IN 1962, exactly 50 years before Stratford became the sporting centre of the world, Eddie Johnson and family took on the Two Puddings pub in Stratford. It didn’t augur well. Eddie was less than happy about leaving a solid job on the Docks. Chuck in the fact he had never pulled a pint and that his new boozer was colloquially known as the Butcher’s Shop (courtesy of white-tiled walls to facilitate the hosing off of spilled blood each morning) and it might have proved a brief tenancy.
Eddie, remembering those far-off days in conversation with Robert Elms at the Bishopsgate Institute last week, also remembers that he immediately felt he’d made a mistake. All the more remarkable that he remained landlord for almost 40 years. “I loved it on the docks: we didn’t make a lot of money but we could do more or less as we wanted.” Just as important to Eddie, he was becoming increasingly immersed in the left-wing politics of the time. Working as a tally clerk (the men tasked with checking the quantities of cargoes moving on and off the ships) he aroused the instinctive mistrust of legendary union organiser Jack Dash and his men. Of course, the tally clerks got their share of the contents of ‘accidentally’ broken cases to take home too, and Eddie soon became a trusted colleague, co-opted onto Dash’s strike committee. He was also being groomed to take over the dockers’ Distress Fund, a cause dear to his heart. Eddie had been politicised young, when George Lansbury visited his school (Smeed Road Infants in Bow) to speak to the pupils.
But with two young sons to provide for, wife Shirley was after something a little more secure for the family. Now Eddie was and is no soft touch. A streetwise East Ender, born in Limehouse and raised in Old Ford, he had done his National Service in the Royal Military Police. Back on Civvy Street, he ruefully recalls that he became: “a bit of a hooligan, getting drunk and fighting in dance halls”. It culminated in a near fatal stab wound to the stomach. During his convalescence he met and fell in love with Shirley, who steered him to safer pursuits. But even Eddie, a tall and imposing figure in his eighties and not a man to mess with in his early thirties, wondered what he’d let himself in for as he stood behind the bar the morning after his first Friday night in 1962.
Back in the docks voracious reader Eddie (favourites Orwell, Camus, Tolstoy and Hemingway among others) had been rubbing shoulders with surprisingly well-read dockers who casually namechecked Congreve, Kafka, Byron and Proust. In the Puddings, he was more likely to be leaping over the bar to nip drunken trouble in the bud with a couple of gentle digs. The older Johnson is sanguine about the violence (“it’s the bit I find depressing even now”) and indulges in none of the glorification of the East End gang scene that non-combatants too often fall prey to.
All the same violence and crime were unavoidable elements of East End life, with the Krays becoming occasional visitors. “I liked them,” says Eddie. “Especially Reggie, who was more the affable and easier to talk to of the pair”. Eddie was touched for protection money by the brothers, but swallowed hard and told Ronnie he could protect himself. The twins, to his relief, politely moved on. Meanwhile, on Monday nights at the Kentucky Club in Whitechapel (where Eddie was always stood a drink by the ever-charming brothers) other non-payers were being sorted out behind the scenes with a cement-encased shovel.
Of course there were all sorts of reasons that kept Eddie behind the bar until the turn of the millennium – and only then was he forced out by the machinations of the brewery. Top of the list was the music. The Johnsons had taken over the Puddings primarily to host music nights run by Eddie’s brother Kenny. The pub saw gigs by some of the biggest names in British music: the Who, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Kinks and the Nashville Teens to name just a few, while the disco upstairs pulled in more punters (including Harry Redknapp who met his future wife there). One day Rod Stewart would be downstairs checking out the bands; another would see a young Van Morrison popping in after a Them gig and confiding to Eddie that he hoped one day to be famous.
Most bizarre of all, on the evening of 30 July 1966, a few hours after England had won the World Cup Final at Wembley, who should walk into the pub, order a pint, and quietly drink by himself whilst leaning against the bar but Jack Charlton. Eddie takes up the story, saying: “Norman was one of my most trusted barmen and never told a lie… [but he was] struck dumb and felt too shy to congratulate him on England’s victory!”
Under Elms’s enthusiastic probing, Eddie regales the packed Bishopsgate audience with anecdotes spanning 50 years, though the Radio London presenter would probably admit that Johnson pretty much interviews himself. There is sadness in the stories of course: Shirley has passed away, and so has the third of their four sons, Eugene. And many of the characters who people the memoir have gone, with Eddie musing that “Every other month seems to bring a dreaded invitation to yet another funeral.” But even there is humour. As the coffin of Jackie Bowers (“a friend and one of the best barmen the Puddings ever had”) rolls slowly towards the furnace, ‘Fire’ by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown began blaring from the crematorium speakers. An echo from the sixties heyday of the Two Puddings.