Requiem for a dying pub: Remembering the Lansdowne Hotel

Lansdowne Hotel edited 9:8:2015

For over five years it was my pub. I know I’m not the first person to call it that, and even with the end coming I doubt I’ll be the last. It was one of the first places I went drinking after I turned 18, it was one of the last places I went drinking before I left Sydney behind. The Lansdowne Hotel was for me, as it was for generations who’d come before, a cornerstone of growing up. One of the key locations where my own coming of age story took place.

I can’t remember the first time I went there for a drink, but I remember the feelings it brought up. Sticky floors and tacky carpet, old torn posters on the wood-paneled walls, a battered pool table with wonky cues, a few worn but comfortable couches, high stools beneath higher tables, a row of taps in front of a wall of spirits, a couple of arcade and pinball machines near the door, pokies in a separate area that I can’t say I ever had the desire to enter. Clusters of students drinking beer around one table, a couple of old alcoholics sitting at the bar joined on occasion by the working class men so prominent in Jimmy Barnes’ thinking, stopping by for a quick schooner after work often still in their high-vis and steel caps. The smell of stale alcohol in the common areas and staler piss (with the occasional whiff of vomit and worse) in the bathrooms. I fell in love with the place immediately. It was everything I’d grown up expecting a pub to be, a little seedy and a little classless, but with a lot of heart and plenty of fun to be found, good grog and the natural charm that comes from bearing witness to the best and worst a society has to offer without judgement. But I might me romanticising a little. Or a lot. But, hey, first loves are a little like that, aren’t they.

It was a relationship that I fell into quickly. My best friend and I made a point of meeting up once a week during most of the semesters that we were both at Uni, and while there were plenty of drinking holes that we’d bounce between (Bar Broadway, Manning, Hermann’s, The Royal, Corridor, really hoping I don’t sound like an alcoholic right now) the Lansdowne was always our most frequent stop. Being so close to Uni, it was also a place where I spent a great deal of time with the people I met in my various classes. Drinking, laughing, listening, arguing, singing, sitting, chatting, bitching, drinking. Seriously though, not an alcoholic.

Anyway, some of the fondest memories I have of those years took place at the Lansdowne. Discussing future courses with one of my tutors and a half-dozen fellow students after the final tutorial of my first semester. Handing out relationship advice that I really have no right giving after a half-dozen scotch and cokes. Cheap steaks and absolutely excellent potato wedges in the upper floor beer garden. An enthusiastic barman pouring tasters of the more interesting beers on tap since it was a quiet afternoon and I’d expressed an interest, probably part of the origins of my own beer snobbery. Discussing films late into the night with folk who knew far more than I did, but listened to what I had to say anyway. Pausing a conversation to headbang along to the drop in No One Loves Me and Neither do I (’round the 2:15 mark) by Them Crooked Vultures. Arriving one weeknight to find a metal band whose name I never learned performing an absolutely fuckin’ amazing Queen cover. Chatting with a random old guy looking for some company while he drank, sharing a jug and a mutual love for the Dropkick Murphys. Sitting on the chairs outside and just watching the traffic passing by on the intersection of Parramatta and City Roads. Getting the pasta one fateful night and promptly deciding never ever to do something so foolish again. Simply talking.

That is what the Lansdowne was most for me. A place I could talk. It was my pub. A safe place without judgement or the anxiety it caused. It was a place where I could stretch out after a long day, week and month at uni or work and unload my troubles with the help of a friend or friends that cared, or help someone else unburden themselves. I went through some fucking dark times at university, but the Lansdowne was there for me as a place I could work through them. A part of my present where I could work through the past and stagger towards the future.

It changed a bit over the years. The red-headed bartender who didn’t know our names but new our preferred brew left and was replaced by a (I’m pretty sure we learnt she was) Thai girl who always poured the perfect beer and filled the jugs all the way to the top. A fire in 2013 was the cause for a round of renovations that left it lot cleaner and less battered, but still with a lot of its old personality. The menu, of course, shifted about as the kitchen staff obviously changed (the wedges stayed great, the pasta stayed shit). But it was always there, always a constant and what it meant to me (and the best mate I mentioned above) remained the same, so much so that a need to vent or relax or what have you could be announced with a single-worded text: “Lansdowne?”

Well, until now. It’s apparently been bought by the Academy of Music and Performing Arts, who are planning on turning it into a place of learning. A place of “study rooms, performance areas and recording studios.” Fuck me dead. I mean, yeah, fuck, they wanna turn it into a dance and musical theatre school. Just, good luck to’em I suppose, but I can’t help but feel I’m losing something important. Expect a lot of people are going to feel that way. It also doesn’t really matter that they’re going to try and leave it as a live music venue. It wasn’t just about the music (though for many that was definitely a defining part of its character), it was about the place itself. The history, culture and camaraderie that you only get in a proper pub. It was iconic and symbolic and the Lansdowne. What it was, what it is for at least the next few weeks, is being taken away from it. And that is tragic.

What’s got me is that I won’t be there for the end. My last schooner there was my last there. I can’t see it out properly, with a jug of good Aussie beer and a game of pool with its wonky cues, a cheap steak cooked medium rare in the beer garden, and a poor attempt to sing-along to whatever’s playing over the sound system. A good time with good mates before something that was so important to me ceases to be.

So I’ll simply have to say goodbye to the Lansdowne Hotel from here. Goodbye and good luck to whatever you become. You were too good for what the world is now.

If anyone’s in Sydney before it closes, do us a favour. Head in there and have a beer.

Seasonal conversation cycles

Last week I went out to dinner with some good mates at a nice place in Croydon Park. Well less dinner and more coffee and knafeh (a Middle Eastern desert that’s just fantastic). It was a good night, but I still found myself drifting off fairly early and was one of the first to call it quits. As I leant across the table and shook hands with an old mate, who I’ve really only been seeing regularly for the past year or so, he asked if I was cycling with him a few of the others on the weekend. I didn’t have to answer since just about everyone else at the table knew it already.

“Nope. Tom doesn’t cycle.”

I don’t. Simple as that. It’s still something that many people seem to find difficult to comprehend, and I found myself running through a familiar conversation last week as the gears ground to a halt inside the questioner’s head. It’s a conversation I’ll probably find myself in more often than not as the southern hemisphere shifts into spring and summer, and the people I know for whom cycling is more lifestyle choice than legitimate transportation alternative begin planning day trips and coastal rides.

My mate looked at me in confusion for a moment, then asked if it was because I didn’t own a bike (followed by an offer to borrow his old one). Nope, I answered, I just don’t cycle. He then threatened to buy me a bike, since then I’d have to use it. I said that if he did I’d cut off the handlebars and leave them in his bed. As a warning.

Bicycle and circular saw - edited 3:10:14
I’ve been told I shouldn’t take life advice from Al Pacino characters. Can’t for the life of me figure out why.

At that point I finished my goodbyes and did a runner before he got the chance to ask the all important question. Why? For some reason a lot of people assume that it’s because I had some sort of bad experience on the back of a bike and I did have a nasty crash or two when I was younger, dumber and still rode. Truthfully I just didn’t like it, so I stopped and let the old set of wheels rust away. These days it’s just a matter of pride (and if I’m going to be honest probably always has been at least a little). The whole culture surrounding grown-apparently-mature-adults cycling irritates me and I by and large try and avoid it.

That’s not to say I have issue with the handful of people I know who cycle for actual exorcise and transport reasons, since they aren’t the problem. They’re pleasant and recognise that not everyone gives a shit about how much their bike costs. It’s the folks for whom cycling is essentially just a passing fad (appearing with the Tour de France and disappearing when they realise that riding 50km in 35 degree Celsius weather goddamned sucks) that are the problem. The folks who’ll spend forty minutes talking about the carbon fibre wheels or carbon fibre brakes or carbon fibre underwear or carbon fibre whatever-the-useless-fuck that they last spent an obscene amount of their hard-earned money on. Or the folk who dawdle along the narrow streets of Balmain, Newtown and Surry Hills on their fixed-gear bikes in Ray Bans and/or flowing summer dresses blocking traffic then lamenting how bicycle-unfriendly Sydney is compared to Europe (don’t even get those guys started on Australian helmet laws, they never shut up).

But they’re my mates. They put up with me when I begin ranting about movies and anime and video games and the geopolitical ramifications of Australian military intervention in Iraq and Syria, so it’s only right that I just I grin and politely nod when they talk about how they need new road tires or bitch about the lack of bike lanes around the city. Most of them know better than to bring up the subject of new tires, day-trips and the importance of their upcoming court battle appealing a hundred dollar fine received for not wearing a helmet (seriously, don’t get them started on bloody Australian bloody helmet laws). Same as I know not to start talking about how Sons of Anarchy has shifted from a Hamlet to Macbeth cover whenever we’re out clubbing. But not all of them and not all the time. So, as happens with the changing of the seasons I sit back and contemplate whether it might be more efficient to just tattoo my side of the conversation onto some easily visible part of my body.

“Nope. I don’t cycle. Because I don’t.”

No more point to this post than that. Just figured I’d write something up while I think of something more interesting to talk about.