the landlady at the Duke of Wellington in Wardour Street who considered herself much grander than any of her customers. I once saw a man ask for a packet of crisps with his drinks. She gave him an icy smile and said: "I'm so sorry, we don't sell crisps. We find they encourage the wrong kind of customers." The slowly changing expression on the man's face as the implications of this remark sank in was like one of those lingering reaction shots you get in films.
I can't leave this subject without a story my family have heard many times. Eric was one of the best barmen in Soho. He could serve several people at once whilst conducting a conversation with two other people. A Geordie with a heart of gold, his one failing was that he had a very short fuse.
One very busy evening when Eric was running the bar single-handedly my friends and I made room for Laurence Olivier, Lord Olivier, to get to the bar and buy drinks.
In those days it was common for pubs to have a heated glass cabinet on the bar containing cooked sausages. They had usually been there since the morning or even the day before.
Lord Olivier asked if he might have one of these sausages. Eric, in between serving six other people, threw a sausage on to a plate.
Olivier said: "Excuse me, do you think I could have that sausage there (pointing at the cabinet), the one that is more well done."
There was a look in Eric's eyes that would have stopped the Kray Brothers at ten paces.
"Listen", said Eric, "you either have that fucking sausage or no fucking sausage."
Olivier took the undercooked sausage and meekly returned to his seat.
We all stood in silent shock for several minutes. Then we said to Eric: "Do you know who that was? It was Laurence Olivier. Lord Olivier. The greatest actor of his generation. The greatest actor in the history of the world."
Eric replied: "I don't care if it was the fucking Pope. Nobody pisses me around when I'm this fucking busy."
I don't have many heroes. I'm not even sure that Olivier is one of them. But Eric certainly is.
On the other hand, that dread phrase 'Do you know who I am?' never passed Olivier's lips. The man who had raged as Othello and, as Henry V, stiffened the sinews of his troops on the eve of Agincourt, had been as chastened as a schoolboy being told off by a dinner lady.
Some years later I bumped into Eric in Soho and reminded him of this episode. He said that when he told people about it they never believed him and he wished I was there to vouch for it. Well it now has whatever immortality the internet can provide. Whether or not Eric is still with us, he would be pleased about that.