The George, Fitzrovia, was Saki’s local, and a pub for men talking about cars when Great Portland Street was called Motor Row. I imagine them sucking down gin and weeping for early Jaguars; a ghostly Max de Winter rising to leave for Manderley; Mr Rolls and Mr Royce squabbling over ale. Felix Mendelssohn and Dylan Thomas came here too. Nowadays they would be called local creatives by marketing literature, so I suspect they are pleased to be dead.
Many pubs have failed, which is an incremental tragedy, though it’s pleasing for women seeking men who are not always drunk. It’s true that if you want to see a fantastical neo-Tudor ceiling on the Kilburn High Road, you will only find it in a pub, specifically the Black Lion. The Lost Pub Project, which is fanatically dedicated to ‘archiving the decline of the English pub’ before they are ‘forgotten forever’, lists more than 40,000 lost by postcode and county, alongside captions which function as sobs. I thought pubs were places to forget, but apparently you must remember the places you seek to forget before you finally forget them.
But the George thrives. Its doors are thrown open and a happy babble from local creatives reaches the street to mingle with fumes: live by motorcars, die by them. It’s amazing how quickly you can leave the miasma of Oxford Street if you have the will. The frontage is Victorian Italianate on a Georgian shell, so it looks like a repointed brick wall with eyes.
It is owned by JKS Restaurants, which has renovated the Cadogan Arms in Chelsea and have opened a restaurant here called, for simplicity and navigation, Upstairs at the George. It’s a series of small and lovely rooms: a pinkish and mirrored Art Deco bar; a sage-coloured drawing room; a dining room with a blackened brick chimneypiece, tapestries and eerie, curling chandeliers. The staircase to the attic is covered with bottles of wine and I like this: pubs should be weird.
We, though, are downstairs at the George. We have come from Cornwall, and when the staff see our luggage they put us in the snug by the main bar. It is likewise beautiful: dark-green embossed wallpaper; pale-green velvet benches tight to the table, so I feel ecstatically trapped in the snug; an obituary of local creative drunks crawling up the wall in engravings and oil paintings, shinier in death than in life; a television switched off, because there is no cricket. My husband marvels at the carpet, which is a wild swirling pub carpet, but new. He has never seen a new pub carpet, he says. He wasn’t sure until now that they existed.
This is pub culture, but it is miniaturised, idealised and very expensive pub culture: if not exactly a forgetting, then remembrance of a dream that wasn’t, which amounts to the same thing. I will resist a Brexit metaphor and say only that we eat tiny £25 lamb hotpots from individual iron pans with vast plates of buttered greens – is the pub that doesn’t seek to kill you even a pub? – and sweet, soft devilled kidneys on toast. We eat exquisite rhubarb crumble (£10, and good value if that is all you eat), excellent, doughty English cheeses, and a knickerbocker glory that leaves me as exhilarated as I have ever been in central London.
The George is a parody now, of course – a Disney-style pub – but it is so finely wrought and graceful I forgive it. Local creatives: eat your miniature lamb hotpots and buttered greens and be creative if you can. Alcoholics and ghosts will flee.
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The George, 55 Great Portland Street, London W1W 7LQ; tel: 020 3946 3740
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