Updated: May 10, 2020
I’ve always been a pub person. Proper pubs, untarted about with but with good beer and good company. If you’re lucky, you sometimes find a pub that becomes a little oasis, a favourite spot that you can sink into and let wash over you. I’ve been lucky enough to find a few like that over the years, but Quinns on Kentish Town Road in north London is one of my all-time favourites.
It’s been a few years since I drank regularly in there, but the memories came flooding back when I read news of the death of Pat the guvnor at the age of 94. He was working that long oak bar until the final weeks of his life, and there are not too many proper publicans like him left.
My association with Quinns began in 1993 when I started working as a sub editor on Take a Break magazine. Our offices were on Camden Road, on the junction opposite the big Sainsburys that was, funnily enough, on the site of the famous ABC Bakery where my mum worked when she left school in the 1950s. The building is now used by the British Transport Police but back in the day German publishing giant H Bauer occupied three floors from which their mass-market women’s weeklies Take a Break, TV Quick and That’s Life were produced.
They were heady days. Bauer had, as the tabloid language of the time put it, come over and parked their tanks on the lawn of IPC, the company that had pretty much owned the UK women’s weekly market for decades. The gritty, down-to-earth approach had struck a chord and TaB in particular had become a bit of a phenomenon. Other magazines that claimed to tell real life stories carefully selected their subjects and rounded off any rough edges. TaB told it like it was, featuring readers the advertisers flinched at being seen next to but who ordinary people saw as familiar. In the days before social media really kicked in, TaB’s reputation spread by word-of-mouth and by the mid-1990s was selling more than two million copies a week. That level of sales is simply unheard of these days.
Working on the magazine in the glory days was an unforgettable experience. And Quinns was our pub. The TaB staff were a good bunch and we fully entered into the cliché of working and playing hard. And the subs desk, as the rules require, led the way. I was in my late twenties, responsibilities had not yet kicked in, and I embraced every minute. It was a five-minute walk along Jeffrey’s Street to the distinctive pub that stood like a beacon on the corner of Kentish Town Road and Hawley Road, and Friday night at Quinns was work drinks night. We’d regularly be in there from 6pm until midnight.
It rapidly got to the stage where I’d walk through the doors at 6.05 and find my pint of Guinness waiting for me on the end of the bar, properly poured and settled by Vince the barman. We’d catch up on the world, and then it would be on with the evening.
When you look back on the favourite times you’ve spent in pubs you can’t help but wonder what you discussed through all those hours. There was lots of arguing, piss-taking, telling of anecdotes and jokes, but I can’t really remember the substance of any of it. Which, of course, is the whole point. We were kicking back, having the craic.
The pub itself was a proper pub, with a cavernous interior and lots of little corners and sections to settle into. The low roof gave it a cosier feel, and had been responsible for the pub’s previous name The Duck Inn (geddit!). As well as the fantastic Guinness, Quinns started bringing in quality bottled Belgian beer, with the selection written up on a big roll of wallpaper behind the bar. It was one of the first pubs in London to do so and, as the piece in The Londonist linked above rightly says, set the template for many other pubs to follow.
When people talk about proper pubs they often mean, if we’re honest, a bit of a shithole. Sticky carpets, stale urine pervading the bogs, a few chips and cracks around the edges. Quinns was a proper pub but always well-turned out — like a working class lad on a night out insisting on an ironed shirt and creases in trousers. Being in Camden, it had its share of challenges. But Pat and his two sons always kept the lid on and made sure everyone knew who was in charge.
It was unmistakably Irish, but not in that showy, look-at-me way much of the marketed modern Irish identity experience is. It was a big city pub in a rumbustuous part of town, but it always had the feel of a place where you could come and take refuge among friends. I made some very good ones in that bar.
There were some legendary drinking sessions in there, friendships formed and relationships forged. Which is all the detail you’re going to get. On odd occasions, before the inevitable downturn in the magazine’s fortunes and the accompanying tightening up of work practices, we’d be in there from 1pm on a Friday until gone midnight.
In 1994 we watched much of the World Cup from the USA at Quinns. The highlight was undoubtedly the game in which the Republic of Ireland beat Italy 1–0. The place was rammed, absolutely rammed. I was in there with a photographer doing a freelance piece for an up-and-coming football magazine called Kick it City — a title FourFourTwo owes more than is popularly acknowledged to — but really I was getting some freelance bunce for doing what I would have done anyway. The Guinness was flying that night and we ended drenched in sweat and stout and joy. Magical days.
For three-and-a-half years until I left to work at IPC’s old Kings Reach Tower on the South Bank — the block dubbed The Ministry of Magazines–Quinns was a central part of my social life. I never went there unless it was from work, even if I was in Camden, which I was alot. Quinns was the work pub. End of.
And since then, despite regular association with Camden, I’ve not been a regular. Quinns became, as the The Duck Inn was before it, a pub that I was aware of in the blur of Camden life. Over the years I’ve had many dalliances with many pubs in Camden; The Spread Eagle, The Oxford Arms, The Elephant’s Head, The Lock Tavern. When the Hawley, which had for years been a bikers pub where you were pretty likely to see someone exiting via a closed window, re-opened under its current ownership I was working back in Camden again and we had a year or so of great times before it became unbearably hip. That’s a fate that’s befallen many a pub in Camden, where fashion cycles are accelerated. Many of the original Britpop crowd left the Bucks Head by the outdoor market to drink in the The Good Mixer, which was chosen because it was the coster’s pub in Inverness Street market and would never be trendy. Now, you can run into young Japanese tourists turning up to take photographs of where Damon Albarn drank.
My Quinns was of its time, with a particular group of people, and at an age when I could enjoy it the most. I’ve popped in there from time to time in the years since. I’ve had a Guinness with Vince and talked about the people we used to know. But My Quinns has long gone. That is how London works, a constant churn of experience, a light shining brightly for a finite time and then dimming, only for another to illuminate somewhere else.
Hearing about Pat Quinn not only reminded me of good times at his pub, but also of how long Camden formed part of my sensibilities. As a teenager I’d go to the market when it was a proper market. We’d buy bootleg tapes of the gigs we’d been to and shop for t-shirts. There was the Dublin Castle for music and the long-lamented Dingwalls, the proper original club, not the excuse that’s there now. I remember seeing Dr Feelgood in that old sweaty box on New Year’s Eve in about 1982, and going to some of the first Kiss club nights when it was a pirate station playing proper music. I remember Billy Bragg and The Redskins on a joint double bill at The Electric Ballroom supported by Dr and the Medics (before the No 1 single) that was attacked by the BNP and the crowd inside being thankful for the presence of Red Action to back the fascists off the door. There was a shop where you could get your Dr Martens, the old Compendium bookshop with its beguiling mix of left-field literature. Other entertainment was, I believe, available… Camden was a magnet, somewhere unordered and original, drawing you in.
That’s long gone too. The market’s a joke, the chain stores have moved in, the whole place is a consumer theme park where finding anything worth buying is almost impossible. Camden has become a stylised version of Camden, leaving the real Camden disorientated and confused somewhere else. Or maybe that’s just how I see it, all these years later. Looking back, Quinns was the end of an era, a turning point. I left Take a Break to take up a more senior job at IPC. Everything got a bit more grown up.
They say you never realise how good something was until it was gone. During my days in Quinns I realised it was very good indeed. Of all my many hours spent watching football or sitting in pubs — hours that I realise some will view as wasted but, you know, it’s the simple pleasures that make the difference — those were some of the best.
I don’t know what comes next for Quinns. But what came before can never be taken away. I should look in and have a pint with Vince soon. For old time’s sake.