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VICKY's



From the archives: Written back in 2002, when I was a journalism student at Strathclyde.


I went in search of a mythical old bar where old men pass around guitars and sing traditional folk songs. What I found was quite different.


Ian Gray sits at the bar, flanked on both sides by a row of old men leaning precariously over their pints. He squints through huge oddly shaped wire rimmed spectacles, circa about 1974, haloed by grey wavy shoulder length hair. He's wearing a black sweater, green trousers, and a tan canvas vest with about 20 pockets, each holding pens, fountain pens, felt tip, Biro. When I asked the young barmaid if anything is going on that night, he is the one consulted.


It appears I have arrived on one night of the week live music is not featured. Manu Chao, modern Latin pop, is playing overhead. About 15 weathered looking men sit silently scattered around the darkly paneled narrow front room of the Victoria Bar. Most are perched at the top of the bar the perfect place from which to observe new arrivals from the Briggait Street entrance.


Ian approaches me to suggest alternative music venues. I explain that I want to know everything there is to know about this bar and he seems surprised, then laughs. He invites me over to stand next to him.


He's been coming here for about 20 years. Why?


"Cos it sells alcohol!"


He later elaborates.


"Fuck all the pubs that spend all the money to make them look pretty, where you stay for three to four pints and not get to know anyone."


Ian knows everyone at the bar and everyone knows him. The former manager of a woman's clothing store, now unemployed, Ian said he appreciates the varied clientele.


"It's always different as a fingerprint. It doesn't matter what position you have on this planet. The great thing about this pub is there's no nose lifting."


"I know everyone by name," he says, and starts pointing. "Shithead, shithead, shithead."


He doesn't come here for the folk music. In fact, he prefers country western and is bitter about the fact that the staff never plays the CDs he brings with him. He applauds when Buddy Holly replaces the Latin beat.


"I just get insulted in here, but I'm persistent," he says. "I'm lucky they forgive me my sins."


At this point, he offers me a pint and starts to tell me about the craziest scene in his whole life, which took place right at this very bar--the one he is convinced would reap a huge profit if sold to television. The buildup goes on for a full five minutes. I am led to an empty corner booth where he sits under a poster for the Vagina Monologues and hugs his pint.


"I was in here. It was a Saturday afternoon. A man in a suit walks in. He had been to a wedding or something, had a flower and his lapel. Had been drinking earlier on, was a bit pissed but not too bad..."


Other men in the bar begin to heckle. A trio in the center of the room, Billy, Tommy and Eddie, I later learn, are suggesting I should not believe a word Ian is saying.


"He's full of shite," yells Tommy, an intimidating old man with a short crop of spiked white hair.


"I'll fucking hit you," Ian retorts, apologizing to me later for the language.


He repeats the beginning of the story at least three times. Then it continues. The guy gets drunk, Gerry the bartender cuts him off and suggests he go get some coffee. He is polite, apologizes and leaves. Five minutes later, he returns and sits down to order a drink. Gerry walks around the bar, stands in front of him and says, "I think you've had enough, mate. Why don't you go up the street for coffee?"


The reply is a polite, "Oh, no problem." He walks out. Another five minutes later he returns. Gerry once again leaves the bar to talk to him....


"What the hell is he telling you over there? Don't believe it," Tommy yells.


"I'm gonna have to start drinking in the West End," Ian shouts back. "...five minutes later, he walks in again and Gerry walks over to talk to him. The guy says do you work in all the pubs around here?"


 

True story, according to Gerry.


I run into him two days later, Friday. Gerry is Gerry Davis, 42, a tall, broad shouldered bald man with a mustache who would be very intimidating if it were not for his sparkling blue eyes and disarming smile.


He's owned the pub since 1981, when a family needed someone to put their name on a music license application. Gerry joined their partnership on a temporary basis. Three months was the plan. Twenty-two years later, he's the lead owner and manager for Firth Port, the company that owns the pub and one of eight full and part time staff members.


The Victoria bar, or Vicki's as it's called by locals, is one of the oldest pubs in Glasgow. It has been dated back to 1875. The neighboring Scotia bar claims to be the oldest, established in 1792.


Vicky's has a checkered history, Gerry tells me. It only became a folk bar in the mid to late 70s.


"They all used to go to the Scotia, but there was some sort of fallout and a mass exodus across the road to here. We've had a folk following ever since."


Traditional folk music became very popular in the 70s and 80s. Minor celebrities doing shows at the nearby Citizens Theater would stop into the Victoria Bar -- Actress Glenda Jackson, composer George Jackson and James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers. Members of the National Scottish Orchestra would come after performances and play away in the corner dressed in their tuxedos. People packed in to see it all. Gerry estimates nearly 200 people would come on a Friday night, which is hard to imagine in a place about the size of a bedroom.


In 1978 there was a fire that destroyed some of the interior, including the hideous floral print paper that covered the walls. Gerry said they peeled it away to discover gorgeous original wood paneling underneath. They cleaned it and stained it with varnish, creating the dark old fashioned look of today.


A year later, the owners bought the adjacent delicatessen and built an addition, another tiny narrow room where the musicians set up these days. It looks as old as the main bar but it's decorated with painted portraits of musicians -- all for sale for about 100 pounds each -- as well as a football poster and photographs of world monuments.


Prior to getting behind the bar, Gerry worked in a tailoring shop. The money was rotten, he said. He took a year off laboring, then intended to take another year off to do nothing when he got pulled into Vicki's. He was born in the Gorbals in 1960 and hasn't moved more than a few miles away ever since. He's married with three children, ages two and a half, four and 15.


"People get the wrong idea about Glasgow," he said. "Some people are terrified to come here. They have all these preconceived ideas. In actual fact, once here they see how friendly we are and they keep coming back."


Just like his bar.


Skirting the Clyde near the Victoria Bridge to the south side and the former Briggait fishmarket, the Victoria bar is not located in the most appealing part of the city. Its dimly lit red exterior suggests a place you wouldn't want to enter alone. But the only weapons present are the swords of the Morris dancers who sometimes practice in full costume on Wednesday nights. And the most lecherous character is probably Ian Kennedy McLeod, 47, a six-day-a-week regular who giggles whenever I say the word 'come' and tries to pass me his phone number.


"We're luckily one of those pubs that has a regular clientele that keeps it going," Gerry says. "Some pubs rely on people passing by. We'd be empty."


Gerry doesn't think his pub is necessarily unique. He describes it as welcoming. In addition to the folk fans, he gets big crowds of football fans and small pilgrimages of French fans of the band The Silencers, who used to hang out at the bar. Gerry himself is a closet David Bowie fan.


"It's the most unlikely place in the world. We get lecturers and lawyers and doctors alongside scrap metal workers and floor layers."


 

Finally, folk. It's what I came for, and I find it at 9 pm on Friday. Just as I imagined, a small band of musicians has set up in the far corner. There are three at first, all aged in their 20s or 30s. There's a fiddle, a flute, and a drum, played by a fiddle maker, a doctor, and a painter. They regularly take breaks to chat and one seems glued to his mobile phone.


An hour later, three more musicians have joined, adding to the mix an accordion, a mandolin, and a pennywhistle. The age range is increasing as is the familiarity. Bodhran drum player James Bremner has just had a baby, and a few new arrivals congratulate him before sitting down and joining in a jam session.


By 11 pm. There are eight musicians and about 60 people crammed into the bar. It's a diverse crowd, most of them old enough to remember the day Celtic won the European Cup. There are three girls in their early 20s dressed in skimpy tops held together by single strings. There is an eccentric young man with enormous round black rimmed spectacles. Two middle aged English female tourists sit in the corner nervously consulting a map, to be joined a few minutes later by a group of suave old Scottish men.


The music is different every night. Tuesday's open mic sessions are wildly popular and amateurs perform everything from showtunes to Oasis. This is also when the celebrated passing of the guitar takes place.


The focus is mostly folk but even that changes.


"Folk music cannae have a label on what it is," Gerry explains. "Whether it's fiddle music or old Irish traditionals, it's what people want. They tell stories to the music."


"Everyone used to imagine old men in Argyle sweaters, but people's perceptions of folk music have changed. People like Bob Dylan have helped that."


Gerry said he's noticed more young musicians joining in.


Like that girl on violin who looks about 20?


James Bremner, the Bodhran player, said the faces change every week, but all are familiar. He has been playing the Friday night sessions for about four years, when he moved to Glasgow from Morar, a village in the Highlands. He's traveled the world played Bodhran in a traditional Celtic band called Daimh, Gaelic for kinship/affinity, but likes coming here to practice and feel part of the folk scene.


Tonight he brought along his friend Richard Brown, a 34-year-old scientist from Paisley, who had never been to Vicki's before.


"I love this," he said. "it's exciting. I used to go to festivals to hear music rather than bars. This is definitely a traditional thing."


"It's a working men's bar. I think that what makes us bar is the people who walk into it."


By the time I leave, I've gotten five free drink offers and four kisses. When I get home, I excitedly telling my native Glaswegian flatmate about the great old folk bar I've discovered, how it was nothing at all what I expected.


He listens attentively, then responds: "The Victoria? The gay bar?"


The gay bar???


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