The overpowering smell of vinegar on hot chips permeate the air. Pints of beer are scattered throughout the pub despite the early hour of the day, glowing amber in the narrow beams of sunlight that seep in through the high-fitted windows. A soft murmur carries on in an endless loop, only broken by the occasional shout-out from one friend to another across the room’s worn carpet with its hypnotic pattern, or the bar manager hollering orders to his staff. Sounds are distorted in this huge building; the ceiling must reach a height of at least twenty metres.
I’m at the Capitol in Forest Hill, a place for the cold and the lonely to retreat into the warmth and comfort of intoxication and cheap meals. These walls once hosted a cinema, which opened in 1929 during the final sighs of the Jazz Age. Despite it having closed in 1973, the majestic feel of the movie theatre remains. Where the silver screen once rose from the floor there is now a backlit display of wine bottles in greens and browns, with an original relief of golden cherubs dancing above it, protecting the alcohol and its faithful servants. The balcony, which runs in a semi-circle above our heads, is lined with twelve gilded faces protruding from the navy blue paint – a dozen goddesses perhaps hoping to catch a movie.
It is a fascinating assortment of people who come here. At a small table near the bar two ladies in berets are sharing their latest gossip, leaning closer to each other over creamy cappuccinos. Men in their late 50s and early 60s sit in groups of four and five, consuming their early afternoon ales with friends of old – seemingly a regular activity dating back more than a few years. Some sit alone – curious men and women who look like they could be collecting model steam trains for fun or have a respectable position in the local origami society. They read their papers or stare transfixed at the TV-screens’ mesmerising real-time subtitling.
To my left, two older gentlemen sit eating their fish and chips in silence. So far, not a word has been uttered between them. They solemnly tear open their condiment sachets, one of them with an apparent preference for mustard. Perhaps they are old friends, where communication happens in subtle gestures or is simply not necessary. Or maybe their wives were once close friends, and now with both of them gone, these two find solace and company in a quiet meal together. Conversation or no, at least they don’t have to lunch alone.
Outside the bitter January winds are howling. In here we are all warm and well looked after, plate after plate being brought out with steaming lunch meals. It is a typical English Free House, but with an added romance of the past. The jackpot machines twinkle, glasses clink as they sink into the dishwasher, and at every table sits someone with a story to tell.