Good bye Norman Balon
Soho bade farewell to a legendary grump last week with the departure of Norman Balon, better known as the rudest landlord in London. Regular punter Andrew Humphreys – once fired by Balon – was there to hear last orders at the Coach and Horses.
At 8pm last Monday, one of Soho’s longest-running performances came to an end. After 63 years of playing the pantomime villain behind the bar, Norman ‘You’re Barred’ Balon, took a standing ovation from a packed Coach and Horses and exited stage left, popping up his green umbrella and disappearing down Greek Street like Mary Poppins as played by Walter Matthau.
Balon began his tenure on February 1 1943, aged 16, helping his parents run the pub. He took over when they retired and it’s the only job he’s ever had. But if he was feeling any emotion you wouldn’t have known it. As a Soho old guard, which included Richard Ingrams, Ian Hislop, Francis Wheen and Beryl Bainbridge, paid tribute in a private party upstairs, Balon simply looked bored. When the regulars downstairs in the bar barracked him with a chorus of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ he looked pained and responded with, ‘Just spend more fackin’ money.’ Typically, Balon’s send-off involved no drinks on the house and all three ales were off.
He’s chosen to retire now at 79, he says, ‘because all my customers are my age and one by one they’re dropping off their bar stools’. His visits to Golders Green crematorium are so frequent that he hopes more regulars will die abroad, sparing him ‘the cheap shit they serve at wakes’.
Comments like that are tossed out with a defiant grin. They back up Balon’s self-proclaimed status as ‘London’s rudest landlord’. It’s a role he’s fashioned over the decades (his 1991 memoirs were entitled ‘You’re Barred, You Bastards!’) and played with some relish. Time Out has been present when he’s thrown people out with a barked, ‘Go on, fack off!’ for wearing football shirts, shorts, or simply being a clueless tourist too slow with their order. One Sikh regular remembers encountering Balon for the first time and being asked, ‘You’re not a fackin’ Muslim are you?’ – and on answering, no, being told, ‘All right, you can stay then.’ I myself worked in the Coach and Horses for all of ten minutes, before Norman sacked me (maybe he just didn’t like the look of me).
It’s all a cunning strategy, says Balon: ‘If you get a reputation for being rude, people don’t take offence at what you do.’ Except perhaps the Italian former bar girl, there on Monday night to see her old boss off: ‘I hope he’s gone for good. He never said anything nice to me. He used to call me “stupid cow” and tell me I couldn’t speak English.’But, as Balon well knew, for every one person he offended, ten more would step up to the bar curious to soak up a piece of Soho history. This is, after all, the pub namechecked in countless obituaries of celebrated drunks such as journalist Graham Mason (‘The drunkest man in the Coach and Horses’ – the Telegraph, April 2002), writer Sandy Fawkes (‘A familiar sight in the Coach and Horses consuming simply astonishing amounts of whisky’ – the Telegraph, December 2005), and, of course, Jeffrey Bernard, who made himself the hero of his own tragedy from a stool at the end of Balon’s bar, and was immortalised in Keith Waterhouse’s play, ‘Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell’, in which he finds himself locked in the Coach for the night.
The days when the likes of John Hurt and Peter O’Toole rested their feet on the urinal-like trough at the foot of the bar are gone, but the Coach still attracts recognisable faces. Sean Bean was spotted having a quiet Guinness in the corner a couple of Thursdays back and the pub continues to host Private Eye’s lunches every other Wednesday. Balon, though, is in no doubt as to the allure of the Coach: ‘It’s me. A pub is a reflection of a landlord’s personality and I can’t stand bores.’ He adds: ‘I have a great diversity of customers, from the homeless and shoplifters to some of the highest people in the land. They come here and they spend money and they become friends. They’re people I would entertain in my drawing room.’
Balon’s ‘homeless’ regular was also there on Monday night. Her name is Pam. She’s a bespectacled, shorn-headed middle-aged woman who works the Soho pub circuit, nudging people for their attention before whispering a request for money. She also sells postcards of herself painted by the Coach’s former resident artist, former BP Portrait Award-nominee Rupert Shrive. However, she only ever dared enter the Coach when Balon wasn’t around, because if he saw her he’d chase her out. On Monday night she got a hug. ‘I’ll miss looking in the window to check whether he’s in or not,’ she said.
With Balon’s departure, Pam’s licence to operate at the Coach is subject to the approval of new owner Alastair Choat, a former manager with Mitchells & Butlers and Geronimo Inns. He and his two silent partners intend to spruce up the place while hopefully avoiding alienating current regulars. There are plans to replace the fetid toilets, rip out the carpets and create a new second-floor restaurant. They will replace Balon’s famed £1 all-day sandwiches with organic modern British cuisine. There will be a ‘Norman Balon pie’ with his famous scowl recreated in pastry. Choat also wants Balon to record some of his signature phrases and have a button behind the bar to press when the occasion demands it: ‘You’re barred!’
It’s a nice touch and may help keep the regulars on their toes, but the man himself is not big on nostalgia. ‘I don’t miss anybody,’ he says. ‘Yesterday is dead, live for today and look forward to tomorrow.’ And what, I ask, will you do for your encore? ‘Die,’ he replies. What a trouper.