The Independent London Newspaper
23rd May 2019

FORUM: So when is a pub not a pub? Read on…

    Actor and author Michael Simkins

    Actor and author Michael Simkins

    Published: 4 February, 2016

    WHEN is a pub not a pub? The answer, of course, is when it’s a bar. But it took a conversation with an old actor-laddie one evening in a theatre in the north of England to teach me the subtle but profound difference between the two. 

    “A pub” he explained as his sipped his umpteenth pint of Guinness, “is a haven from the real world. A bar is merely an extension of it…”

    I’ve put this old thesp’s theory to the test many times since, and it’s never failed me. And few establishments are more winningly pubbish than my own local, The Alliance, here on Mill Lane in West Hampstead.

    And yet now, with the doleful inevitability that seems to blight so much about London life, it’s under threat from the developers. 

    Yes, folks, along with libraries, parks, swimming pools, and just about everything else that makes life worthwhile in the capital, we don’t even seem to be able to retain a decent boozer.

    Though “decent boozer” doesn’t even begin to describe my local. When I first arrived here 15 years ago, the pub was still struggling to throw off a pretty rackety old reputation. But just as a failing football club or secondary school can be transformed by a canny manager or far-sighted headmaster, those days are a distant memory.

    Landlord Mike Keating has pulled off the almost impossible trick of making The Alliance all things to all people. 

    Nowadays the pub is the very hub of the local community, a safe, secure and convivial environment in which everyone, from young mums to senior citizens (and all points in between) feel welcome.

    When it opens its doors mid-morning the pub becomes an informal meeting space for young mums, who find it a great place to have a decent cappuccino and some scrambled eggs while they dandle their little darlings on their laps. 

    Lunchtime sees local workers nipping in for a sandwich and a tasty burger, while in the evening the pub fills with locals of all ages and incomes, doing what locals like to do the world over – chatting, talking or merely sitting in the warm with a paper and a decent pint.

    But that’s just the start. Quiz nights, music events, and when there’s a big sporting event to watch (we’re talking Twickenham or Wimbledon) that’ll be available too, though with the commentary turned down so it doesn’t blast the foam off the top of your pint.

    And then there’s the food. Ye Gods! Sometime I weep to recall what was once on offer – stale scotch eggs, curling sausage rolls, and antediluvian sandwiches. 

    Now its lamb tagine, slow cooked pork belly or roasted mackerel, and at half the price you’d normally pay; while on Sundays you can get a roast lunch for a king. 

    No wonder it’s packed. 

    Best of all it’s a place where the young, the old, and the single can come without feeling embarrassed or hassled.

    It’s taken a decade to achieve such an all-embracing community ambience, and now, we hear, it may be sold off. If so, the beating heart of Mill Lane will go with it; and, if truth be told, I’ll probably be not long after.

    Last month the industry publication The Publican’s Morning Advertiser, published research from Oxford University which found that people who visit such establishments regularly are “happier, more satisfied and have a greater number of friends than those who don’t”. 

    I can only assume they visited The Alliance.

    And so the long and wearisome campaign to retain both the building, the community resource, and quite possibly the landlord, has commenced. 

    But when will those who govern this wonderfully infuriating city realise that you can’t fill it with luxury housing developments, fast food outlets and coffee chains? Perhaps only when it’s too late.

    Meanwhile, let’s look on the bright side. Next time you’re taking part in a pub quiz, and your compere asks “What’s the difference between a pub and a bar?” at least you’ll know the answer...

    The West Hampstead and Fortune Green Neighbourhood Development Forum is planning to apply for the pub to be listed as an Asset of Community Value – here’s a link to the survey:


    Save the Alliance

    Well said Michael.
    I don't regard myself as a pub person particularly, but for me the Alliance is just the right sort of pub for the area – a neighbourhood pub rather than a 'destination pub', such as seen on West End Lane or Kilburn High Road.
    Michael, the landlord, is brilliant - he manages to maintain a really nice, relaxed vibe, without it ever being pretentious. He knows his regulars by their first names. I feel completely at home there thanks to his stewardship.
    Plus, the food really is good (and I speak as someone who has eaten a lot or ordinary pub food over the years). The choice of beers, too, has improved considerably over the last few years.
    If a pubco comes along and thinks it can turn the Alliance into some high end gastropub think again. Leave it as it is and it will continue to thrive.
    People before profit!