Visited: Saturday 18 April 2009
The Rutland Arms has been my football pub for nearly ten years. I have a season ticket at Grimsby Town and before just about every game, with the group of mates I go to the match with, I’ll have a few in the Rutland Arms. The Rutland Arms quite accurately reflects the distinctive character of Grimsby as a town. As we walk in today, the entrance porch is dominated by a bulky man, lobster pink, topless, tattooed and about 50, sitting on a stool and having his head shaved by the landlord.
“I’ll do yours next!” the landlord jokes to me, amiably enough. It’s only two days since I had it cut.
Grimsby is the sort of place where people are likely to bawl weird insults like ‘gyppo’ in your face if you’re male and your hair’s more than half an inch long. The Rutland, however, sits back from this just a little. Equidistant between the football ground and Grimsby docks, it attracts these men who are broken and prematurely old, still dazed from the sudden collapse of the fishing in the 1970s. They mutter and sway and shake their heads and their lank greying hair telegraphs their confusion and defeat.
I like the current landlord and landlady. They’re quite friendly and pleasant, and when it’s freezing cold outside they sometimes put a big pot of chilli and some bread rolls on one end of the bar for people to help themselves to. They collaborate on your round, so that if you’re the only person being served at that moment – as you generally are in the Rutland – and you ask for, say, two bitters and a lager shandy, one of them will pull the bitters while the other mixes lemonade with Foster’s. They do all this without having to negotiate it, as if one is reading the other’s mind.
Saying that about being the only person getting served, the Rutland seems a bit more popular on match days than it used to be. It’s a small, single-room pub, mind you, so it doesn’t take many to fill it. It can still be a bit downbeat, but the pubs nearer the football ground are too busy and loud to have a chat in. Match day is about far more than the match, especially when you support a rubbish team like ours. It’s about meeting the mates who you go to the football with (most of whom, in my case, don’t live in my city) and sitting there to have a nice, desultory, drawn-out natter over a few pints. We arrive at about one o’clock and the next 90 minutes form an inverse run-up to the game as we mull over the present and the past.
Today Ryan Bennett, a prodigious teenage centre-half and team captain, will make his 100th appearance for Grimsby, and five or six of us spend an agreeable half-hour discussing whether he might be the youngest Town player to reach his century and, if not, who else might be. This is how it works. We keep each other’s occasional optimism in check, and at a low ebb – this season is arguably the worst in Grimsby Town’s 130-year history – we anticipate defeat with mostly an ironic chuckle, because we know that, while grown men who have no connection with Liverpool walk by wearing Liverpool shirts, at least we’re supporting the right way.
A season or two ago we were finding the Rutland a bit too gloomy in the evenings, so before night matches we started going to Willy’s instead (the excellent pub and microbrewery on Cleethorpes seafront), or to Ernie Beckett’s for some dinner. Before very long, though, we started coming out of Beckett’s all stuffed with chips, going to move the car nearer Blundell Park, realising there was still time for a pint, and saying: “Might as well have a quick one in the Rutland, eh?”
The Rutland is often cited as a real ale pub, which, technically, it is – but enthusiasts expecting half a dozen guest beers would be disappointed: there’s Old Mill Bitter and Old Mill Mild and sometimes a seasonal third option. A few years ago I took a dodgy pint back to the bar and one of those broken men, swaying on a stool, sneered: “It’s an acquired taste!” – as if I’d never drunk real ale in my life. This wasn’t an acquired taste. It tasted like vinegar and had lumps in it. This was a pint of the same brewery’s Bullion, which used to be on all the time but nearly always tasted ropey. The Old Mill ales are always in fine nick – they’re just a bit bland, to this palate anyway.
Other phenomena that characterise the Rutland include DVD Lady. The clue is in the title and the discs are of dubious provenance; English is not her first language but she meets our refusals with unfailing politeness and smiles. There is a lot of bad 80s rock on the jukebox. There are a lot of good things on the walls: pictures of old fishing boats and a poem about Grimsby which, after a few pints, reads a bit like John Clare. Half the time the pub seems to be roamed by a dog the size of a horse. But perhaps the most singular thing of all is the way one of England’s golden rules of social interaction is cheerfully chucked out of the window as men you don’t know start talking to you in the toilet.
“What d’yer reckon today then, eh?” they’ll ask you, inclining their head down the road towards the football ground. You’ll swap your expectations of triumph and disaster, treating those two imposters just the same, as you crumple a paper towel into the bin. Quite often they will turn out, like an amazing number of Grimbarians who purport to be Town fans, not to be heading to the match at all. And sometimes, of course, they turn out to be plastic Premier League ‘fans’ who are just patronising you.
“You been much this season then?” I ask today’s urinal lizard, after we’ve exchanged views on Town’s prospects this afternoon.
“Neeerrrrrrr!” he perks up with. “I gu to Ol’ Trafford!”
He starts on about an FA Cup semi-final; I say my goodbyes without wishing him luck and our little group is heading off for the ground, via our usual stop-off at Sue’s chippy, dodging the usual acres of dog shit that besmirch the pavement of the Grimsby Road. Like many other businesses around here, Sue’s and the pub will both lose a lot of trade if there’s ever a final breakthrough in the football club’s abominable plans for a new stadium in an outmoded edge-of-town location (which will have a rubbish official bar on the site and no pubs for miles). But in the meantime the Rutland remains the best place for a pre-match pint 23 times a year, and a vital, potent reminder about the place where I grew up.