25 Rathbone Place, W1T 1JB
Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road 0.2 miles
Nearest attraction: British Museum, 0.5 miles
The Wheatsheaf resembles an old coaching inn with its mock-Tudor frontage and stable yard-like alley. So it’s hard to believe that this attractive pub hails from as recently as the 1930s. I felt the urge to go in immediately but having discovered it on a Sunday, no amount of prowling around the perimeter would allow me access to this surprisingly nice pub.
EST: 1931 Monarch: George V
One of the Wheatsheaf’s claims to fame is that author of 1984 George Orwell once threw up over the bar (though we only have the internet’s word for it, there’s no blue plaque or anything). This is also the pub where a heavily-pickled Dylan Thomas met a pretty London Palladium chorus girl and proposed to her that very evening. They were married a year later.
But there’s a lesser-known writer who plays a crucial part in the Wheatsheaf’s history. Julian Maclaren-Ross was a reprobate, bar-fly, sponger and brilliant writer. Everyone who writes about him does so either with helpless admiration or searing contempt, and most agree that he was the architect of his own doom. Today he would probably be given counselling and a spell in rehab. But in the Forties, he was left to his own devices and consequently frittered away his life in the pub.
Born in South Norwood on July 7 1912 of Indian, Cuban, Scottish and English descent, Julian never quite fitted in anywhere. During World War II he fought in the army but went AWOL and was discharged after a psychological evaluation. He then began his marathon pub crawl that lasted till the 1960s.
A distinctive figure with his sharp suit, camel-hair coat, dark glasses and cane, he would prop up the bar at the Wheatsheaf and hold forth to his fellow drinkers, either as a fascinating raconteur or a pub bore (a matter for debate). Then at closing time he would stagger home, dose himself up on Benzedrine and become a prolific writer of radio plays, film scripts, novels and autobiographies.
His abode was by no means fixed: it went from hotel to boarding house, friends’ sofa to park bench. The BBC was his “poste restante” and when people (usually creditors) showed up asking for him at the broadcasting house offices, staff would simply direct them to one of the local pubs.
By the 1950s – “a decade I could have done without” in Maclaren-Ross’ own words – his life was already spiralling out of control. In November 1964 he made the fatal decision to celebrate the arrival of a royalty cheque with a whole bottle of brandy consumed at the Wheatsheaf. He subsequently died of a heart attack aged just 52.
Despite being such a prolific writer, Maclaren-Ross gained little recognition during his lifetime. His best-known work – Memoirs of the Forties – were published posthumously in 1965.
Ketchup and mustard bottles on every Wheatsheaf table gave it the air of a tacky suburban Sunday lunch venue rather than an inner London pub. But this irksome detail was offset by other, more traditional pub features such as stained glass, wood panelling, wall shelving, high stools etc. And even on a Tuesday evening the Wheatsheaf was pleasantly buzzing with arty types. Julian McClaren-Ross would have approved.
The other stuff
Brewery: Free house
Open Mondays to Saturdays from midday (closed Sundays)
Food: Served from midday every day except Sunday
The Wheatsheaf is the regular meeting place of a group that calls itself The Sohemian Society of which Julian Maclaren-Ross has been named the “President in Death”. For a small fee everyone is welcome to go along and listen to guest speakers exploring various aspects of Soho life. And as a sign of respect for the departed bar fly, drinking during the talks is actively encouraged.
And go to: King Who? for more info about the monarchs mentioned in this blog.