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Joseph Connolly revisits an old haunt

PUBLISHED: 15:13 23 April 2009 | UPDATED: 16:08 07 September 2010

Flask Walk. Well – I ve been here before, of course. From 1975 until 1989, to be precise – that s how long I was the shadowy fixture hovering like doom at the rear of The Flask Bookshop. Readers of a superior vintage

Joseph Connolly revisits an old haunt

Flask Walk. Well - I've been here before, of course. From 1975 until 1989, to be precise - that's how long I was the shadowy fixture hovering like doom at the rear of The Flask Bookshop. Readers of a superior vintage will remember it well - I sold modern first editions and art books along with general antiquarian and literature: rather lovely, in its heyday.

It was in between the butcher (Joe Steele, sadly missed) and the baker (Rumbold, likewise). I should have been a candlestick maker, really, though I doubted there was a market. The site is now occupied by a wholly unique boutique run by the very delightful Zana who herself makes much of the stock - devore velvet jackets and capes, silken throws (as publicly cavorted in by the Blessed Saint Kate of Moss!) and all at knockdown prices.

Before the mid 1980s, though - when old and useful shops began to give way to video rental outfits and designer label clothes - it was all rather special. On Saturdays, the shop was always so rammed that people had to wait on the step for others to leave so that they could squeeze themselves inside.

Doctors and solicitors made up a surprisingly high proportion of the clientele - along with one or two names from film and television. Who? Well ... there was David Attenborough, Alan Bates, Peter Barkworth, Janet Suzman, Peggy Ashcroft, Gayle Hunnicutt, Robert Powell, Gordon Jackson, Judi Dench, John Alderton, Connie Booth, John Hurt and Peter Cook, not to mention two-thirds of The Goodies. Once I had Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and John Cleese following a hugely liquid lunch - and, I am delighted to report, it all got very silly indeed (the state of them lending no scope at all for something completely different).

Both Jeremy Irons and Peter O'Toole tended to favour wearing the costume of whatever play or film they were currently acting in, each making sure that this generally centred around topboots, a very dashing brightly-lined cape and wide-brimmed fedora (with, in O'Toole's case, a longish cigarette holder).

Authors, though - they never came in. Two very famous authors lived just down the road and passed the window almost daily, and not once in 14 years did they ever come in. Authors, they don't like to spend money on other people's books. There was just one exception - Kingsley Amis, a hero of mine long before I met him. And where would we totter off to for lunch? Why The Flask, of course: where else?

It always used to have the air of being rather dirty in those days - and of course the regulars just loved all that. The frosted etched glass windows (recently removed, alas) let in little light, the pubby memorabilia was strung with cobwebs, and the celing was sticky ochre from a century of fags. The food - apart from the legendary and award-winning chips - was really not up to much, but that was hardly the point.

Not that I drank a lot either - spilled a fair deal of it from shaking with laughter over Kingsley's unstoppable and inimitable mimicry: not just the apopleptic Evelyn Waugh and the cringe of Malcolm Muggeridge, but abstract expressions as well - mortification, heartburn and childbirth being three of the most unforgettable. Then he would look at the heeltap in his glass: "We need another" he said. Gosh - it was always so very difficult to leave: "We need another".

I hadn't been to The Flask for years - and then recently I found myself having lunch there twice in a week. The whole place not long ago underwent a refurbishment, but it was a clever one. It still looks like a traditional Victorian pub, is the point: dimmish, with dark oak tables and chairs, old Hampstead prints and this enormous red buttoned velvet horseshoe-shaped banquette dominated by a far too broad table (hell if you're trapped at the back of it when your brimming innards are nudging for a visit to the Gents).

And although for many the main draw here is still the well-kept Young's ales, food is now well to the fore, though in a good way - for here is no poncified gastropub, but just a pub that serves honest-to-goodness high quality grub in generous quantities at very reasonable prices.

The first luncheonette was with the editor of this very august journal you now are holding. I say luncheonette because editors are busy and important people, while hacks such as myself are the very reverse of that - so while I can generally send a lunch sprawling on out into teatime and beyond, grown-ups have to be more circumspect.

He very much enjoyed his portobello mushrooms and melted goat's cheese on a large bed of salad - not bad for £8.95, but my haddock and chips at just a pound more was even better value: proper crusty batter, thick and real wedgy chips, and even a soupcon of mushy peas. He had a chardonnay, I had an excellent rioja rose (£5.50 for a stonking glass) and then he was off in a puff of smoke to create the paper before you, while I wandered on to the Heath, there to make a daisy chain.

Then I went again on Easter Monday with my son. He was in no doubt about what he was going to order: sausages and mash in onion gravy - because about a year ago he had eaten that here and pronounced it the best sausages and mash in the whole wide world. I had four large slices of excellent hand-carved ham, very lightly griddled, with more of those wedgy chips and - because it was Easter - an egg on top. Tender and flavoursome ham, a properly gooey yolk, and a snip at £8.95.

But what of the bangers ...? Well pretty good, actually - more than pretty good, was the verdict: just not so fantastic as the first time (ah, but when ever is it?). That too was £8.95, and he eased its passage with a pint of Peroni - about which, in common with all lagers, it has never been possible to say anything at all - and I had more of the Spanish rose: £26 the lot: very good.

The wine list is sound, and not at all greedily priced - 13 whites, 13 reds, two roses and half a dozen champagnes and sparklers.

Music, though, exudes like a weeping sore, the giddy limit being a ferociously jangly flamenco version of Stairway to Heaven (who is it who actually picks this stuff?) - and in the Gents there are rudish pictures: French "art" and saucy old engravings.

And then we left. Of course, it's very much easier to leave the place these days, now that Kingsley's so long gone. Do you know what? We need another.

o Joseph Connolly's latest novel is Jack the Lad and Bloody Mary, Faber and Faber, £8.99.


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