The Ben Crouch Days – Still Here #2
“Still Here” is a reference to Steve McQueen’s portrayal of the titular character in the film “Papillon”. After all the ordeals he faces throughout, at the film’s climax he looks up at the heavens and says defiantly “I’m still here, you bastards!!”
I may not have been through as many horrifying ordeals as Steve, but I’ve had my fair share of good and bad times. Inspired by John Doran’s brilliant MENK column, this new feature could loosely be called a collection of my memoirs.
Now my last SH article was a bit heavy, so to restore the balance, this week I’ll share some experiences which were largely fond memories.
Everyone has their favourite pubs, and The Ben Crouch Tavern off of Oxford Street was on my list up until it changed hands a few years ago, becoming the Adam & Eve, a pussy-whipped, soft arse shadow of the hardcore drinking establishment which once stood in its place.
The BCT was part of a chain called the “Eerie Pub Company”. They also had the London Stone in Mansion House and the Bell, Book & Candle in Marylebone. These pubs shared a horror-theme, you know – full of grotesque statuettes, fake cobwebs and the like. It had all these quirky little features, like when you entered the toilets they would pipe in sound effects such as a creaky door or a maniacal laughing voice. It was tacky, but in a strange way that kind of added to its character. They had these test-tube shots which were named after the seven deadly sins (my favourite was “lust”, some kind of blue liquid which I think contained Jagermeister and something else, probably antifreeze).
I was first brought here by James and Fox, co-workers at London Air Travel on Margaret Street who I’d recently met having started my first (proper) job there at the ripe old age of 17. The three of us became good friends, and usually drank at the Old Explorer on Oxford Circus. But every now and again when we fancied a change of scenery we’d go to the Ben Crouch. Being a horror-themed pub, this made it a magnet for goths, metallers, punks and everyone in between – the people I would later come to know as “the alternative community”. And Emos, as well. This was before I knew what Emos were. Because of the clientele, the three of us began to refer to it as “The Gothic Pub”.
Later I would discover London’s alternative community for myself and would regularly return to “The Gothic Pub”, but at that time I was just a seventeen-year-old guy desperately trying to be cool so I could get laid. As I was young, and new to this whole going out drinking thing, my way of trying to be “cool” was by observing my friends and trying to emulate them, the way they dressed and acted. Now all my friends wore “normal” clothes, had “normal” hair and listened to “popular” music – you know, the stuff they call R&B which has nothing to do with rhythm and blues. Either that or Coldplay. Now the clothes I could do. The hair I could just about manage. But fuck Coldplay.
Inside me was a rocker desperately trying to break out, and now in the Ben Crouch I’d finally discovered a place I could be myself. So I’d regularly pester James and Fox to keep coming back there as often as possible.
One night we arrived and a group of goths were at the back of the pub drinking snakebite and dancing to the jukebox, which was spewing out mainly trad goth and heavy metal tunes. This was an ordinary scene in the Ben Crouch, until the jukebox which must have been on a random play decided to throw on “One Love” by Blue. How this slipped underneath the radar and ended up on the jukebox at the Ben Crouch I’ll never know. But at the back of the pub the goths hadn’t even missed a beat, and were casually dancing away to Blue whilst sipping their snakebite. It was one of the funniest sights ever, and a reminder to never drink snakebite. I shudder to think what a drink that makes your brain want to dance to Blue would do to your body.
Then there was the old Indian guy. This guy was there all the fucking time, in the same spot, come rain or shine. Seriously, I never went there without seeing this guy. We always thought something bad would happen if we went in and he wasn’t there, like the place would fall down or something. I never heard him say a word to anyone, but if someone stood in his spot he’d hover near them and give them dirty looks until they moved. The staff called him “Mr. Ali”, and they couldn’t stand him as he was constantly finding a way to be a nuisance. Yet they couldn’t bar him either because he spent way too much money there.
Below: Johnny Brace, Tom King, Billy Brace and myself. Just another crazy night at the BCT.
Two of my best celebrity stories happened in the Ben Crouch. The first time was when I was standing at the bar with Fox and I think Adrian as well, and I turned round and bumped into Johnny Vegas. We got talking to him and he was a really nice bloke, and just as funny in real life as he is on the telly. He bought us a drink, and we bought him and his friend one back, and were actually chatting to them for about an hour. I’m now sure the guy he was with was Stephen Merchant, although if it was I didn’t recognise him at the time.
The highlight of the evening was when Fox tried to convince them that he was a porn director. Johnny’s response was to grab Fox in a sort of Heimlich manoeuvre / reverse bearhug position and gyrate against him while making “porno” noises. He actually held him there for about two minutes while the rest of us rolled about laughing. Fox saw the funny side of it in the end, although he didn’t look too comfortable at the time. When they left I asked for his autograph, which he wrote on my travelcard. It said: “Your gay porno friend = nice…… You = 100% top quality bloke” or something like that. My mum later mistakenly put it through the wash, which was nice of her.
The other time was when we arrived to find the pub a lot more packed than usual. Still we fought our way through the crowds and got a drink. The manager (Kevin) was throwing a few girls out who were clearly underage. We asked the barman (a Serbian guy, I forget his name) what all the fuss was about. He told us that Green Day had turned up. They had a whole section roped off but we got talking to a guy who happened to be one of their road crew, and he invited us to come and sit with them. There were about 15 or 20, all part of their entourage, all doing test-tube shots and being quite rowdy. Billy Joe Armstrong, however, was sitting there with his head in his hands staring into space. He was the only one who didn’t appear to be enjoying himself. I asked him if he wanted a drink. He asked for a pint of lemonade. Rock and fucking roll.
I had a lot of good experiences in the Ben Crouch over the years and met a lot of really cool people including Dani, an Australian girl who I ended up dating for a while. She and her friend Katy worked in the pub round the corner which was handy.
I don’t know who Ben Crouch is or was, but if they named this place after him he must have been a top guy. It’s a place I’ll always have fond memories of, a haven for rockers, metallers, free thinkers and just plain freaks. A place I felt I belonged. That’s how I’ll always remember it, not the garish monstrosity they turned it into (below).
What a fucking travesty.