Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Fishy Aspect of Charlie Brown's Pub

Adjacent to such modern upscale developments as Canary Wharf, to the east of Tower Bridge on the Isle of Dogs, is the site of the Railway Tavern, (1893-1989), better known to its clientele as Charley Brown’s pub. This famous Victorian landmark was notable for being crammed full of weird curios and bizarre oddments brought back from foreign parts by mariners since the days of square-rigged sailing ships. Traded for pints of beer and noggins of rum, the extensive collection of prizes brought back by foreign-going old salts constantly added to the pub’s chaotic collection of the beautiful, the intriguing, and the grisly grotesque.

This spontaneous museum collection grew to amazing size over the decades following the turn-of-the-century. So much so, in fact, that in 1938, shortly before the advent of the Second World War, Charley Brown’s son, another Charley, branched off on his own to open a sparkling new public house at the intersection of Woodford Avenue and Chigwell Row, on London’s North Circular Road. The younger Charley Brown took with him the overflow from his father’s original brimming pub collection for use as furnishings to attract another flow of customers. This new Charley Brown’s pub was only a mile from our family home in north Ilford, and only a few yards from the banks of the River Roding, wherein, as a ten-year-old boy, I had first fished for dace and chub.

During the later war years, when on leave from my Fleet Air Arm squadron, I would often visit the new pub. Bright and airy, the pub stood in its own grounds and parking lot and was situated on the northeast side of a traffic circle, or roundabout as such aids to traffic circulation are called in Britain. So aptly, if somewhat unsurprisingly, the younger Charley Brown named his new pub The Roundabout. And outside Charley erected, as an eye-catching attraction, a novel and animate pub sign. Atop a very high and stout post, Charley junior placed a five-foot-diameter model fun-fair roundabout, carousel, or merry-go-round, complete with traditional prancing model horses and cockerels upon which little mannequin riders were seated. And when the pub opened in 1938, the last year before the wartime national blackout of all outside lighting was enforced, the miniature roundabout, atop its decorative post, rotated merrily round and around with its coloured flashing lights brightening the dark hours of the evening. For five years the pub sign was kept darkened until once again, in anticipation of the Allied victory a week or two before the European war actually ended in 1945, the model roundabout was switched back into merry life,

So, what is all this talk of a pub doing in a fishing yarn? Well, apart from the fact that anglers like myself are partial to frequenting taverns, Izaak Walton who wrote The Compleat Angler back around 1616, was himself partial to spending some of his leisure time quaffing draughts of ale in country inns between his hours of angling (or chatting up pretty milkmaids) along nearby river banks, there is another reason. A reason which haunts me to this day. Because when visiting that pub and wandering, beer mug in hand, around the premises looking at the enormous variety of artifacts displayed on every hand in spotless and polished display cases, I often returned for a second or third look at one particular item. For amid the marvellous chess sets and other intricate works of native art carved in ivory, plus the pickled human embryos from China, the shrunken heads from the Spice Islands, and other even more unmentionable items, there, unobtrusively in the background among all this profusion, was a single pickled fish.

Not a strange thing, really, to find in a pub—a pickled fish. After all, many pubs keep herring fillets and other fishy tidbits along with pickled onions and eggs for their peckish customers. No, not a strange thing at all. But this fish was markedly different and was pickled in a large glass jar of distinctly Asian origin. And it was a fish the like of which I had never seen before. Not even with all my borrowing of fishy library books, my constant studying of the display counters of fresh-fish shops and my visits to commercial fish markets.

This fish looked so different. Its dark, almost jet black, body was about eighteen inches long and of unprepossessing appearance. With heavy, fleshy fins warped by its long stay in the off-colour fluid inside the misshapen jar and with its dead eyes looking more dead than death itself, it was a haunting sight. People just looked at it, shrugged their shoulders, said what a strange fish it was, then passed on to more lurid items. But for me it had a certain fascination.

Later, during subsequent visits to Charley Brown’s, I noticed it had disappeared and its place in the show cabinet had been been taken over by yet another of the more shocking exhibits favoured by the customers.

I was not to think of it again until decades later when the story broke about a strange fish caught off the coast of Africa. It was an event that amazed the world’s biologists. It was hailed as the first scientifically-recognized capture of a living coelacanth—then long considered to be a fossil fish from the beginnings of earthly-creature time and thought to be long extinct. All the newspapers ran photographs of the fish. I looked at them in wonder. Those images made my mind go straight back to Charley Brown’s Roundabout public house. That fish in the jar. Could it have been a young specimen of the same kind? Well, anyway, I believe so. Who knows? Maybe Charley Brown the younger—if he’s still around. Which, sadly, isn’t very likely.

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