Sunday, March 11, 2012
Fulham High Street, London
Still there – just
It must have been in the 1970s, when Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse came out, that I first read and was moved by a poem by P J Kavanagh called ‘The Temperance Billiards Rooms’. In it, the poet remembers how he used to walk past the Temperance Billiards Rooms with his wife, who died tragically young. Aged just 33, the poet salutes the Billiards Rooms alone. He makes the building stand for continuity, in this moving poem about carrying on after a disaster: ‘it just goes on, as I do too I notice’. But it’s also fragile (‘something so uneconomical’s sure to come down’) and so is the grieving poet. It’s a touching poem, and Kavanagh’s description of the place, ‘in red and green and brown, with porridge-coloured stucco in between and half a child’s top for a dome…it’s like a Protestant mosque!’ has a melancholy humour.
I wonder if this is Kavanagh’s building. It’s now a pub (The Temperance), is repainted a rather sorry dark grey and is offering special deals on cocktails. There’s still a dome, still bits of stucco decoration, still stained glass in red and green, still the hall to the right which must have contained the billiard tables. If it’s not the building in the poem, it’s one very like it. Designed in 1910 by Norman Evans, it was one of several such buildings, built for Temperance Billiard Halls Ltd in northern England and the suburbs of London. Their art nouveau glass and decoration, and the chance of a game of billiards, were meant to attract punters away from the temptations of the demon drink, part of a movement that began in the middle decades of the 19th century and saw a late resurgence in 1900–1910. As late as 1908 there was a bill in Parliament to reduce the number of licenses to sell alcohol and ban the employment of women in pubs, a bill that was vigorously supported by temperance campaigners, and equally loudly decried by others, especially those, such as the Barmaids’ Political Defence League, who stood up for the barmaids who were to lose their jobs. The bill was defeated in the end, and the temperance movement declined.
This billiards hall, at any rate, is still there, although the dark paint spoils what looks it had. It’s also fiendishly difficult to photograph, hemmed in by road signs, wires, aerials, railings, and continuous traffic along the Fulham High Street. The best I could do was to include one of the most interesting vehicles that went past as I stood outside, a Mercedes Benz 280SL that takes us just about back to the 1960s, when Kavanagh wrote his poem. Like him, I’m glad the building is still there, although I cannot, like the poet, say that there are, ‘for all I know men playing billiards temperately in there’.
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For more about architecture and temperance, see Andrew Davison’s essay ‘”Worthy of the Cause”: The Buildings of the Temperance Movement’ in Geoff Brandwood (ed), Living, Leisure and Law (Spire Books, 2010).
For P J Kavanagh’s account of his loss, see P J Kavanagh, The Perfect Stranger (1966)