The Kicking Donkey 1971
Extract from Ian Marchant's introduction to his book, "The Longest Crawl"
‘This place reminds me of The Kicking Donkey,’ I said.
The first pub I ever went to was in the village of Harwell, with my Father, in 1971, when I was thirteen. It was called The Kicking Donkey, and it was my father’s local. It was built from brick, too, but left unpainted, the dark red brick of the Oxfordshire/Berkshire borders. It was a two-minute walk away from his house, which was good. Like ‘Books Do Furnish a Room’ Bagshawe in Anthony Powell’s novel, somehow my father could not rest easy unless he was in a pub, any pub, for lasties, and so it was necessary that his house had to be an easy and quick walk away from a boozer. My step-mother suggested that he have an alarm fitted and linked to the pub, like MPs do in their flats to alert them when the division bell is ringing and they must attend the House chop chop, but my father pointed out that his own internal pub clock functioned perfectly, and that having an alarm fitted represented an unnecessary expense.
When I was staying with him, he would take me too. At five minutes to eleven we would leave his house, and at three minutes to we would walk in through the door of The Donkey, and turn left into the public bar. Maybe twenty by twenty-five foot, the thirty or so locals who in there were enough to make it seem packed. There were no tables, just benches around the walls, and the old men and women of the village sat there. The young people all stood around the upright piano, where an old guy called Frank would sit and play ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’, or ‘Daisy Daisy’. Everyone would sing along. The floor was covered in sawdust, and there was a coal fire burning in the grate. 1971.
My dad would buy two pints of Guinness for him, and a half of shandy for me, and then Harry the landlord would ring the bell for time. My dad liked to sing; he had a good voice and a great memory for the old songs. He’d join in with the general sing-song, and then yield to requests for a solo. His specialities were ‘Nelly Dean’ and his legendary rendition of Guy Mitchell’s 1953 hit, ‘She Wears Red Feathers (and a Hooli Hooli Skirt)’. By midnight, people started to leave, still singing as they walked up the lane.
After I’d been going there for several years, I noticed that there was another bar, an old fashioned parlour. I looked in once. It was dark, like chocolate. Heavy old armchairs huddled around dingy tables. No one ever went in, except, my father told me, when there was a funeral, when Harry would lay on refreshments in there. Outside, there was a good-sized beer garden, with tables and chairs for families to sit and watch, on summer evenings, the local men play Aunt Sally. Aunt Sally is peculiar to that part of the country. The sally is shaped like a champagne cork, though much larger; as large, perhaps, as an orange. It is balanced on top of a spring, which is mounted on top of a short stake, maybe three feet high. The locals stand fifteen feet or so away, and throw sticks at it. If they knock the sally cleanly from the spring, then they score a point. If they hit the stake or the spring and the sally drops off, that doesn’t count. There were several other pubs in the area that played, and there was a local league. The biggest rivals were a pub called The Leathern Bottle, who were about five miles away. The rivalry was hardly deadly — once a year all the locals would go on the Harwell Village Walk, which culminated at The Bottle.
So all subsequent pubs were ruined for me. The first pub I drank in was one of a tiny handful of real village pubs, which still stood foursquare at the heart of their community. Nothing else has ever quite measured up. Years later, I read Orwell’s essay, ‘The Moon Under Water’, about his search for the perfect pub, and I realised that The Kicking Donkey had come pretty darn close, right down to the draught stout.
‘What do you mean, it’s like The Kicking Donkey?’ said my girlfriend.