Tonight the usual group have retreated as far as they can to a table near the back. It’s so far from the windows it’s a wonder they can see the dominoes — and a three mile hike to the bar. Not that the windows help much anyway. Too small to let much light into the place, too grimy half the time. Mike’s supposed to keep them clean, but she’s given up asking him. He can’t reach half of them, can’t even clamber on a stool.
She peers at the nearest window now, wincing at the smears. She should probably clean them herself, but it’s just one more job to add to the endless list. And it’s not like the view is anything to write home about. Parked cars, dustbins, buses rumbling past…
This is one of the descriptions of Sandra’s pub, near the beginning of the book. I wanted to conjure up the image of a typical back-street city boozer, rather drab and down on its luck – which many of them are these days thanks to more people preferring to drink at home.
The pub itself doesn’t exist, of course, but the area it’s based in does. Hockley is an inner city area roughly divided into two distinct sections by a busy main road (the A41 Great Hampton Street, if anyone is interested). To the south, slightly nearer the city centre, is the world-famous Jewellery Quarter (left) with its bustling streets of shops, cafes, the odd museum or two and a wealth of jewellery-making workshops. To the north is a quieter zone comprising terraced houses, back-street boozers and factories, crouched in the shadows of the vast Hockley flyover.
And it’s very much in the latter setting that I saw Sandra’s pub. Too far out of town to benefit from the tourist crowds; not far enough to be suburban and cool. Instead it inhabits a twilight world of buses and factory workers and trade waste bins, of punters who take up tables but never quite spend enough.
Anywhere but Hockley, she thinks. She hates the way people talk about it now, as though it’s paradise. It’s all the Jewellery Quarter this and the clubs and bars that, but she knows there’s Hockley and Hockley — and this is the wrong end. Besides, after dark it all looks the same. The kids getting drunk and falling down, the broken glass, the endless pools of sick. And she and Mike are stuck with this: a dead-end hole in a dead-end part of town.
To be fair to Hockley, it really isn’t as bad as I suggest. But Sandra’s had a bellyful and you can’t blame her for wanting to move to a better area of town with smarter properties and customers who spend more.
The building itself is a mash-up of two or three different premises that I’ve either visited myself, or driven past on the bus. One, the Church Tavern (left, not my picture) in Hockley itself, used to be known for its colossal burgers and I went for lunch once with a work colleague – but it’s a little too spick and span for Sandra’s place. Others, such as the Railway Inn (also Hockley) and the Moseley Arms (further afield in the Highgate area) have more of the right look, if not the right location. And the bit about the old codgers playing dominoes comes from something I actually saw, at the Crooked House near Dudley before it got modernised.
I’ve realised that I never gave Sandra’s pub a name. If I had, it would probably have been something grungy like the Brown Cow, Spotted Dick’s or the Mangy Dog, to conjure up the grime and gloom of the area’s back streets. Although I suspect Sandra herself would refer to it as the Arsehole of Nowhere. But who knows, even she might actually come to like the place…
The drapes are pulled, the main lights turned down low, even though it’s a nasty night outside. Dark and beginning to spit with rain. Buses hurtling past. A typical Tuesday in a typical week in autumnal Birmingham. But they don’t need lights for what they’re doing. Just a couple of spotlights on standby, to illuminate their work. One aimed at the banquette by the door, one for where Mike will stand. She turns, and jumps. He’s already there, and with the gloom and the way he’s dressed — black jacket, white tux — it’s enough to give anyone the creeps.
Want to find out more about Sandra, her pub, and what happens to them both? ‘Gravy Train’ is available in print or digital from the Down & Out bookstore, or from Amazon and other retailers.