The Hole In The Wall

The Hole In The Wall

The Hole in the Wall is not a hole in a wall so much as a space under a railway arch by Waterloo. That is to say, it has a smallish carpeted front bar with a handful of tables for cushioned lounging in an L-shape facing the bar; a biggish uncarpeted box of a back bar with probably ten tables and plenty of standing room, and a laughable tiny concrete “beer garden” smokesies area out the back. Clientele a mix of commuters, hard drinkers, randoms and (on matchdays) football and rugby watchers. That’s it, really. But.

In the middle of the 1980s, before I was old enough to drink legally and before I’d even thought about living in London, I’d visit my student older brother here. I’d arrive and depart from Waterloo, off the one-track chuggy line up from Honiton.

My brother would meet his friends at the Hole In The Wall – they, undergraduates in not-unnecessarily-fashionable rags, would impress and awe me with tales of the kinds of activities I could only read about in the NME. I was a country boy in love at a distance with a specific brand of indie (let’s say continuity mod-pop with a non-rigorous and unsustainable kind of oppositional rhetoric) and the downwardly-aspirational, boozy, fading folk-punk scene (I loved the Boothill Foot-Tappers as much as I loved those early Pogues records). All the good stuff seemed to happen in the pub, up London. This place seemed like the sort of pub where it just might.

Perfectly London, waves of people I’d never know coming and going, not giving a monkey’s about bumfluff boy getting too-quickly sozzled with the big kids and trying his best to chip into the conversation. The cheek by jowliness of the attendant office-types and serious drinkers seemed the essence of pubness to me, and I had (to my great surprise) learned that my brothers’ inner-burb locals (Herne Hill or Nunhead, depending on the year) would feature the kind of folk who’d turn round and give you slightly suspicious looks if your face didn’t fit. Just like home. Weird.

Probably because it is , in part, a commuter pub, one of the great things about the Hole In the Wall is that, really, no-one gives a damn about you. In years of going there, I’ve only twice had someone trying to strike up an unsolicited conversation with me. I, like the pub, and like the other customers, am nothing special.

Those evenings in the Hole In The Wall still glow in my memory as glimpses into an amazing world I might one day inhabit. Crucially, the place was nothing special. Scuffed and fraying, this wasn’t one of those set-piece palaces which (in my mind) rang to the gasps of gauche out-of-towners, nor was it threatening or scary. It was just a pub where the sort of people who I might one day be would go, sit, talk, watch the football, drink, drink too much.

And so when I finally shored up here, it became a fairly regular haunt. It’s a favourite of mine not just for sentimental reasons: although it’s nothing special, it’s hugely adaptable. Want to meet a handful of friends to cook up some kind of plan? Front bar, round the corner. Want to watch the game on your own? Back bar is your only man: space atmosphere, good chance of a seat if your pubcraft’s up to scratch. Ten of you on a crawl: couple of tables in the front if you’re lucky. Twenty handed booze up on a Friday night? You’re probably best in the back, although you might consider colonising the whole front bar. Got visitors who want to see a bit of London drinking untouched by the tourist dollar in the guidebook classics? This is a place for you. Hanging out with some fancypants who doesn’t like alehouses? You’re probably best somewhere else entirely.

And as a result I carry a gallery of memorable days and nights in the Hole In the Wall – arriving late to the wintry pub crawl with my future wife in tow, the first time she met lots of the Freaky Triggerists; a notoriously difficult afternoon with some friends of friends who hated us, for reasons which only became clear years later; uproarious back bar Fridays of pinball and chips, the closest I’ve found in London to a real bierkeller atmosphere; the day after my fortieth birthday, with two of my oldest friends, unfunctioning, stinking and hungover.

It became the kind of place where I could be disappointed they’d done up the toilets: I’d got used to reading the graffito by the far urinal, in biro amidst the scratched names and logos of football teams and the weird insults, the legend “MY CATS CALLED MITTEN”.

All of which makes me think that I really have grown into the kind of person who drinks in the Hole In The Wall. Glamour, eh?  It’s a moveable feast. The Hole In The Wall in the 1980s offered a gungy kind of glamour, and God knows it’s barely changed. That dirty glamour was the best available kind to me, there, then. Now, it reminds me of me.