A few years ago I managed to pick up a copy of George Izzard’s rare book, ‘One for the Road’. Written in the late 1950’s, it’s described as ‘the autobiography of a London Village publican. He arrived at ‘The Dove’ on a misty November afternoon in 1929 and his book takes us through nearly thirty years of a bygone age. The following segment concerns the appearance of a mysterious challenger who then suddenly disappears:
‘The day came when even beer went short. I had to close at least one day a week – the day before my delivery day – and sometimes two. “I’m beginning to think this war’s serious,” one of my customers remarked. Yet oddly enough, it was just at this time that a customer backed himself to set a record in beer-drinking. He was a new customer. He commented on the excellence of my bitter, wartime bitter though it was. He said it was the sort of beer you could easily drink quite a lot of. He said he’d only once tasted a bitter quite as good, and he’d put down thirty-two pints of that in eight hours. He wasn’t at all certain, he said, that he wouldn’t like to try the same experiment with mine. And the story ended up in one of the biggest mysteries of my time at The Dove.
It was a dull day, so by way of keeping the conversation going, I bet the newcomer a fiver he couldn’t do it. He took me on at once, and the two fivers were deposited with another customer. Other people in the bar made side bets. I told him to ring me when he was ready. Everyone looked forward to the event, though unless statistics lie (which they very probably do) he wouldn’t in fact be breaking a record even if he won. The beer drinking record is stated to be twenty-four pints in an hour, and the wine drinking record even higher, forty pints in fifty-nine minutes, set by a Spaniard.
My challenger turned up just before two o’clock on the day he’d fixed. “Better wait for the hour before starting,” I suggested. “No, I’m thirsty,” he said; “Give me a light ale.” He downed that in double quick time, and at two o’clock precisely, I started him off on his first pint of bitter. Behind me in the bar I’d hung a slate on which I’d written the series of numbers from one to thirty-two, and I crossed one off every time he finished a new pint. He started off at a good, steady pace, as if he were used to marathon drinking. Every quarter of an hour I crossed a new number off. The pints went up from two to five, to ten, and now they were all on me, for it was closing time.
At half-past four, when he was a little ahead of schedule, my wife called down to say that tea was ready. “I’d better draw you another pint while we’re having it,” I said. “No,” he said, “I wouldn’t mind a cup of tea. I’ll be able to catch up. Besides, I’m getting a bit hungry.” So he joined us for tea, and put down a man-sized ration of bread and dripping, and returned to the bar and the slate.
By now it was opening time again, and the first customers of the evening were coming in. They looked with respect at the scorecard, which now showed twelve pints downed. One or two of them had been present when the wager had originally been made, and had put on side bets of their own. “He’s got a fine, steady swallow,” someone remarked. “You can see he’s not the type to get rattled. Why, you could set your watch by the time he downs a pint.”
“The real test won’t come till he gets into the twenties,” somebody else objected. “His swallow’s all right, but his elbow-action’s a little too stiff for my liking.” For the next hour, he kept solidly at it, with no hint of effort, and he passed the half-way mark, with his sixteenth pint, just before six o’clock. By this time quite a crowd of spectators had collected, and were exchanging views on form, and reminiscences of past performances, very much as they would on Boat Race day. My challenger didn’t seem in the least embarrassed.
New money was still being put on him, and his backers urged him not to extend himself too much, and to save his sprint for the final hour. “Why not sit down for a bit ?” they said. “Take the strain off your legs, and you’ll have more strength for your drinking arm.” Perhaps that’s what led him to suggest that I should join him in a game of chess. I brought out the board, and the customers betting against him began to look blue. A man doesn’t propose a chess match when he feels himself being worsted by drink. And then suddenly, the picture changed. My challenger thought a long time before he made his first move, and it wasn’t a very inspired one when he did make it. But he reflected hardly at all about his second, and it was one of my pieces he moved. I pointed out the mistake, but he repeated it the next time, and nearly knocked over the board.
His seventeenth pint was nearly down, but his backers’ faces were beginning to fall. Fifteen pints is quite a long way to go. Still, milers have been known to weaken at the half-mile and still to stage a recovery. When he rose to go out into the garden just before six-thirty, his supporters picked up a little. “A bit of fresh air’ll put new life into him,” they said with assumed cheerfulness. “He’ll top the thirty-two pints yet.”
That’s where the story ends – and the mystery begins. We waited five minutes for the record-drinker to return, then gave him another five. Finally a party went into the garden to see whether, unworthy if natural suspicion – he had been taken queer. There wasn’t a sign of him. And we never set eyes on him again. Where could he have gone to, and why should he have wanted to go ? It was raining hard, but he had left his coat in the bar. There was no question of his evading payment of the bet. He’d put down his stake money at the beginning. There seemed to be only one solution: he had suddenly realised that he couldn’t make it and felt he couldn’t face up to his disappointed supporters inside.
But there were only two other ways out of the garden, one was across the walls of the neighbouring back-gardens and out on to the Mall. Those walls would have taken some climbing for a man who’d had only seven pints, let alone seventeen. The other was over the river wall, but it was high tide, and there was no sign of him swimming in the river. Maybe he had climbed over and got himself drowned; maybe (which I find it hard to believe) he had felt so ashamed of his failure that he thought the river was the only way out. In either eventuality, one would have expected, even in wartime, to see the finding of his body reported. It never was.
I prefer to believe that my seventeen-pint customer had drunkard’s luck. And if, as I hope, he is still flourishing and still occasionally thirsty, I should be only too glad to see him back at ‘The Dove’ and to know that all is well with him. We shan’t reproach him for his failure to sink his thirty-two pints, nor expect him to start again. But I can’t promise to let him have his raincoat back. When he failed to show up after a year or two, I sold it to pay for his drinks.’
Apparently George Izzard continued as landlord until the mid-1960’s.The Dove was originally a coffee house and was purchased by Fuller Smith & Turner in 1796. There will be a further article on this famous pub in due course.