CHEERFULLY nursing a pint of stout while a tot of Bushmills sits on the bar within reassuringly easy grasp, Noel Reilly is regaling us with tales of his exploits behind the Iron Curtain.
He is laughing aloud, enjoying the craic, relieved to be back in Swindon and feeling, as he has every right to be, wholly satisfied with his covert Eastern Bloc manoeuvres.
A combination of human rights, freedom of speech and sheer bloody-mindedness prompted the irascible Irishman, 42, to venture into the unknown on behalf of a beleaguered pal.
He is half-heartedly attempting to play down the heroics, but without really succeeding. “I hardly had time to do anything and the police were on top of me,” recalls Noel surrounded by some media people and a smattering of attentive regulars.
“It lasted barely a couple of minutes and then they were dragging me away. I didn’t have clue what would happen next… there was certainly an element of the unknown about it all,” he grins.
It is a Monday lunchtime in The Beehive, the backstreet tavern in Prospect Hill that Noel runs in an idiosyncratic manner that has become his trademark. He has just been deported, post haste, from Czechoslovakia. Frankly, they couldn’t get rid of him quick enough.
Today Wenceslas Square in the heart of Prague is thronged with tourists. An air of joie de vivre prevails. Back then, however, a quarter of a century ago, it was very different.
Firmly under the Soviet heel, any semblance of self-expression is swiftly suppressed. The secret police are feared. They are grim, dystopian days.
Imagine, then, the surprise and perhaps amazement of the infamous Czechoslovakian cops when a slightly-built man with an indistinguishable accent and a bushy red beard displays a politically-motivated poster from under his jacket and starts bawling slogans.
Written in English and Czechoslovakian, the 2ft by 3ft the sign says: “Restore Tomin’s Citizenship.” Dr Julius Tomin is a dissident Czech philosopher, exiled for running underground seminars.
Noel has not only befriended him but, in a blaze of publicity, appointed Julius as The Beehive’s philosopher-in-residence. At the time, however, Tomin is undertaking a ten day hunger strike at the pub in the battle to retrieve his citizenship.
Noel gamely pitches in, negotiating a mountain of red tape to gain admittance to Czechoslovakia where his one-man demo lasts between 90 seconds and two minutes.
At the precise moment he launches his Prague protest Beehive regulars, enjoying a leisurely Saturday afternoon pint, are informed of the dramatic occurrences in Central Europe.
The singular Swindon publican is quizzed in the slammer via an interpreter for nearly five hours before being fined 800 crowns – about £100 – and shoved onto the next plane home, by way of Frankfurt.
He is only allowed to go on the condition that he “speaks to no-one and leaves the country immediately.”
Next week marks the 25th anniversary of Reilly’s Bohemian Rhapsody which, incredibly, was part of an initiative that spread the name of both The Beehive and Swindon around the globe. Blimey, he even got us into the New York Times.
Let’s face it, every town needs its characters, those quirky one-off individuals that make life a little less grey. Noel Reilly was one with room to spare. During 11 years at the alehouse – from 1982 to 1993 – he launched The Beehive Arts Initiative which saw replica paintings from the Swindon Collection exhibited at the hostelry in tandem with expert lectures on the said works.
Once the 18-strong Swindon Choral Society squeezed into the corner of The Beehive for a two-hour rendition of Handel’s Messiah to mark the work’s 250th anniversary.
Noel staged sorties to the Royal Shake-speare Theatre in Stratford, hiring an authority on The Bard to explain the nuances of Hamlet etc on the coach journey there. It could have been a tragedy but worked out quite well. It was all part of a cunning plan to bring “high culture into what is perceived as a non-cultural environment.” Drinkers should be able to “expand their minds” as well as down a few pints and socialise in his tavern, Noel decreed.
He banned punters for being boring and took out a £50 advertisement in this newspaper apologising to everyone he had upset in 1992 due to his occasionally “graceless and drunken behaviour.”
Noel could have walked straight out of the pages of a JP Donleavy novel but in fact was a former Irish Army officer from Limerick.
Making his way to New York, he bartended in Manhattan, Yonkers and the Bronx before, so the yarn goes, getting drunk at party one night and accepting “a lift” to London.
His benefactor was a steward on a trans-Atlantic liner and Noel was attempting to stowaway when he was nabbed onboard before being bailed out by a pal who wired the necessary cash.
In the UK he worked as a bookie, construction company boss and at some stage studied at Ruskin College, Oxford before finding his natural calling as a pub landlord.
His antics at the Hive are many and varied; regulars were banned for sporting “the wrong hair” and having the temerity to drink elsewhere – but were always welcomed back soon afterwards.
Waifs and strays could often find a free meal at The Beehive courtesy of its generous, off-beat landlord, especially on Christmas Day.
Noel’s most significant achievement, though, was appointing the world’s first professional pub philosopher to give a series of lectures at £5,000-a-year – a move which achieved global recognition.
On the evening of Thursday, October 6, 1988, Dr Tomin’s first lecture – a low-brow introduction to philosophy – saw TV crews scrimmaging with journalists from as far as Germany and America as more than 200 punters were shoe-horned into the ’Hive. Getting a pint was a nightmare.
One memorable headline, in The Times or Telegraph I believe, went: “I drink therefore I am.” Six months on, in April 1989, Noel was in Prague annoying the secret police.
Upon his return Julius said, with some justification: “I tremendously admire Noel Reilly.”
Months later the Eastern Bloc collapsed and Dr Tomin’s persecutors vanished in the turmoil.
Noel went bankrupt in 1992, owing the VAT-man £27,000.
With a philosophical shrug he headed for the greetings card industry before re-emerging in his natural habitat, the tap-room, running some pubs in Oxford (Jude the Obscure, Far From the Madding Crowd – nice literary connection.) Noel had a fall in September, 2008 and died at John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, aged 62. Many a glass was raised in his memory, drinkers from Swindon and Oxford united as one, all honoured to have purchased ale from “The Ginger Man.”
The tributes were long, loud, well-earned, heart-felt and as the hours wore on increasingly tearful and slurred.
I’ll quote John Somers, Noel’s pint pulling compadre at The Beehive who sadly died at 69 the following year: “He was outrageous, different, generous to a fault, cantankerous, wonderful.”
I’ll drink to that!
- THESE are excerpts from a lengthy New York Times article published on November 7, 1988, entitled ‘The Thinker’s Pub, With a Resident Philosopher.’ “In this former railway town, where coal smoke spirals from chimneys and mingles with autumn’s chill, the convivial regulars at the Beehive Pub sometimes order another round over discussions of Plato, the nature of the universe and, well, just what it all means.
“We all ask the big why occasionally,” said Noel Reilly, a mirthful man from Limerick...
“More than 500 people squeezed sardine-like onto the pub’s old wooden floors, bar stools and plain benches – others reportedly tried to climb through windows – to hear Dr Tomin’s first lecture… “The lecture was interrupted repeatedly by applause and laughter as round after round of beer and other beverages were consumed by the crowd…”
The article can be read in full at: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/11/07/world/swindon-journal-the-thinker-s-pub-with-a-resident-philosopher.html