The Crown and cushion
These are the words I never wanted write – Perry Barr’s Crown and Cushion has closed.
The pub which has been the heart beat of Perry Barr for over 150 years has gone the way of countless boozers up and down the country and has called time on itself.
There was disbelief when the gaffer Don Brown said the pub would close at the end of the month – but that was last September. But two days after the closing party it was open again. It was like going into to join your terminally ill mate to drink himself to death in New Orleans only to find out he was joking.
A new landlord came in with promises of games, sports teams, refurbishment and better food only for the prices to up, the kitchen close and a legion of barred shady types allowed back. Eight months later the doors are closed forever and it is being turned into a nursery. Just another statistic in a country where seven pubs in the West Midlands alone are going to the wall.
The pub which was the de-facto headquarters for the all conquering Aston Villa team of the late 19th Century and the first public place where William McGregor’s letter calling for the first football league in the world was read out is no more.
As a kid I used to run through the majestic old pub, which had a ballroom and lot more besides, I remember it being pulled down and the new pub built in the early 80s. Legend has it the planners got the design mixed up, it was meant to be set back from the road to enable any road widening or possible metro route. As a civic balls up it might not top the underpass on the Bristol Road by McDonads being built across one of the busiest routes out of town instead of on it, but it stacked the deck against the pub from the start.
As it was it was built on the corner of Wellington Road and Birchfield Road and dominated Perry Barr island. Diagonally opposite used to be the old Birchfield Library built in the 1880s. However, that was knocked down eight years ago to make way or a brand new learning centre and library. A landmark development they called it. Now it is wasteland that Birmingham City Council is selling off, that flash library in town had.
When the Conservatives and Liberals got in they decided the money would be better spent in Sutton Coldfield, and when Labour took control of the council they quietly decided to sell the land instead of doing something for an inner-city area which Birmingham City University is deserting too. So the Crown stands on the island, yellow and brown, like a wild west fort built to keep the teetotallars out. Across the Walsall Road is what my mom’s calls the “Second Hand Bread Shop.” Other places have or Marks and Spencer Outlets but in Perry Barr we’ve got Greggs Outlet, so it is fair to say the area has seen better days.
A quirk meant it was actually quicker to through the pub than around it. And those walk throughs could lead to hours perched in front of the bar listening to old ska and the sound of dominoes cracking and laughter. It was a bar where everybody knew my name – both of them.
I could walk in there with no. Whether it is a slate from Don, Last July’s was my biggest yet – £220 – or someone who is flush and can buy me a pint. I get paid monthly and my payday dovetailed nicely with other regulars who knew when I get money the beer is on me.
It was never my local growing up. I cut my boozing teeth in the Little Crown opposite, the clientèle was so rough it would make sandpaper feel like Lillets. Then my regulars became the Tennis Courts, the Towers, the Uplands, the Grove the Beeches, Kingfisher and a few in between but I’d still drink in the Crown most, usually before and after the Villa when the place used to be heaving.
In the late 1990s the brewery had the brainwave of turning it into a student pub. They knocked the bar and lounge through and painted it yellow, the famous name to It’s A Scream. got cheaper beer than the locals and killed the pub of my youth, it even stopped being a meeting place before the Villa.
After the students ran it into the ground one of the best publicans Birmingham has ever seen took over in 2002 – Fred.
He’d run successful places for decades, including Thashas on Soho Road. The Crown became a West Indian pub, one of many in Handsworth and Perry Barr but now thanks to the police and breweries it ended as one of a handful left in the entire city. A late licence was granted and Friday and Saturday nights became real events, hundreds of people, dressed in their best would descend from far and wide. I was always amazed to end up chatting to someone from Sheffield or Manchester. And the week was brisk too.
Since then the Crown has been two different pubs, Friday and Saturday night after 10pm and the rest of the time. As one of the few black-owned places in Birmingham which was allowed to stay open into the early hours it was usually packed. I used to love seeing the car park packed and the central crammed with cars too. The place could be intimidating to white folk if you were not used to being outnumbered 50-1, I once brought a girlfriend there and despite being a right on liberal she begged me to leave. I suppose I shouldn’t have mentioned there were a couple of killers within ten feet of her.
Despite some of the most dangerous people in Birmingham drinking in there, the Night-time Crown rarely had trouble, it was a safe-haven for many in the mad world they lived in. However, the place into criminal folklore of the city again – in the 1990s a consignment of guns heading to Northern Ireland was seized and hit the national headlines – when a Crown Court heard how an execution of a bouncer in town was planned in the pub in 2004 – one of the first cases to use the conspiracy charge to lock up multiple people instead of actually finding the killer.
The Perry Barr friends I grew up with settled down and did what most people born in Perry Barr do – move out. First to Great Barr and then to Sutton and beyond. But I stayed and became part of the furniture of the Crown and Cushion.
It has been the last ten years that I has been my local. Fred used to give the me sub as a thank you for putting stories in various papers and then when Don took over the same. I spent most of what he lent me back in his pub so everyone was a winner. First I paid my rent, then my slate. And I know I could fight to live another month.
Even when I didn’t live in Perry Barr for years I always ended up in the Crown and Cushion once a. It became the venue for The Steve Zacharanda Radio Show pre and after-party. My co-host Gurdip, after being ignored at the bar like most newcomers, was taken into the fold and a once a week a regular himself. Smiley Killah was the DJ for a couple of years every Thursday and he’d know to “The Gambler” at the same time every week, as our other favourites including Breakfast in Bed Riddim version and Al Brown’s Here I Am Baby.
The interior was a mish mash of various phases of the pub, pre-student, It’s a Scream, post student, the decorations for past Valentines Days, Xmas Eve’s and the Queen’s various anniversaries hung side by side.
There were signs about drugs, accidents but “Bring children here at your own risk” was my favourite. There was even a sign with the price of drinks which was wrong. It’s dark floor reflected shards of sunlight through the made the interior light change as the clouds pass above.
I heard how rough and scary the place is all the time (the university paper warned students to stay out of it because drugs and stolen goods were for sale in there) but I’ve never seen the cocaine fuelled ultra-violence I’ve seen in other pubs in the Crown, it could be a sociable pub but also a pub where if you’re on your own you can be left alone.
It had its own feel, the formidable barmaids made you wait longer than wanted but the sounds and smells of a West Indian pub made it special for me. Old school ska pumped through the speakers, and when I say old school I mean the 1960s, the smell of pea soup wafted through the bar and the crack of dominoes in the corner was constant. There was a great cross over of the in the pub, the Windrush generation were alive and kicking. In fact when the one of the old boy’s go home was always an emotional and fascinating night.
As with any pub, the conversations which could be had that made it great. Some pubs you just know what people are going to say before they say it. Boasting, “banter” (thankfully the Crown remained one of the few pubs you would not hear that awful word) and political which never gets beyond “bloody immigrants” is not my thing so I loved the variation of debate in the Crown. I think it is the only pub I’d ever hear the sentence: “I caught gonorrhoea in George Town back in 59, it was one hell of a town.”
Two regulars, both old enough to be my dad, who became friends stretched my brain on a regular basis and made drinking a pleasure for the mind.
Denton spent part of his Jamaican childhood in the 1960s sailing around the Caribbean with his granddad smuggling contraband from island to island before coming to a cold England to finish his schooling. Top of the class thanks to a classical Jamaican education Denton gained a degree and became Britain’s first black taxman where he spearheaded the Civil Service’s bowling attack across the world. He also founded the American football team Birmingham Bulls and set up a successful called Caribbean Dreams which went bump the day after 9/11.
Howard came from Jamaica to Handsworth as a schoolchild too. He was part of the radical politics of the 1970s which saw West Indians try and fight institutional bigotry through housing groups. He even made it to the a Pan-African Congress in Africa . He rose to become a barrister and continued his militancy, bestriding the British legal system like an a black Judge John Deed on heat. Until that is he felt a tad ropey and checked himself into hospital and ended up having a heart transplant. He was a miracle of modern medicine at the bar espousing Garveyite theories which would offend so many – Luther King? A chicken nonce, Gandhi? Another nonce, Nelson Mandela? The white man’s pussy.
And behind the bar, being served great food which wasn’t on the menu, was landlord Alderman Don Brown. Past 80, post-heart-bypass either napping or laughing at the debates whether it be about geopolitics or the best way to cook salt-fish. He came to the UK in the early 1960s and worked is way up the unions to be a Labour councillor in Perry Barr, he could have been Mayor of Birmingham, but why would he? Way too much work. His old pal Bill became Lord Morris of Handsworth but Don was just Don, and I learnt a lot from him. I once even gave him a father’s day present my own dad didn’t want.
I know those hundreds of hours sitting at the bar with those three men were not wasted.
Don’s son Dexter ran the place during the week and it was always interesting to see which hat he would be wearing. He was a friendly face behind the bar which made the Crown a second home for me, the stories I’ve told him to get a free round are some of the best to ever come out my mouth. The best night of the year was always Halli Selasi’s birthday which Dexter would organise, the place would be heaving and the fun would continue until the morning.
The staff were both infuriating and delightful in equal measure, Angie and Cisline, were both over 50 and would take no shit and every so often flip at one piss-taking customer. Drinks would be thrown, anything could happen. But though waiting for ages for a pint was annoying it was usually enjoyable watching other people getting annoyed.
Just a few seconds from the Crown is Aston Lane Methodist Church where I went to Boys’ Brigade from 1981 until 1994 and the only place I’d ever see my former comrades was in the Crown. Michael Murray and Deano in particular, they were my childhood heroes, and I got to drink with them most weeks, who can say that?
Years ago the Crown and Cushion was one of the most famous pubs in Birmingham, used in a million directions given and once was a byword for a home from home for Irish immigrants. It was said in the 1960s and 1970s Irishmen could walk into the Crown looking for a pint and walk out with a job. There were some legendary brawls as well, I was always impressed as kid about the tale of my mate’s dad trying to throw the pool table over the under-pass, myth or not it always made me chuckle.
The place had famous patrons too, The Three Degrees of the Albion would turn up. Oozy Osborne was a regular, however, in the Wellington Room one Monday night he was acting the fool and got glassed by a fella who is now another regular looking for a new pub.
There has been a pub on the site stretching back over 150 years, it was a mere pup compared to the Boar’s Head which Prince Charles is supposed to have kipped at back during the Civil War in the 1640s, but the opening of Perry Barr Railway Station in 1838 kickstarted development.
The pub was rebuilt in the 1900s to incorporate a bar, lounge, ballroom upstairs, function rooms and even had room for an off license on the side. The pub thrived as Perry Barr became an industrial hothouse with factories like IMI, Lucas and Tuckers employing tens of thousands of men, all staggering distance from the Crown. Perry Hall was pulled down in 1928 and vast tracts of its land sold off for housing ensuring the Crown’s coffers ticked over nicely.
In the 1960s the pub got in on the live music trend which swept the country – rock n roll. The night Gotham City was held upstairs and local live bands plied their trade, often playing the Crown first before playing a club in town on the same night. Among the big names who performed at Gotham City were Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham’s band Way of Life who played one of their first ever gigs in September 1967.
Around the same time Perry Barr was split in two by an eight lane highway with one of the country’s first flyovers and underpasses, the polytechnic and Lynton Square were built which incorporated Perry Barr Shopping Centre. But unlike so much of Perry Barr, including the historic St Matthews Church, the Crown and Cushion survived. Standing proud on the island of above the underpass.
To satisfy the demand of the new kids on the block, West Indian immigrants, the Crown began holding popular soul nights. The pub was one of the first in the city where blacks and whites (mostly Jamaican and Irish) drank happily together. Thanks to the ballroom and function rooms the pub was a hub for the community with all kinds of groups meeting there, sports teams, ballroom dancing, divorced and separated clubs and even a regular Bavarian night.
The pub retained its strong links to Aston Villa, the board members and players might not have run the club from there, but it was a Villa pub known far and wide for its firm. Rival groups of hooligans would try and take it and the notorious C-Crew followed their heroes around the continent as their heroes became champions of Europe in 1982.
But this century it could not help but go down hill. For many it was just a toilet, which pissed Don off, he wanted money from the council to let people use his bog, because when he said no people would literally piss all over Perry Barr.
I offered to do a Rivers of Piss story to help him out but he refused, he loved Perry Barr too much for it to be dragged through the mud in the media, my food review in the Brum Mail helped fill the place though. I once brought Tom Watson MP there, so he could meet a Labour legend, Don just moaned about the bogs, I loved him for that.
The Wetherspoons opening in One Stop eight years ago was supposedly going to kill off the Crown but it kept on going, however, the brewery hiked the rent and beer prices and the writing was always on the wall. It felt like it was the Last Days of Crownigula for years. The police wanted it gone, as they usually do with anywhere West Indians gather but Don’s council clout kept it open. I held the Perry Barr Film Festival there last August Bank Holiday and the back wall was sprayed by top graffiti artists for posterity.
But by then Don said he was leaving and left last September and rumours swirled around, it was sold for flats, Aldi was buying it, the pensioners’ village was it taking over and a London moneyman was going to turn it into a wine bar. The closing party was sad, it was like that last scene of Brewsters Millions when the interior designer clicks her fingers and the room gets taken apart. I thought about nicking a picture, a portrait of a 19th Century South African Viceroy, like I wish I had done with the Little Crown which closed down a decade before. But I didn’t. I walked out with a heavy heart.
Two days later it was back open. I could not believe it. New landlords, who were white and owned pubs across Kingstanding, Coventry and Walsall kept it open, by the skin of its teeth, but with black management. After paying Don’s last slate to him – £220 – he said: “A white man has be pub now you’ll be happy.” It was a joke but sad all the same, the place just did not feel like my second home anymore after Don left.
The beer garden, which as a description is using the word garden in the loosest sense, was covered in artwork by my friend Ghanian Swedish artist pal Simon who I did a tale in the Birmingham Mail about when he finished it, was a world unto itself. Part holding pen, part haberdashery, part menagerie, part social club and part hideout. I used to love the sight of patrons standing on the tables to survey Perry Barr over the spiked fences. I spent hours laughing at the various situations over the years, a solitary cannabis plant even managed to grow for a season from a discarded seed. But, with the police often coming to sweep the pub it ended up being snipped.
When the sun came out the car park would become a mini-block party with cars pumping out tunes and the dominoes tables brought outside, more than once they’d still be there when the sun went down and play by the car park lights. Floodlit dominoes! I bet there was not another pub in the country which pulled that off.
Then there were the bikers NWB, the mostly black-biker gang who used the pub as a base, the crescendo of superbikes would bounce off the concrete of Perry Barr and riders would do wheelies up down Wellington Road. I eavesdropped an AGM of the New World Bikers once, it was fascinating, they are an incredible disciplined bunch and through the sounds, smells and colours of their hobby really added to the Crown and Cushion. One of my many failures in journalism was not convincing them to let me write a feature on them. It would have been a real street culture diamond of a story which would have gone global, but not everyone wants to be famous. Or infamous. My pal’s old landlord Paul sped out of the Crown one night 10 years ago and died after a taxi-driver who was not paying attention wiped him off the planet.
But in the last two years the garden’s atmosphere changed, drinks from the off-license were a regular sight, arguments changed from being about which is the best way to fry chicken to screaming matches about stolen purses. One opened pack of cigarettes would be like oil being discovered in the Wild West. And if someone turned up with a bit of cash then it was like a gold rush for shoplifters. It was always a place where you could buy anything from meat to molotov cocktails but when the shoplifters started fighting themselves over who could pitch first to someone with a spare tenner the writing was on the wall.
The toilets always had writing on the walls too, some of the best pro-black anti-capitalist slogans and poems this side of Harlem. For a few weeks there was a toilet attendant in there, you know the type they have up town that charge you spray stuff on you, now when the place got hot and sweaty some deodorant should have been a godsend to some of the locals. But the poor bugger did not last long, two weekends tops, it was officially The Worst Job in the World. The toilets were often the place for arguments to be settled, many a time I was stuck into a cubicle waiting for one to end – the best were the “come on bruv, stop fucking my mom” arguments. Obviously.
As well as graffiti there were the constant anti-police jokes, I bet a cheer went up in Thornhill Road nick went up when the news the Crown and Cushion had closed down. Funny how a greedy brewery succeeded where the police failed and ensured the place really did go down the pan for good.
Now it has been sold to Asian supermarket developers who are turning it into a nursery. But with the old library, IMI, Tuckers, the university which has Judas’d Perry Barr and Bill Switchgear’s old factory all empty or vacating why remove somewhere where there is life in Perry Barr? That is business I suppose.
But what about the regulars of the pub? Where are we going to go to?
Like the immaculately dressed West Indian man in his seventies, always in a suit, waistcoat and hat. He’d buy two halves, one bitter, one mild. One for him and one for his mate – who died in the 80s. He’d never drink his mate’s drink. Then after talking to air for 20 minutes he would mark out a cricket pitch, I think it was a cricket pitch anyway. He would walk ten paces left diagonally swinging his arm, then ten paces right. Nobody battered an eyelid either, it was that kind of pub, you could be left alone.
It did have its fair share of pub nauses but often they didn’t last too long, there was the Asian alcoholic Elvis lover who must have disappeared into the ghetto lately, the tall African sounding dude who always wore a suit but never went to work and would beg for a game of pool and then bore his opponent with Jewish-conspiracy and Illumanti crap – he didn’t
bother me after telling him I’ve only a finite amount of time on earth and none of it would be spent listening that shit.
And then there was the fella who would invade auras like a swarm of bees and talk such thick Jamaican it sounded like a glockenspiel, it was great to watch people try and extricate from his grasp. I once went in at 11am in the morning for a straightener and he collared me in the beer garden, as I breathed in I caught his breath out and the rank smell led to me projectile vomiting.
And every pub needs a few fantasists and we had the greatest. There was the bird who once held job interviews in the corner of the pub for jobs at her restaurant on the Hagley Road, in they came, with Cvs and Record of Achievements and she grilled them to see if they were good enough to be a member of staff at somewhere that only existed in her head.
Then there was a fella who always told me he had the biggest scoop of my career, but after working all day I never wanted to talk work. But this fella swore he knew where the Spitfires the treasure hunter the Birmingham Mail believed was looking for were, and he reckoned he had stories that could have made my career. However, I kind of lost faith when at 3am in the morning he sidled up to me and said: “You know that Al Quida attack on the Kenyan shopping mall?” And then he tapped his finger on his nose – “never would have happened if I’d been over there.” I laughed out loud and enraged him. He probably did have an incredible scoop too but finding it would have been harder than guessing the individual bean which made you fart after skinheads on a raft.
And talking about skinheads what about the bomber jacketed white dudes who had seen it all since their hey-day in the mid-1970s when the pub had live music, even a regular Bavarian night, and was perfect starting point to see the punk and ska bands playing a few minutes away in town.
But I’ll miss the place, everyone thinks their local is special but the Crown was unique, the visitors who came to see me in my domain from far and wide loved the place. I’ll miss having somewhere to show off to people who would never set foot in Perry Barr if it was not for me. I’ll miss freezing my ass off getting there and then ordering a pint and a pea soup which would warm me up from the chest to my fingers. I’ll miss coming back from a press trip from abroad and ordering the taxi from New Street to the Crown and being brought down straight to earth after being treated like a VIP for a week. I’ll miss wondering who is in there as I pass on the bus. I’ll miss knowing its there.
I’ll miss Macca, Paul, Robbie, Sharon and the rest of their gang, all good people, I loved how they all referred to it as The Office. I’ll miss Carl, Bugsy and their ladies whose friendship I gained after standing on in a witness box. I made some proper friends in there, Kev the chef and I bonded during the 2008 Euro Championships – I’d been suspended from the Birmingham Mail after not turning up to work after a night with Mike Tyson and he broke his hand just days before Randy Lerner was going to fly him to New York. Every day we were in there and now I am proud to class him as a friend who is a Perry Barr success story, he missed the demise of the Crown whilst cooking up a storm in Australia.
I’ll still see the friends I’ve made but in different surroundings, it is the regulars who were the living wallpaper of the place that I’ll miss, those who I’m on “alright mate” terms with but no more.
What will happen to them?
Like the Bajan pensioner who used to bring in vegetables to sell but ended up being drunk until a catholic missionary turned up to save him or the old fella who could pinprick any enthusiasm for any pub dream within a second of it being uttered. Or the regular who almost scuppered getting the back wall painted for posterity by two of the country’s best graffiti artists during The Perry Barr Film and Music Festival. As me and a mate were painting the back wall black he told Don he could be prosecuted if the outside of the building was touched – him obviously being an expert in legal property law, unbelievably he came and told us what he had done too. I’m not sure what he was expecting but probably not me losing my temper for the second time in my life. Common sense won out and Don let us carry on as he was leaving that week and no-one wants a half painted wall instead of a piece of art. Well most people anyway.
What about the Chinese woman who will have one less stop on her rounds selling DVDs, Smooth Tony who would spin the tunes whether we wanted him or not, he’d get us dancing to Native New Yorker on a Monday night. Or the fella who went home to find a gang laying in wait and tortured him with the brand new steam iron he’d just bought off a shoplifter in the Crown or the constantly jovial fella who had his hand hacked off and sewn back on a few weeks ago, and the loon who he’d played dominoes with for the previous year who did it.
Or the man mountain who would only buy Lucozade and for seven hours a day stand in different parts of the pub, staring out of various windows, he rarely spoke but rumour has it he belted out a note perfect Bob Marley song when karaoke came on.
Or Jimmy the dancing Potman, or the South American ex New York cab driver and chef who I should have done a story about British Gas charging him for huge electric bills in the winter despite him living in Jamaica from December until February. Or Paulette the sexiest grandmother on the planet who I told was too good or the place only to be told she didn’t date white guys before I’d finished my sentence. Or Mantana who had a different hair cut everyday and was trying to create a global clothing brand selling jeans with flashing lights on from a pay as you go phone. Or the old guys who would come in wearing 1970s blaxploitation clobber including fedoras on a Sunday.
And what about those people who just turned up for an occasional pint and witnessed all types of craziness at the hands of the regulars of the Crown and Cushion, Perry Barr?
Or the scruffy unshaven white geezer at the bar whose green eyes looked far into the middle-distance and always wanted that extra pint because his troubles would begin again when he walked out the door.
One thing is for sure, none of us will be under the same roof again.
By Steve Zacharanda