The Oxford Tavern, King Street, Newtown, Sydney

Never let it be said that being an reviewer is an easy life.  Far from it.

Sure, we get to spend our time drinking beer, visiting pubs all over country, and documenting Australian culture and language. 

But it can be harder than you might think. 

For one thing, sometimes you have to drink beer when you don't want to, in strange places - and that can be be a little dangerous.  This morning, for example, this particular reviewer's mission was to document, as far as possible, all of the Newtown hotels located on the famous King Street, Sydney as part of the Newtown odyssey.  That sounds reasonable enough, but unfortunately the time chosen to get the best possible external photographs was 9.30 in the morning.  Now at this time, most, but not all of Sydney pubs are shut.  And all you can do is take a photo from the outside with the hope of coming back another day to sample that particular pub experience. 

Now most of the Newtown pubs were shut as expected. But one, the Oxford, was open.  On former occasions we had walked past this particular hotel as early as 7.00 in the morning, and seen a few old men sitting in there for what appears to be the start of their day in the pub. Sometimes alone, almost always depressing. 

Well, feeling obliged to check the place out to give our readers an informed opinion, I wandered in and took a look around. The bouncer cum-barman was a huge Australian of islander heritage with some sort of growth on his forehead.  He acknowledged my presence with a slow nod. There were two blokes in their late twenties, good mates, or so it appeared, enjoying one another's company in the corner next to the window. One had a pleasant smile and they seemed harmless enough.  A few meters in were the obligatory old men.  They sat there, barely speaking, one with a pony tale that seemed oddly out of place for one so old.  But then, this is Newtown - anything goes.

My eyes wandered from the living dead further down the bar. Alarm bells started ringing as my eyes fell on one wiry anglo bloke in his mid-thirties. After you have been in this game a while your senses become honed. You can detect danger from afar - there is sort of an aura that surrounds some people. It basically communicates the message: if you spend enough time around me, you will get hurt.  Well, this aura was as plain as the growth on the barman's head, and my usual exuberance was quickly squashed. I had to think quick. 

Turning my head away from the aura of pain, I stepped up to the bar.  I didn't want to drink at 9.30 in the morning. Alcoholics do that. It is depressing.  But sometimes, a reviewer's gotta do what a reviewer's gotta do.  "Yeah mate", said the barman. "um", I said reviewing the beers on tap. Reshes, Coopers Sparkling Ale, VB, Toohey's Old, Toohey's New - a typical New South Wales selection. "Resches thanks mate", said I, resigned to my obligation. And what's more, I thought to myself, how can a man judge an early drinker when he has not stood in his shoes? It's only fair, after all.  As is occasionally the case there was a problem with the kegs - the beer was too frothy, and the barman paid particular care to ensure that he lost as little beer as possible. Of course this meant that we both had to wait for the froth to settle. Not that I minded. 

"Thanks mate", I eventually said, and tasted my first early morning, old man's, alcoholic style, pub beer.  It wasn't too bad actually. 

But it did get depressing after a few sips. The barman moved away, and I was left by myself to study the pub wall. A nice range of bottled premium beers seemed available, not that I was going to settle in. Christ, I thought to myself, I hope that nobody I know walks past. I'll have to explain that I'm on duty. Just doing my job. Honest. 

The bloke on my left called the barman over.  I dared a glance - he had tats all up and down both arms. His left ear had been mutilated to make way for some form of ear jewelry. He called for a shooter of some vial white liquid - to help him wash down his half filled schooner presumably.  Oh, and the next full schooner he ordered in the same breath.  Uhhhh. What was I doing here. 

My spirits lifted somewhat when a pretty barmaid appeared out of nowhere.  But the lift was short lived as I began to wonder what she thought of me, drinking in her pub, by myself, at 9.30 on a Saturday morning.  Me, the old men, the radiator of the aura of pain, the mates at the front. She started putting some girlie straws in a jar, one by one, as she had too many and they were in danger of spilling out everywhere. "It is quite depressing drinking at this time of day", I announced, as though she cared to listen. A weary smile formed on her face, "yes, it can be".  "I don't normally do this", I explained, a bit too quickly. "I work for and I am reviewing every pub on King Street". "Right", she said, and continued to pack straws in her jar.  She must have believed at least some of what I said, as she continued, "well you'll have to come back in a couple of months then. The new owners are going to do the place up. Real flash like".  "Sure", I said, pleased to find myself no longer technically alone, "I'll make sure someone does that". 

My big photo opportunity! (Note tats man's beer bottom right)

That bloke on my left left to pop to the gents. Feeling as though a weight had been lifted, I pulled out my camera and fired off a shot of the pub past where he was sitting.  Even more depressing - one bloke sitting by himself playing the pokies. Wanting to take advantage of the situation and get out of there, I asked the barmaid if she would mind if I took a picture of her - behind the taps. She hesitated, and said, "so long as I don't look like a dork". "You'll be fine", I assured her. "Do you want another beer?", she replied, making it clear that I wouldn't be getting any freebies no matter what wild affiliations I claimed I had. Shit. Not really. One I can get away with. But two? "Sure", I said, my underlying professionalism taking over, "make it a middy".   A middy wouldn't couldn't hurt a fly, christ, it barely touches the sides. 

The beautiful barmaid in action....

I pulled out my money and put it and my wallet on the bar to the left of where I was sitting.  I had just taken the photo, squatting to the left and back, and was reaching for my money to pay for the beer, when I heard an aggressive, "oy!". Tats man was back from his leak. He thought I was stealing his money. Shit. 

"Ah mate, I've just put my money down here", I said, very quickly. "I've just taken a photo and am reviewing the pub and now I'm paying for the beer". I waved my wallet around furiously.  Not taking the risk of grabbing the coins that I had foolishly left right where he was sitting, I grabbed a note from my wallet and paid. "Is that your money", he asked, eyes narrowing as they focused on the coins. "Ah, na mate, it's probably yours".  You don't have to be a brain surgeon to review pubs for, but that doesn't mean that I'm stupid.

I grabbed my beer and was about to move back to the right where I was sitting. "Stay here", was the demand. I sat down. "This'll give me someone to talk to". He outstretched his hand. "What's ya name", he growled. "ah David", I squeaked. He didn't offer his, and I didn't ask. 

I cautiously explained again how I was reviewing the pub. "Are you a reporter or writing a book", he demanded, his thick kiwi accent now becoming clear. "Actually I'm writing for a web site -". His forehead crinkled as he glared at me. "You know, the internet?". He didn't know, but thankfully didn't take it any further. 

Before long he ordered another white shooter to go with his beer. Trying to make the best situation I asked him whether or not kiwi pubs were the same as Australian pubs. "Wilder", he said. Thinking quickly I said, "oh like Once were Warriors?".  "yeah", he said, "I come from that town". "But the movie wasn't right - it showed all maoris as shit".  This shocked me a little - I had prejudged the man - the alarm signals had failed me. Perhaps I would stay a while in this pub, getting over my own prejudices against people I thought were going to hurt me.

"Yeah, so its not actually like that?", I said, trying to encourage him. "The domestic violence", he said. "It made out as though it only happened with the maoris - but that's crap, it happens to everyone all over the world".  That's right, I thought. What a good bloke. He continued, "That's what happened to me. I went to jail for four years for that shit.  But I'm out now, enjoying my life". 


I think I might leave now.

He played with his phone (where the hell did he get a phone), and grinned an evil grin, "I'm calling New Zealand". 

Yeah, see ya, I said, skulling the rest of my beer. I really have to go. Enjoy your time out and about.  Good talking to ya.  Bye.

All in a day's work for an reviewer.

ADDENDUM:  Although this incident left the reviewer feeling a little drained and quite lucky to still be capable of imbibing the nectar of the gods, he did return to the Oxford Tavern to provide, let us a say, a more balanced perspective of what it has to offer.  Historically, it seems, it has quite a lot to offer. Indeed, the very name Newtown is said to stem from a shop that existed on the site of the Oxford Tavern, called the New Town Store, that was opened by John Webster in the early 1800s.  Nowadays, the main attraction of the place is the 24 hour licence. So after all the other King Street pubs close (say, at 12.00 on a public holiday), hoards of Newtown's diverse population can be seen streaming into the place, offering such interesting views such as a young lady quite publicly sucking and licking another young lady's hand as they sit in the middle of the main room in the wee hours of the morning. 

Well, at least that's what the reviewer was lucky enough to see on his second venture into the Oxford Tavern, King Street, Newtown, Sydney.  Of course, after staring at them for a minute too long, the licker looked up and whispered "why don't you get your hairy arse out of here and into someplace like the Bank".

And since the Bank was only across the street, was only too happy to oblige!

Take a break from drinking like the author of this article did - Read why and how in his book Between Drinks: Escape the Routine, Take Control and Join the Clear Thinkers